Jesus has reached the point of no return in his brief ministry. After the miracles of healing, after trying to teach his disciples, after being falsely accused as a trouble-maker, Jesus takes the road to Jerusalem. He already knows that his witness to the kingdom of God will require his utmost sacrifice. He says to those around him, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
His resolute determination to be faithful to his calling, means there is more to the kingdom than thinking about God and faith in a generally charitable way. Jesus is saying that following him is an all-encompassing journey that demands total loyalty and devotion. A would-be follower said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at home.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In the age of exploration some 500 years ago, one Spanish conquistador told his soldiers to beach their boats and burn them. He would not allow any thought of turning back from marching inland to see what was there. Then they could build a new boat and sail home.
So it is with Jesus. He has come to the major turning point in his life, leaving behind the popular favor in Galilee and turning to the coming confrontation in Jerusalem. There must have been many discussions, patient explanations about what following his way, would mean. Jesus knew his teachings were in conflict with the self-righteous religion that the Pharisees had forced upon God’s chosen people.
We might think of some major decision or a time when something difficult had to be faced. How long did it take to think about it, talk about it, and finally make the decision?
People who watch too much TV get the idea that life’s problems can be solved, often with violence, in thirty minutes or an hour. But in life, real problems involve much agonizing as we search for the right course.
Matthew summarized several conversations, putting many weeks of discussion into a few words. “We must go to Jerusalem,” Jesus said, and there he would find great suffering. He would be killed, and on the third day he would be raised. Jesus had burned his boats when he was alone in the desert. In the midst of temptation, he settled on the shape of his mission. Neither by satisfying bodily hungers, nor by selling out to Satan, nor by pleasing crowds with spectacular displays, would he bring in the kingdom of God. But by patient teaching about God’s will for ordinary people, he leads us all to new horizons of love and service.
When the religious power brokers of Jerusalem realized the difference between their way and Jesus’ way, he knew his reliance on God would be tested. His way called for conversion rather than the appearance of obedience. His mission called for an unselfishness that many of us would not accept. It is exactly at that point of conflict, at that crossroad of self-preservation and self-denial that he calls for followers.
Matthew casts Peter as the devil’s advocate. He wanted to take the easy way, avoid the cross. Jesus would have none of it. “Don’t get in my way,” is how we might hear Jesus responding to Peter’s suggestion. He knew that his call for total conversion is hard, demanding, and specific. I wonder whether I would accept his demands any quicker than people who met Jesus in Galilee.
If he were to return today and convey his ideas to me, how would I respond? How would you?
Jesus was once approached by a rich young ruler who wanted to know what he should do – to find the kingdom or to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him he should sell all his goods and give the money to the poor. The man turned away because he thought more of his bank account than the kingdom. Jesus does not say that we shouldn’t have financial plans and bank accounts, or stocks and bonds. He is saying there are priorities in the kingdom, and these priorities should be in line with putting the kingdom of God first. Whatever riches we may have must be subject to the will of God and the reality of God’s kingdom in this world right here, right now.
Our witness to the kingdom will involve careful use of this world’s resources not only on the individual scale, but in our corporate responsibility for clean air, pure water, and the way we make and use energy.
Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day and said that their witness to the kingdom of God in word and deed was inadequate. God does not want words when there are deeds to be done. God does not want empty promises when action is called for. God does not want us playing in the fields of the Lord when seriousness of purpose is required. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That’s the New Testament balance sheet of profit and loss.
“For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Cross-bearing is not looking at our disappointments in life or burdens or inconveniences and calling them the cross God has given us to bear. Cross-bearing is not pitying ourselves because others are better off than we are. Cross-bearing is not begrudging our duty and service to those with whom we pass through this world. There are numerous points of service, numerous opportunities for putting God’s kingdom at work in the world, opportunities we ought to accept without whining about it.
After eleven chapters of explaining to the Romans what God has done in Jesus Christ, Paul begins the twelfth by spelling out cross bearing this way: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
God challenges us to march into the future under his banner. Cross bearing asks us to look for opportunities to serve. Cross bearing asks us to look for opportunities to serve, opportunities to witness to the presence of Christ not only in worship but in daily living.
Jesus had a mission, and calls us to the same mission of living as God wants us to live. Jesus died for his mission. He gained eternal life and so shall we.
If we earnestly keep asking God, “Am I living as you wish?” then we shall find the life worth living.
Life for all God’s children is both challenging and satisfying. Imagine, we can put ourselves into company with the disciples and first followers. We can humbly but with great pleasure know that we have signed on with those heroes of the faith who have gone before us. We can be assured that we will leave a legacy of faith and sacrifice for those who come after us.
And when our final moment comes, I cannot think of anything more satisfying than for our last thought to be that in the twinkling of an eye we will return to consciousness in the heavenly presence of God.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We have great responsibilities in ordinary life. There is no more satisfying way to move through this world than to worship God our Father every day by word and deed. We are always, every day, faced with all kinds of choices because Jesus invites us to follow him, as though Jesus always stands before us, announcing his decision to go to Jerusalem.
We know what happened there in the last week of his earthly life. We also know what happened in Joseph’s lovely garden on Resurrection morning.
Jesus is always on his way to Jerusalem. Who will go with him?
May the Risen Christ live in you.