The Second Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 8:31-38

Life is not always easy. We grapple with our consciences about actions and attitudes. We contend with others who differ from our point of view. We deal with circumstances that are beyond our control. We even wrestle with God. And sometimes we become weary. Bone weary.

A common response during these times of struggle is often, “Well, I guess this is just my cross to bear.” I know I’ve said this, and I know I’ve heard others say it as well. And it’s because, I think, we make a connection between our difficult situation and Jesus’ words from our gospel lesson for today. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But is this a proper connection to make? What does it really mean to “take up your cross.”

Many times when we think of the cross, we visualize the crosses that lead our processions, or hang in our sanctuaries or around our necks—crosses made to be “non-offensive.” In fact, most are usually quite attractive. Yet, when we visualize the cross in this way—as some lovely, wonderful, precious thing—we can diminish the impact of the actual cross, the cross upon which the body of a man named Jesus was nailed, the cross upon which Jesus suffered and eventually died.

That’s why we need constantly to be reminded of the cruelty of the crucifixion. Not only was there excruciating pain from the nails piercing the flesh of the hands and feet and from the thorns pressing into the flesh of Jesus’ head, but there was the agonizing torture of the splintered wood that was placed between the body and the cross to rip the flesh with every movement and every gasp for breath. To be crucified was a hideous way to die. And as an instrument of death, the cross is nothing but an offense.

When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he already knew that he would most likely face death on a cross. & being fully aware of what that would entail, Jesus had no desire to encounter it. In fact, the writer of Mark tells us that Jesus became so greatly distressed and troubled that he fell on the ground and prayed that that fateful hour might pass from him. Jesus didn’t want to face death, especially death on a cross.

Yet, Jesus did face it; he did take up his cross; he did die an excruciating death. The question is why? Jesus could have fled the garden, avoiding his betrayer and his arrest. He could have called on legions of angels to come and defend him from captors. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed. He willingly gave himself up to the authorities and ended up going to his death.

Why? Did God force Jesus to do this? I think not – anymore than God forces us to do anything. So, did God allow Jesus to make his own decision? In taking up the cross, did Jesus have a choice or did he not. Did Jesus have the freedom to say “No,” and to change the course of human history forever? Was it all right there, in the palm of Jesus’ hand: the fate of the world in this one moment of decision?

The answer to the question is, I believe, crucial to our faith. For it determines much of our understanding not only of what it means to do the will of God, but also, of what it means to “take up the cross.”

If Jesus had no choice and was only a puppet in God’s plan, then the cross is an inevitable burden – for all of us. But, if Jesus had a choice and was a willing participant, then the cross is a conscious decision – a choice – that each of us has to make.

The Scriptures are clear in response to this question. Jesus, in all his humanness, who agonized between his own will and God’s will, used his freedom to choose the way of the cross. It wasn’t conscription, but choice that compelled Jesus to deny himself so that we would know of God’s love for all people.

Therefore, when you and I “take up our crosses,” if we take up our crosses, we willingly deny ourselves and accept the consequences. As with Jesus, we are never forced to take up the cross, we can only choose to do so. We need to be careful, then, of what we refer to as a cross.

For instance, events like hurricanes or tornados or fires or floods are not crosses that we must take up, since we had no choice in the matter. These are natural disasters that have nothing to do with the will of God.

Likewise, things like illness or the death of a loved one are not our crosses to bear; for we didn’t seek them and God certainly didn’t lay them on us. These happenings are just a part of the cycle of life. Others have experienced them. So have we; so will we. So will others.

And, finally, when things don’t turn out exactly as we’d planned and life doesn’t go quite like we wish it would, that’s not “bearing our cross” either. It may be a little disconcerting and even stressful. But, you know what? That’s life. And like the bumper sticker says: “Stuff happens.”

No, to “take up your cross” is a very different matter. It involves a decision – and one not only toward hardship but of sacrifice. When St. Francis of Assisi decided to found a religious order, he did so even though his friends mocked him and his father disowned him, and even though his decision caused him to renounce his fortune as the son of a wealthy merchant. In choosing to embrace poverty and dedicate his life to the poor, Francis made some sacrifices. He willingly denied himself for the sake of those he sought to help.

There are lots of parents who choose to make sacrifices for the sake of their children (and children for their parents). There are those who make sacrifices for the sake of a sister or a brother, friends for friends, neighbors for neighbors, and sometimes even a stranger for the sake of another stranger.

There are some who even sacrifice for the sake of the church. It’s rare but true!

But the most important characteristic about what it means, about what Jesus meant when he said to “take up your cross,” is that the decision to deny one’s self is a conscious, voluntary, free choice made for the betterment of another.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus calls us to a decision: we can follow or not; we can deny ourselves or not; we can take up our cross or not.

It’s a free choice and it’s ours to make. But if we choose the way of the cross, we can trust that, along with the sacrifice, God’s blessings will surely rest upon us – just as they did a long time ago when God raised Jesus from the dead.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.