“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘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.’” These verses freak me out. Upon first glance, they aren’t so bad, but the longer I hang around in them, the dizzier I get and the more they start to play tricks on me.
Deny yourselves. Take up your cross. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. This is easy enough to understand. If I am selfish with my life, I will lose my life, but if I am generous and give up my life, I will gain it. Therefore, I will be generous with my life, because I know that I want to gain it. But…wait. Then am I simply being generous for my own gain? To save my own neck? Aren’t I simply wanting to save my life, which then means I’ll lose it? It’s a dizzying text and I am not quite sure what to do with it.
But I think there are two main ways people hear this text. Some hear it as a call to live a meager life, denying themselves of joy and fullness of life as a way of delayed gratification. The more I deny myself life’s comforts here and now, the greater my reward will be in heaven. No pain, no gain. This is how God wants us to live. Others hear this text as justification or reason for the suffering that has already burrowed into their life. “This must be my cross to bear,” people say, when faced with suffering that is just as hard to explain as it is to endure. It paints the picture of a drill sergeant God who is in the business of giving you more and more obstacles and struggles in life to see how long you can endure them. I am afraid that because of this text abused spouses have stayed in their relationships. Terrified each day, they stay because they think it is the cross God has called them to bear. So they think they should just grin and bear it, trying to trust in a god who can seem so cruel.
If there are the only two ways to hear the text, then I want nothing to do with it. But what if there is another way of hearing this text? It seems to me that this text is not about a call to a life of suffering and denying one’s self the pleasures in life, all so that one can receive a greater reward in heaven, as if God is simply playing a game with us. This text is also not about a reason for our suffering. That God tests us by giving us all crosses to bear and asking us to carry them to show the commitment and endurance of our faith. Instead, what if this text is about not being afraid. Not being afraid of death. And not fearing the suffering places in our lives that can feel so much like death. Because the moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life too.
This was the case for Peter. Just before this text in Matthew, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the one who steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus affirms Peter by saying, “Yes, blessed are you, Peter.” The only problem is that Peter is expecting a different kind of Messiah than Jesus is. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah is one who comes in strength and power. One who will defeat the evil powers of the world. And as a follower of Jesus, he expects to be part of such a glorious battle, which he will win. So when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and death, it’s no wonder that Peter cries out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Suffering and death were not the future Peter envisioned for Jesus, and they weren’t the future he envisioned for himself, either. If Jesus must go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death, then as a follower of Jesus, doesn’t that mean Peter must go and do the same? Peter was afraid for Jesus’ life, but he was afraid for his own life too. The moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life.
One of my favorite TV shows is Law and Order. There is an episode about a mother who was so focused on protecting her own children from any danger in the world that she kept them home-schooled and never let them outside the house. As a result they had no concept of friends or how to make them. She convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it. All of this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end, it was suffocating the life out of them. The moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life too. And Jesus wants us to have life.
Jesus is in search of life. Fullness of life. For all of us. Did you catch that in the text? That Jesus is in search of life? I didn’t see it at first either. Or if I did, I didn’t know what to make of it. Listen again… “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And on the third day be raised. Resurrection. Jesus isn’t going to Jerusalem in search of death but in search of life. New life. Fullness of life. Resurrected life. Maybe this text is about not fearing death and those suffering moments in life that can feel like death, but once you start to fear death, it isn’t long before you start to fear life.
I know that it can sound trivial to say, but in life there is pain. There is suffering. So when Jesus asks his followers to take up their crosses and follow him into Jersualem not because Jesus wants to give us pain and suffering but because Jesus knows we already have pain and suffering. They are already part of our lives. Part of the world. And God loves the world. So Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, we will go through this together in search of life. So we take up our crosses because there are crosses to be taken up and what else is there to do? The only other option is to deny that there are any crosses in this world, which as far as I am concerned is simply to fall into a fear of death, and thus a fear of life. But to take up one’s cross is to embrace both the pain and suffering of the world and to embrace the hope of discovering life within it. A full life is not one that is absent of suffering, but one that faces such suffering with the courage to search for life, resurrected life, in the midst of it. Jesus is in the business of bring about life in the midst of death.
The path as disciples of Jesus is ours to choose, I guess. But remember, try to save your life and you will lose it. To be afraid of death is to be afraid of life. When you fear death, you can walk right past the person in the park looking for gas money and miss the surge of life that comes from helping a stranger. When you fear death, you can act as if the cancer isn’t there and miss the life-giving experience of telling your children and grandkids all the stories you’ve wanted to tell them before your heart beats its last.
So take up your cross if you choose to do so, whatever it may be. Depression. Job loss. Addiction. Busyness. Sadness. Why take up your cross? Well
because we have crosses in our lives and what else are we supposed to do? And as you walk in the crowd of others following Jesus and carrying their crosses, you just might bump into a person who has a cross like yours and who has found a way to carry it that makes it less painful. Immediately you can feel the relief in your shoulders and your knees. But also in your soul too. So you pass the tip along and keep going…
If there is anything of God in these words, may they settle and take root in our life…AMEN
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven – Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 79.
 Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, p. 32.