“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25
This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there. It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular phrase, “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women. It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.
“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain. So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” - and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply, “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.
But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me. Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”
So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?
We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol. But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ. As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death. To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution. It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.
That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke. That was the imagery that Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.
Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation. His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross. Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself. Choose it for yourself. Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness. We must choose, freely and without coercion.
And what happens when we choose the cross? when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”? What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment? What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?
What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.
The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”. The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.” The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all. Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship. I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”. Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.
And it may well cost us.
It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world. It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.
It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love. It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right. Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis. Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.
Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.
May we so choose. May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.
May we so choose.
Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.
Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.
Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.
Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.