These are hard words. This is tough love. 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.
We are being invited to lose our lives, that which we value most, so that we may save … the life we … lose ….
Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it better. Bonhoeffer, who was executed on April 9, 1945, was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
That is what this challenging passage means. 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.
And in light of this perspective, it gives new meaning to the idea that we all have “our cross to bear.” You know, of course, about the favorite old hymn that touches on this idea: “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear.” I always wanted to meet old Gladly.
Usually when we say, “Oh, it’s just my cross to bear,” with a weary and patient smile, we mean: POOR ME. In counseling language, we would call that a very inwardly centered thought.
Christ on the cross, a central image for us in the season of Lent, is anything but inwardly centered. His very posture is other-centered, outwardly centered.
If we take up our cross – we must of necessity take up the burdens that belong to others and allow others to help carry our burdens. That is life in Christian community, and that is covenant. Last week, we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and saw God’s faithfulness in the covenant even when Noah fell short.
The readings appointed for today all speak to what life in Christian community is, for we who are in covenant with God. God invites Abram to “number the stars,” which cannot be done, as a sign of the extravagance of God’s covenant promise with Abram. God promises to make him “av hamon goyyim” – the father of a throng of nations. (The word goy means “nation.” Goyyim is the plural of the word.)
The psalm for the day is a portion of Psalm 22, which begins, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” and that ends with the reminder that God does not despise the afflicted, that God hears us when we cry out.
And it is from that history of our journey with God that Paul writes in chapter 4, verse 3, of his letter to the Romans, “and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It was accorded to him as righteousness. And it was Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 1 verse 17, that sparked a moment of realization for Dr. Martin Luther, a seminary professor in Wittenberg, when he read, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
And it is because this great cloud of witnesses that we hear Jesus’ invitation to “take up their cross and follow me” as an invitation, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, to die. To die to the self-centered focus on our own burdens. To die to how many crosses we have to bear and how sweet and long-suffering we can be while bearing those crosses. To die to the idea that only I matter. To die to the way the world gives that teaches that we should have whatever we want, at the moment we realize that we want it. To die to the idea of every man for himself, every woman for herself, all children for themselves.
When Christ calls a man, or a woman, or a child, Christ calls that person to come and die. We are invited in Christ to stop believing that each of us has to bear our burdens, and only our burdens, all by ourselves, for all of our earthly lives.
And when Christ calls a man, or a woman, or a child, Christ calls that person to come and live. To live to an other-centered focus on the burdens of those around us. To live with a compassionate awareness of how many crosses other people are bearing and how we can help. To live to the idea that I matter insofar as it is Christ in me whom people see. To live to the way the Word gives that what we want, when we want it, may be considered together with the needs of the many. To live to the idea that we are all in this together, in covenant, in community.
We are invited to remember that when Christ bore the cross on the road, it was not so much his cross to bear as it was the sins of the world, a burden that he bore willingly because of his love for us. In his name, we are invited to bear one another’s burdens, as Paul writes in Galatians, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
We are most passionately invited to die to self and live to Christ as a covenant community. Let’s take up our cross! Together. Amen.
Preached at Saint Michael Lutheran, High Point, NC, by The Rev. Beth Woodard, 2/25/2018.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38