September 3. 2023
It’s Not My Cross to Bear
Our second reading is from the 16th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. For context, leading up to this, Jesus has been walking on water, feeding, curing, teaching people… and Peter has just professed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, prompting Jesus’ blessing and affirmation of Peter, and his stern command to the disciples not to tell anyone. That’s when our passage picks up. Listen for God’s Word:
“From that time on, 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 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
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. 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?
For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I want to get two things out of the way, right up front, so that you can focus in with me on what is at the heart of this passage.
First. Jesus calls Peter Satan. That’s weird.
He’s just told Peter that he would be the foundation of the church, and would have the keys to the kingdom… and then he calls him ‘Satan.’
There’s a complex history of interpretation around the Hebrew word (that is simply borrowed in Greek here) satan or satana. It can be translated as a proper noun – Satan or the Devil – as it is in the temptation story. It can also be translated more generally as the adversary. By opposing the very thing Jesus is intent on doing – going to Jerusalem to suffer and to die – Peter is turning himself into an adversary of Jesus. Jesus firmly says NO, to Peter’s NO to Jesus. We all are capable of embodying the satan – the adversary, when we try to impede the work of Jesus.
Secondly, Jesus says, “Some standing here won’t taste death until the Son of Man comes in his kingdom.” If Jesus was talking about the 2nd coming, then he was clearly just wrong, because Jesus hasn’t come back yet, and let’s see: James, Matthew, Peter, Thomas… yeah! They are all dead (and have been for a while)! But if it’s the case that this is what Jesus meant, and he was wrong, I don’t think that should trouble us. Jesus was fully divine, and fully human, and he was pretty up front about the fact that there were some things he didn’t know.
It could also be that Jesus is referring to some standing there – Peter, James, and John – seeing Jesus in his glory, coming in his kingdom at the transfiguration… which is the very next passage in Matthew’s gospel.
My preferred reading, though, is that indeed some of them standing there, did in fact see the Son of Man – Jesus – coming in his kingdom, a little later, in Jerusalem. I’ll come back to that.
At the heart of this story, the real meat of this passage – are Jesus’ words about discipleship – Jesus’ words to his disciples about what it means to be a disciple.
Jesus says: deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. Lose your ‘self’, your life… and in doing so, you will find who you truly are – your truest self.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus asks the disciples who others think he is, they respond with various answers and theories, and then he pointedly asks them who THEY think he is. Famously, Peter, at this point, has his confession: you are the Messiah, the Christ.
This marks a turning point in each of these gospels.
In each gospel, right after Peter’s confession, Jesus pulls the rug out from under them, and turns their world upside down. Yes, he is the Messiah, but no, he is not the long-awaited king who will defeat their enemies with violence to take his throne and crown, and rule over others… Jesus now, from that point forward, speaks with a new freedom and clarity to the disciples about where he is headed, and, by extension and implication, where they are headed: to Jerusalem; to the cross. To suffering. To death. [And I would have loved to hear how Shannon explored this with a children’s moment! This is not easy, for any age.]
When Jesus says “follow me”… that’s where he’s going.
When he says, “deny yourself,” he means: set your egos and self-serving, self-aggrandizing ambition aside for something far bigger and more rewarding.
When he says, “take up your cross”… he means… well, what does he mean?
“That’s my cross to bear” is a phrase that’s often used, in our culture, to convey an annoyance placed in our lives, that we just don’t see a way around. We might hear someone say: “My mother-in-law is coming to stay with us for 5 days next week for her biannual visit, but that’s just my cross to bear;” or “Oh my Lord, the after-school pick-up car line” (which our family now has the ‘privilege’ of experiencing in two locations, every day) “is my cross to bear.” It’s often used as a joke… but a joke that covers over the fact that most rarely pause to consider what taking up our cross actually might mean or look like, beyond a vague sense of being put-upon.
The Allman brothers, in their song “It’s not my cross to bear,” may have actually gotten fairly close – when they defiantly sang, about a relationship: “When you’re at the end of your road, don’t reach out for me babe – I’m not gonna carry your load – it just ain’t my cross to bear.” I mean… they rejected it – chose not to take up the cross… but that’s closer to what I think Jesus meant. Bearing one another’s burdens. Willingly entering suffering, for the sake of others. Not courting suffering, or seeking it out for its own sake… but being willing to suffer, knowing that its often inevitable, knowing that it so often is a powerful agent of formation and transformation in us… and knowing it ultimately unites us with the rest of humanity, and with Jesus.
The way Jesus taught this was by living it, not with persuasive arguments or logical explanations of how this all works… but by showing them. And so I think the best thing I can do – to invite us, together, into grasping what it looks like to live as disciples, to take up our crosses – is to offer some examples.
- Some of you may know the name, and story, of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. He was a young civil rights activist who was pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church. In 1965, at age 26, he was one of nearly 30 members of a group of protestors – white and black – who traveled to Fort Deposit, Alabama, to protest and picket some of its many white-only stores. They were all arrested and taken in a garbage truck to a decrepit jail, where they spent six August days in an un-air-conditioned cell. Without warning, on the 6th day they were released, and, without transport, walked to one of the few neighborhood stores that allowed black customers. Four of them, two white men, including Daniels, and two black young women, including 17 year old Ruby Sales, entered, and they were greeted by a white, shotgun wielding volunteer deputy, who told them to leave. After some words were exchanged, the deputy suddenly lowered his gun directly at Ruby Sales, whom Daniels sprang to push out of the way, taking the full blast of the shot that was fired, and dying instantly.
Dr. King called his action one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which he had heard in his entire ministry.
In a very real sense, that was Daniels’ cross to bear: literally laying his life down for another. And what enabled him to do that… was formation into the way of Jesus. Living what one theologian coined: a “cruciform life” – a life lived in conformity, to the cross, and crucifixion. Cruciformity.
Daniels didn’t hesitate in that moment, because he was formed by the belief that the God he served, the God of justice, who loved him, revealed himself – fully – on the cross.
This, then, may be exactly what Jesus meant when he said that some standing there would not taste death before they saw the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Some saw him, from the crowd, on the cross.
Now is this what we are called to? Literal sacrificial death?
Statistically… Probably not.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be ready and willing for something like that… but it’s not likely that many, or any of us, will be called upon for such remarkable heroism.
- So here’s another, maybe more relatable example: Henri Nouwen is a name I hope you have heard. Nouwen wasn’t a martyr like Jonathan Daniels, but he did live a radical life of taking up his own cross. Nouwen was trained as a priest and psychologist, and spent years as a professor at Yale and at Harvard. He was a sought after speaker and author, and after some years of discomfort and soul searching and prayer, he discerned that his path was not greater influence or prestige, not more power or degrees or published works… he discovered, by studying Jesus, what he called the path of “downward mobility.”
In a society obsessed with success and fame and acclaim – the rise to the top narrative – Henri went from lecturing in the ivory tower, to the smartest most passionate students in the nation, who would hang on his every word… to living in an unknown, unremarkable Canadian group community of a few dozen people with severe mental and physical challenges. His role there was to offer a few words of prayer and blessing, to tell Bible stories, and to serve Communion to people who were as likely to laugh or shout out or moan during the services as his Harvard students had been to praise him. And his role was to bathe and dress one man, Adam, every morning and evening. This is what world-renown Henri Nouwen did, for the last ten years of his life. In doing this, he lived the gospel and shared Jesus’ life more clearly than in any of his sermons, lectures, or books.
That was his cross to bear. It was the most challenging thing he ever did… and he loved it; and through it he experienced, in a new way: profound joy.
- We can’t all be Henri Nouwens, either. You probably don’t know the names (unless you’ve heard me talk about them), Kelly Allen or Frank Seaman. Frank was a Presbyterian pastor in the south for half a century, beginning in the late 1950s, and while congregations typically like it when pastors contribute to more people coming to their church, Frank wasn’t shy about letting people know that during his ministry, many of his congregations shrank, (and others would note that it was because of his willingness to take a stand against bigotry and segregation). Frank served as the pastor Emeritus of University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio for many of the years that I worked and my family worshiped there; he provided the charge for me at my ordination service; and I learned yesterday that he died on Friday evening, having carried his cross, faithfully, to the end.
From 2009 to 2016, Kelly was the pastor of that same congregation – most of those years my boss and colleague. I need to be much more brief than I’d like to be here – you can ask my about Kelly and I’ll talk your ear off. Kelly’s cross to bear was fiercely loving her family and congregations, and fiercely advocating for justice, starting Bible studies in jails and asking to meet with the prisoners nobody else wanted to meet with; working for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, and for the rights and lives of immigrants and refugees fleeing Central America into South Texas. At least once a year Kelly read to the church Session of the church and other leaders her favorite line of the book of order: “the church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its own life.”
There aren’t books written about Kelly or Frank… but they lived in a way that I, and I hope you, feel like we might sometimes be able to embody. The cross they took up was the radical belief and commitment to the idea that the church is called into risky faithfulness and witness to the gospel, not safety or security or even effectiveness or acclaim… because faithfulness to the gospel doesn’t guarantee those things. And that is so counter-cultural.
All of these people – Jonathan Daniels, Henri Nouwen, Kelly Allen and Frank Seaman – were shaped and formed by community, by people committed to living the good news with them, asking: what does the good news look like, here? Jesus brought his friends on the journey with him, and needed them with him, praying with him, encouraging him, eating with him, right up until the end. His cross to bear… was the cross. But it wasn’t an annoyance or last minute change that he couldn’t get out of and had to “power through.” It was the very essence of his life; a life poured out for others, in humility and sacrificial service and self-emptying love. His was not just a death of crucifixion, but a life of cruciformity, of downward mobility, or faithful risk.
What is your cross to bear?
Your cross to bear might be joining our Guatemala Boundary Breakers team, traveling to Guatemala together this summer to experience the joy of the living Christ through relationships and experiences that transcend boundaries of culture and language and lifestyle… or it might be sending your kid with us, as terrifying as that might sound. Or your cross might be becoming a foster parent to a child who needs the stability and love of a family or person like you. Or showing up with love and a smile for your kids, or spouse, or a parent, day after day after day. Or it might be becoming a friend to someone who needs one at school.
The call to take up your cross is an invitation – to a life that is anything but easy, and that is characterized by the joy of being caught up and included in the life of the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus.
By taking up our cross – living lives of humility, centering and serving others, bearing one another’s burdens, putting the needs of others before our own… we find Jesus. And in him, we find ourselves – our identities – the truest thing about us: We are children of God, loved by the one who poured himself out for us, on the cross, and calls us into a life of cruciformity. Amen.
As you go, take up your cross: live a life of cruciformity, of downward mobility, of risky faithfulness. It almost certainly won’t bring acclaim… but it will bring the joy of life in Christ. Go in peace.