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Following Jesus: We Take Up Our Cross

(A sermon based on Luke 9:18-27 for Sunday, August 19, 2012. Eighth in a series...)

Gregg Allman’s disturbingly fascinating autobiography, which I recently finished reading, bears the unfortunate title My Cross to Bear. It is an unfortunate title because it uses that phrase in a way that is all too common but all too incorrect, namely, as a way to name the burdens that come upon us in the course of our living of life. In Gregg’s case, while some of the most difficult crises he faced were thrust upon him, namely, the murder of his father and the accidental death of his big brother Duane, most of his struggles were self-inflicted, such as the liver disease that resulted from his substance abuse. Still, whether we are at fault or not for our struggles, and as real and hard as the struggles of life are, such struggles are not our cross to bear.

Our cross to bear is our following of Jesus in the kind of life that Jesus lived. It is a particularly Christian way of living that is based in our relationship of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

To understand what it means to take up our cross, we need first to have a sense of what it meant for Jesus to take up his cross.

Too simply put, Jesus died on the cross to take the sins and suffering of the world on himself. He entered into human suffering so as to defeat it from the inside. He did so because he was the Messiah, the Son of God who came to inaugurate God’s reign on the earth. God’s way for him to do that was not by overt displays of power but by the living of a self-emptying, self-sacrificing life that led to a self-emptying, self-sacrificing death.

As Jesus said following Peter’s affirmation that Jesus was “the Messiah of God,” “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” As Paul said of Jesus, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

It was a costly and painful way for Jesus. But Jesus did not undergo his suffering for the sake of undergoing it; he underwent it for the sake of living out his Father’s way for him and for the sake of the hurting, lost, and broken people in the world. He underwent his suffering to take their sins, their pains, and their sorrows onto himself and to suffer with and for them—for us. His suffering was real and he felt his own pains deeply, but he bore what he bore for the sake of others. “The Son of Man,” he said, “came to give his life a ransom for many.”

We very appropriately focus on the fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We need also to focus on the fact that we are to follow Jesus all the time in taking up our own cross. The life that follows the Jesus who died on the cross is the life that follows Jesus in carrying the cross.

Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for a while. We are to carry our own cross all the time.

We are called to be a suffering people; we are called to be a suffering church.

It may be that the only true church is a suffering church, a church that suffers for the sake of the suffering world. If we are the body of Christ in the world, we will join in the suffering that he endured for the sake of suffering people.

As Douglas John Hall put it, the church is “called to suffer because there is suffering—that is, because God’s creatures, including human beings, are already suffering, because ‘the whole creation groans.’” Hall went on to say,

The point is: the suffering of the church is not the goal but the consequence of faith. For faith…is that trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other—in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who ‘fell among thieves’; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need. The church is a community of suffering because it is a community whose eyes have been opened to the suffering that exists. [Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 152]

So, just as Jesus took up his cross to enter into the suffering of people so as to overcome it, so are we to enter into the suffering of the people around us to overcome it.

There are many obstacles to taking up our crosses and following Jesus by taking on the suffering of the world. One is self-centeredness; the church is too often afflicted with an “us first, them if we can get to them” attitude when our first thought needs to be about them. Another is escapism; it’s just easier to turn our heads and close our eyes to the great hurts all around us than to bring that pain into our hearts and lives but that’s what we need to do.

Mr. Dylan posed the question 50 years ago: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Indeed. But surely we must open our eyes and see. We are Christians. We are followers of Jesus. We are bearers of our crosses. We invite the hurts of others onto ourselves and say, “Let us be with you. Let us love you. Let us heal you.”

What kinds of approaches should we take? They are innumerable. I’d encourage us to remember the story of the Good Samaritan so as to follow the Samarian’s model. The first step is to notice. The second step is to approach. The third step is to take whatever action you can.

Jesus told his disciples that there were some standing there that day who would see the kingdom come before they died. He was talking, I believe, about those who would take up their crosses and follow him, about those who would live his kind of life in the world, and about those in whom the kingdom would be seen.

Do you want to see the kingdom come? Take up your cross and follow Jesus….

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