A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 19, 2012
I once read about a woman whose nose had been cut off. She lived in a country where her husband belonged to a group the government considered subversive, so naturally, the government cut off her nose and she became a walking billboard, which read, “Don’t mess with us. Sincerely and emphatically, your government.”
In a similar way, during the year 6 CE, the Jews watched the Romans crucify two thousand Galilean insurrectionists—crosses lining the highway like graphic billboards announcing the fate of those who dared to defy the powers that be.
So when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” his disciples had seen such billboards with their very own eyes. The realities of violence and injustice hit close to home.
But how do we even begin to translate Jesus’ message when our noses are entirely safe? When a cross is something we find in the jewelry store, not in a torture chamber?
Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” But if you’ve never been a prisoner, a conquered nation, or a spoil of war it is difficult to translate this saying from Jesus.
Still, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
For centuries, we’ve been mishandling this text. In our confusion, we’ve abused its meaning in all manner of ways. A battered woman is told to return to her abusive husband in the name of “bearing her cross.” One country takes up arms against another country, and on their banner of war, they put the sign of the cross. Other religions infringe on the dominance of Christendom, and the church claims it is being persecuted, rather than purified.
This little line from Jesus—“take up your cross”—is more troublesome than we like to admit.
It is confusing because our political situation is so different from the Jewish one. It is confusing because instruments of torture make for disconcerting religious symbols.
Peter wasn’t so happy about this cross business when he found out. Jesus announced that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and Peter wasn’t at all pleased. In fact, the news made his stomach churn with such anxiety, that he just knew this was all wrong and needed to be corrected. He had the audacity to rebuke Jesus—just imagine, scolding Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Peter’s arrogance and more to do with Peter’s gut-wrenching concern for the man he’d come to love. If Jesus died, all would be lost, surely.
Jesus rebuked Peter right back—just imagine, being called Satan by Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Jesus’ anger at Peter and more to do with Jesus’ gut-wrenching determination to stay the course and resist any temptation that would dissuade him from the work of redemption. Lest we get confused about what it means to live sacrificially, let us note this is not a picture of someone who loses self in order to meet the whims and pleasures of another. Jesus is one who clings tenaciously to his purpose, to his identity, to his calling, to his soul and releases with abandon his grip on life, on comfort, on personal gain. A sacrifice he chooses in strength, not a sacrifice he succumbs to in helplessness.
Which is all well and good for Jesus, but then he continues the call to us as well. “If any of you wants to be my disciple, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”
Peter has been silenced, I suppose, after the rather sharp rebuke from Jesus, but I wish he would speak up again and voice what we are all thinking, “What on earth does that mean???” By this point in Christian history, Jesus’ words may be so familiar that they don’t disturb anymore, but if you had seen with your own eyes the thousands of crosses stretched along the highway, positioned there by the Romans to put fear in your heart, these lines from Jesus would not be lyrics you put to music, singing along with your hands raised, drunk on devotion. These are the kind of words that sober you right up, punch you in the gut, knock the breath out, make you vomit.
I tried, this week, to face the reality of what Jesus’ words were really saying, and I have to admit, it didn’t go so well. Let me explain.
First of all, I have a strange bond with Scripture. The intrigue and the mystery of the Holy Book captivate me. Whereas some people shy away, the confusing parts compel me to explore further. I probe the depths of Scripture, and she digs around in my soul. I am playful with her, but my imaginings lead me to life-altering discoveries. I am also quite serious with her—I am not afraid to ask her my most difficult questions. I trust her to take the heat. I expect her to respond. I depend on her faithfulness, that she will not reject me no matter what I bring to the text.
But like any relationship, the passion is hardly consistent. Some days the fire fuels me with life, and I think my collision with Scripture is the best thing that ever happened to me. Some days the fire burns me, and I think there’s no way this relationship is going to last. Sometimes we fight. She makes me angry—she demands something I don’t want to give, or, even worse, she refuses to make herself clear. I become convinced she is playing games with me and I have played the fool. Sometimes I just know that she has betrayed me.
God knows I have betrayed her. At times, I leave her. Eventually, I always return, because I don’t know where else I’d go. Sometimes the reunion is sweet and tender, like a blooming garden after the rains. Sometimes I return and everything around us feels flat and lifeless, like a shriveled up plant after the drought, and we just hold hands and weather the rest of the dry spell together.
This whole affair got all the more intense when two of us decided to take up preaching. We made a pact together to create sermons for the people, and I said, “Look. No more funny business from you. It’s not just me getting burned anymore when you decide to be all ambiguous. There’s a whole group of people who need us to work.” And Scripture retorted, “No more funny business from you either. It’s not just me who will feel rejected if you wander off. There’s a whole group of people who need us to stay faithful.” I said, “Oh dear! Maybe we shouldn’t even try . . .” She rolled her eyes, “Don’t be such a wimp.”
Jesus, apparently, had been eavesdropping, because he piped in out of nowhere, “I would have used a nicer word than wimp, but I am calling you to this, and the only way this tumultuous relationship is going to work is if you let me help.”
“Why is that man always right?” we grumbled and then we sighed, “Okay, okay. Sign us up. We’re going to be a preacher.”
We’ve been getting along rather nicely ever since, to tell you the truth. Until this week, and I don’t know if was her fault or mine, but when we sat down to sermonize, there was no chemistry. I opened her up and read Christ’s words and Peter’s rebuke over and over, and suddenly felt as if I had no idea what it meant to carry your cross. It was in no way an unfamiliar text, but it was as if all the meaning had drained away and I was looking at something foreign. I stared at Scripture, unblinking, for a very long time, “Say something already.” She stared right back in defiance, “I already did. My words have been right here for centuries.” I gritted my teeth. “You know what I mean. Come alive. Move me. Change me. Show off a little so I can catch hold of something preachable.” She gave me the silent treatment.
Finally I gave up on her and sent a text message to a preacher friend of mine. “I am numb to the text this week,” I confessed, “And I don’t know how to snap out of the numbness.”
My preacher friend was more sympathetic to me than Scripture had been, that’s for sure. She was compassionate, and then she said, “The goal isn’t to snap out of the numbness.”
“Okay,” I replied, “can you remind me what the goal is then?”
She said, “You are being taken to a place you don’t want to go, like Peter, and that is where you are being asked to preach from.”
I reread her response about five times. “How did you know that was the text I was preaching on, the one about Peter?”
She didn’t know.
Also, she added, “Your goal is to be carried.”
This whole time I am trying to figure out what it means to carry my cross when I don’t live under Roman occupation, what it means to lose my life but find my soul, what it means to forfeit the world and gain Christ, what it means to take up my cross when there are so many swirling ideologies of what it means to be Christian in a country like this one. And the point, the real point, all along was that Jesus carried a cross first, and in carrying his cross, he carries me. The road through pain or numbness, suffering or death is no longer a lonely one or an impossible one. It is pain defined by the hope of resurrection. Jesus can say, “Follow me,” because he went first and made it possible.
I went back to the Scriptures. She had a wry grin. “You’re ornery,” I said.
“Jesus put me up to it,” she protested, but I could tell she was pleased with herself.
“Yeah, but He probably didn’t tell you to be so stubborn about it.”
“Oh, never mind that. You still wanna be a preacher?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Well, looks like we’re stuck with each other for a good long while then.”
“Looks like it. Welcome back.”
Beloved of God, the season of Lent is a rude awakening the knocks the breath out of us year after year. Like a glaring billboard, reminding us that the way of Christ is riddled with more sorrows than we have the courage to face and the roadway is littered with ugly scenes that will hurt. But Christ is up ahead, and his determination is all we need. When we protest that this cannot be the way, Jesus will call us out for our devilish notions, and then gently remind us that our job isn’t to trudge along but to be carried. He went first, so that we could make it. Our responsibility is to resist running off and to wait for the rescue. To deny ourselves that urge to run and hide but to look ahead instead to where Jesus is paving a course. We are not alone.
The Son of Man must suffer and die. The Son of Man will rise again, and we will rise with Him. Praise be to God. Amen.