Sunday, March 1, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
“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.”
Those sound like pretty challenging words – denying yourself, losing your life. Hardly the words of promise. They didn’t make much sense to the disciples near Jesus and in the 1st century and they don’t make a lot of sense to our ears today. We want to follow Jesus, but not if it is going to mean giving up a whole lot. Most of us have worked hard for what we have and any talk of denying ourselves is not something that sits well with us, especially in the consumer-driven capitalist society that we live in. The media tells us that we need more – more clothes, more things, more power, more money, more…everything, because they tell us that more is better. There’s even an AT&T commercial that says, “more is better.” And we believe this lie, this deception. We believe that more will makes us happy and will fill us up, but the truth is that the drive to get more will only leave us wanting more. It won’t fill us up. It will leave us empty and the only way to feel better is to get more. And We the cycle continues.
The media doesn’t talk about denying ourselves. Adds don’t talk about sacrificing our needs for the needs of others. We are continually bombarded with voices that tell us to get as much as we can. And for those who don’t have much, they are told to work harder. Phrases such as “Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” are expressed to motivate people to action, but they are missing understanding. It’s easy to look at someone who is lacking and think that it’s because they didn’t try hard enough rather than seek to see that the problem goes much deeper. Capitalism itself it at the root of most of the problem. In an effort for people to acquire as much as they can, it’s often done at the expense of others. It’s one of the reasons the middle class is disappearing and the discrepancy between rich and poor increases. Many homeless people actually have jobs, but cannot afford to pay rent. People are having to make decisions between medicine and food. And when universal healthcare or one-payer healthcare is mentioned, people scream that it would be socialism. Everyone is supposed to better their own lives, not deny themselves pleasures in order for someone else to have a little. Yet deny ourselves is exactly what Jesus is demanding that we who claim to be followers and disciples are to do. He says to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. Jesus says, “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.” It makes no sense to us or to Peter who heard it first-hand.
Peter had just finished confessing that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He believed Jesus was going to lead the Jewish people out of their captivity to the Roman occupation. Peter believed that Jesus was going to lead them all to military victory and be the great political leader they wanted and needed. Jesus was going to be the all-powerful leader that would turn their lives around for the better. He wasn’t expecting Jesus to say that He “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter and the other disciples left the comfort of their homes to follow Jesus, and to hear Jesus say that he would be killed was more than Peter could bear. That’s why he protested. Peter had other plans for Jesus and if we are honest so do we.
We want Jesus to be the kind of Savior we want him to be. We’re all in for following Jesus as long as it’s on our terms. As long as we can still do what we want then we can be disciples at the same time. But that’s what’s so troubling about Jesus’ statement today. He is telling us that if we are to be his followers we can’t do whatever we want. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. What exactly does that mean?
To begin with denying ourselves doesn’t mean we are to be doormats. It doesn’t mean we are to put ourselves on the bottom of the list and care about everyone but ourselves. And it doesn’t mean that we are to let others abuse or mistreat us. That is not what Jesus meant when he said to deny ourselves. And taking up our cross doesn’t mean walking around feeling sorry for ourselves and saying things like “this problem – whatever it is – is my cross to bear. That is not what Jesus is talking about. So what does denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus mean?
It means we are to commit our lives like Jesus to self-sacrificing love. Love was the reason Jesus suffered and died. Love was the reason Jesus stayed on the cross when he had the power to save his life. Love was the reason Jesus denied his power to save himself, and chose instead to save us. Love was the cross that Jesus bore and love is the cross that Jesus asks us to bear. We are to love one another with the same kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus had. When we follow Jesus we are to follow him all the way. We are to be “all-in” just as Jesus was “all-in” for us.
Just a couple days ago I had the chance to see the new movie McFarland. It is based on the true story of the Central Valley California high school track team and the coach who started it. I won’t tell you the story or give you any spoiler alerts – although I will encourage you to go and see it – but I do want to share with you one scene in the movie. The high school was predominantly Latino and the youth worked early in the fields in the morning before school and again after school. They worked hard, harder than most high school youth. In one scene, Coach White is trying to reach the youth and so he too gets up at 4:30am one morning and works in the field with them. He is shocked at how hard the work is and how they can endure it. His middle-aged back bent over for probably only a few hours picking cabbage, he finally had to stop. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was “all-in” with those youth. He showed a solidarity with them, a self-sacrificing love that said, “I care about who you are and what you are going through.” What Coach White did that day was take up his cross and follow Jesus.
That is what is means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It means to give of ourselves out of love for the sake of the gospel, the sake of God’s love for all people. It means to really do whatever it takes to understand what someone else is going through. It means to take up the self-sacrificing cross of love, the cross of compassion, the cross of justice, the cross of peace, and even when we are surrounded by fear, and sin, and death, we take up our cross and do what Jesus did. We go where we have to go for the sake of love, for love is the reason Jesus took up his cross.
We can start right where we are in our homes, our schools, our places of work, and our congregations. Christ Lutheran Church is a group of people who are followers of Christ and we are commanded as such by Jesus to take up our cross and follow Him. We can start right here in our congregation. There is such a great need in our communities to hear the good news of the gospel and we can be the means through which that message is transmitted. We can start here within our congregation. Each one of us has to be “all-in” to make our congregation thrive as a living body of Christ. It can’t just be a few people doing all the work. We are all commanded to take up our cross. This week, think about what it is that you are called to do right here as part of the congregation. There is a great need for a vibrant Sunday School. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling you to take up your cross and be a Sunday School teacher, or the leader of our Christian Education committee. Or maybe you are being asked to take up your cross and be a Eucharistic minister and help visit those who are homebound. We have about a dozen people to visit. They need to see more than just the pastor visit them once or twice a month. They need to know others in the congregation care and they are connected. Maybe you are being called to take up your cross and join the property committee, or outreach, or start a new project in the congregation. There are so many possibilities!
Being a disciple is more than just calling ourselves Christian. It’s more than just coming to worship services. It’s more than just giving a little of whatever we have – time, money, or skills – it’s being “all-in” for the sake of the gospel. It may require hard work and sacrifice, but it is worth it. Jesus took up his cross and our lives are forever changed for the better because of it. We have life because Jesus gave up his. That is something we know that Peter didn’t know when he tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross. Peter was so focused on hearing Jesus say that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” that he totally couldn’t hear the last part of that sentence – “and after three days rise again.”
Have we missed that part too? Jesus didn’t take up his cross for nothing. He did rise after three days. Resurrection happened! He made that promise and he kept it. Just as God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations in his old age. Sometimes what we have to endure seems pointless. At times we may have to face difficulties and problems that seem impossible. We don’t see the solution and we don’t see the answers, but that is why we have been given the gift of faith. We don’t have to see the future; we only have to trust in God’s promises. Maybe it’s time we stop living in fear and live in the possibilities. What if Christ Lutheran Church is known not as a building of brick, but a place of possibilities, a place where anything is possible? Jesus said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Take up the cross of self-sacrificing love and see where that love will lead you. Believe in God’s promises. Believe in the possibilities. Believe that resurrection will happen! Amen!