Thanks to the way my brain works, sometimes I think about what happens in the Bible that we don’t get to read about. That’s where my mind went at first this week. I pictured Peter pulling his friend Jesus aside and saying “hey Jesus! Cool it with the talk of your death and stuff, okay?” And Jesus responding “get behind me, Satan” and then poor Peter moping off. I then pictured Peter passing another disciple on the road or something and that other disciple, we’ll say it was Andrew or John saying “why are you upset, Peter?” And Peter saying “it’s nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.” And the other disciple saying “oh. Okay… Well, I gotta go talk to Jesus about something.” Peter would respond with “yeah…I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
We don’t often get “fiesty Jesus” in our Gospel stories, but that’s exactly what happens today. Jesus is letting Peter, all of the rest of the disciples, and us know what it actually is going to mean to be a disciple. And it’s not easy. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I wonder if it was then that the disciples and all who were gathered listening to Jesus finally started to realize the life that they had agreed to and the life that they had been called to. For Jesus to say “take up your cross” wasn’t some kind of code word or phrase. The cross was a well known tool of torture and death. For Jesus, it would mean death. We have the gift of foreknowledge so we know that Jesus’ death isn’t the end of the story. The cross for Jesus and for us meant death AND resurrection.
Jesus always knew this was going to be his legacy. So he knew that taking up his cross meant doing what he had always done: preaching, teaching, siding with those who are marginalized, healing, and feeding. But, all of that is what ultimately got him arrested and hung on a cross. And in a way, the disciples knew. After all, Jesus just a few verses before our reading today asks Peter “who do you say I am?” And Peter answered “You are the Messiah.” (8.29) What did Peter think that meant? What does it mean for us? For us to claim Christ as the Messiah means that we claim our identity as disciples. And our identity as disciples means it is more than just saying we’re Christians. Being a Christian isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. Jesus challenges us to take up our cross and follow him.
What does that mean for us? Jesus tells the crowd “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Does Jesus mean we literally have to die for him and for the work of the Gospel and the work of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? In some cases, that has happened. But the death that Jesus is most likely speaking of here is the death of our selfishness, the death of our self interest, the death of the idea that being a Christian is easy. Because we know, many of us can speak of it first hand, that just because we wear the label of “Christian” and just because we may try and move and be in the world as Christians, does not make us immune to pain, troubles, heartache, and even death. Being Christian is not an easy ticket or way out.
For us, losing our lives means making a confession as to what we believe and then living like it. If, like Peter, we confess that Jesus is the Messiah then that means everything we do and say points to that fact. It means we have to be willing to take on the evil forces of this world that scream and compete for our attention when they tell us that Jesus doesn’t matter and that this world is cold and has no room for love. When we know that’s not true. We know that’s not true because we’ve experienced the greatest love of all in the form of Christ on the cross. But, and here’s the catch, it’s one thing to say that Jesus’ love changes the world. It’s totally different to act like it really does.
For us to take up our cross means to live in the promises of baptism every single day. To read scripture, pray, come to the table, work for justice in the world, and renounce the devil and all the forces that deny God. That’s what saves us. Not our works. Not our actions. Not our hopeful or feeble attempts. God’s grace alone saves us. Anytime we take our gaze off the cross, we have “traded the death and resurrection of Jesus with a more convenient and acceptable means of imagining what it means to follow Jesus” (K Lewis). Perhaps it is time for you and for me to answer the question for ourselves of “who do you say that I am?” Because as soon as we can answer that, we can start to recognize the times when we’re picking up our cross to follow Jesus or if we’re picking up stones to throw at Jesus.
To take up our cross means to examine, study, and emulate Christ’s sacrificial love. This is love given without expecting anything in return. And this is love received without expecting reciprocation. The greatest weapon on earth is love. And the greatest love comes from God through Jesus Christ. Nothing is stronger than that. So by picking up our cross, we’re agreeing to love the world even when the love doesn’t want to love us back. When we pick up the cross, we aim to love those whose only desire is to quiet our message. When we pick up our cross, we hope to love those who think they’re unloveable. When we love others like Christ did, it is not at the cost of ourselves. We don’t aim to put ourselves in harm’s way or open ourselves up to abusive situations. When we love like Christ did, we open ourselves up to opportunities to love.
And, maybe most importantly, when we pick up our cross, we leave this place living like we believe the benediction is true. The benediction is the last thing we say before we exit these doors. Right now it is “marked with the cross of Christ, go forth to love and serve the Lord” and we say?? (thanks be to God.) Yes! Thanks be to God that we get to do this! Thanks be to God that God has created us to love one another and the world! Thanks be to God that God goes with us when we do this seemingly impossible work. And thanks be to God we can come here week after week and be refreshed and renewed to then be sent out once again into the world to love. Jesus is inviting us, encouraging us, maybe even daring us to pick up our crosses and follow him. It’s all too easy to say no. But, it’s more rewarding to pick up that cross and start loving the world. Living fully into your baptismal promises, may you leave this place full of the love of God and powered by the Holy Spirit so that all who you encounter know that you belong to Christ.