|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 17, 2018 at 11:50 AM|
Who do you say that I am? It’s one of those haunting questions that Jesus says to us. To everyone who follows him. And our answer- the answer in our heart, not the well-polished church speak we can recite, makes all the difference in how we live.
But it’s one of those questions that stops us in our tracks. We’d say he is a good example and someone who points us back to ways of justice and love that God intends. He’s someone who loves well and speaks about God. That’s what the disciples around Jesus say this morning, too- he’s a prophet sent by God.
But that’s not the answer Jesus was looking for. Those things describe what he’s already been doing. Jesus is asking why they are following, what they see in him and how they understand his mission. They are asking who he is for them.
And it’s the brilliant and flawed disciple, Peter who speaks of a truth that he can’t see, but he somehow knows. That Jesus is more than the prophets before. He is the one they’ve always been waiting for. “You are the Messiah, Jesus.” You’re the one we’ve been waiting for. The one that God promised would come to rescue us. Who will set the world right. You are our powerful God come to us.
And I can imagine how proud Jesus was- finally someone understood who he was and what he was doing in the world. And in the joy and truth of that moment , Jesus goes on to speak the rest of his mission- that he will be misunderstood, demonized by the religious elite and eventually killed by the same Romans that Peter thought he would conquer. But even then, life will win out.
Even though he’s the Messiah, he won’t be a vanquishing hero riding in to put the Romans in their place. Not a superhero who can defeat all his enemies and stay unharmed. Jesus says he will suffer for the sake of his people.
And Peter’s whole hope crumbled. He was so happy he finally got the right answer, but Jesus doesn’t seem to understand what it means to TRULY be God’s Messiah. And he objects like a man whose heart is crushed. No, no, Peter says. This isn’t the way. Our God is mighty. Our God wins. Our God makes a way for us. When I said Messiah, I meant the winner. The one who would make us win. The one who would save our lives from all that threatens us.
And isn’t that who we want some days- the one who’s going to knock out all the people perpetrating injustice against our neighbors, to ride in on a horse to save us all. Who’s going to fight all the people who oppose us. No, Jesus, we want you to be a superhero without all this suffering.
But funny thing, Jesus doesn’t take our opinions under advisement or listen to our objections about the way God works in the world. So Jesus tells Peter, “You’ve misunderstood the my work in the world, Peter. You’re desperately trying to protect me from harm and struggle because you’re also trying to protect yourself. It’s human and I understand it. But it’s not the way the kingdom of God works. Because it’s not the way of love. So might and power and keeping myself safe cannot be my way of life. And even more terrifyingly for you, I call my followers to follow me in this way of living.
So Jesus says- I am setting my mind and heart completely on God’s hope and intention for the world. I’m going to follow the path of relentless love for all creation with whole-heartedness and I’m going to suffer the consequences of living like that.
And then Jesus says those words that are so terrifying and misunderstood, “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, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus lays out an astonishing difficult and beautiful path before all his would-be followers. A path that promises to lead right to the heart of God. And we, like humans often do, have all too often taken those words and totally messed up their meaning.
The church has sometimes used Jesus’ words to justify any hard and painful thing in life as God-imposed suffering or used it as a reason to ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters. We’ve used these words to justify staying in abusive situations. And those inside and outside the church have even cheapened them, calling annoying bosses or a lack of air conditioning “just our cross to bear.”
And in all that, we’ve misunderstood what the cross is about. Jesus taking up his cross wasn’t a crappy thing that happened when he was out living his life. It was a natural result of preaching about and living out the truth of God’s kingdom in a broken world that wasn’t ready to hear it. The cross was something Jesus willingly took on as the consequence of loving God and humanity relentlessly.
But some of the things we talk about as our crosses are just painful things that happen to us in life. Things that have nothing to do with love. Things like diseases, floods, accidents and abuse. These are things that threaten to destroy us and these are situations that God sometimes works through to change us, but they are not things we choose to take on because of love. They are burdens that we bear, or evils that we fight against, but not crosses that we take up.
Our crosses are what we choose to take on out of obedience of Jesus’ reckless command to love God and love others. Our crosses are fighting for safety on our streets even when it puts us in danger. And carrying God’s message of love to places where people don’t want to hear it. And speaking up when people ignore God’s call for justice. And fighting for those that are forgotten and neglected when it seems like no one is listening.
Taking up our cross means following where God’s love leads us, no matter the cost. It means being ignored or hurt by those we’re called to love, but refusing to stop loving in response. It is to love even though relationships end, love ones die, and people disappoint us. It is to keep speaking peace in a violent world. And it is to accept whatever struggle and the suffering comes as a result of your work.
Taking up our crosses is not martyrdom or seeking out suffering. It’s not smiling though everything that happens to you. It’s not accepting abuse. It is making God’s will your guiding star and God’s promise of healing and peace your surest hope. It’s running after them with such strength that fear doesn’t have a chance to deter you. And accepting the suffering and the consequences of living like this.
Because despite every evidence to the contrary, we are people who have the audacious trust that the cross didn’t just mean suffering. That through some miracle of God’s love, it also brought renewal and resurrection. It showed us the beauty and joy of power of the kingdom of God. And it showed us what abundant life- life completely ordered in God’s way looks like. Taking up the cross is what lead to enduring life for Christ and for us.
So we take up our crosses because it leads to the abundant life Jesus promises. That’s why we act in love toward others no matter how often we’re hurt. It’s why we fight for justice when we’re surrounded by injustice and spread kindness in the midst of evil. Because these are actions that lead to life. These are things that lead straight toward the heart of God and straight toward God’s perfect kingdom.
And Jesus promises that when we live our life drenched in his love and with our minds focused on his justice, we will find life. True and enduring life. The life that matters before God and that matters in our world. For those who lose the path the world makes for them for the sake of following after me, Jesus says, they will find life abundant.
In this life, we will be forced to accept burdens that come into our lives. That’s not something we’re given a choice about as unfair as that reality is. But, we are all invited, called and beckoned to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. To help usher in a new way of being on this earth, to be a part of the transformation of the world even by small steps. And we do not walk this way alone. We go with Jesus making the way before us holding us up when we are weak and loving us even when we fail and run the other way at times. And we go with a community audacious enough to trust that the way of Jesus is the way that leads to life for all of us together.
People of God, we are given a dreadfully hard privilege- to carry our crosses toward life. We are invited to defy the world by taking on struggle that means something. We take up our crosses in the midst of evil as a sign to ourselves and a sign to the world that we are working toward the vision that God has promised will be a reality one day. We walk, limp, drag, or crawl with our crosses as people who trust that Jesus knows the way that leads to life for us and for our world.