Why have we decided to follow Jesus?
First of all, because his way is the way to life. He is the way and the life. I don’t know anyone else who gives life to the dead, do you? Or who is himself risen from the dead, or who gives us the bread of life to eat. Where else would we go? It is it Jesus Christ who has the words of everlasting life.
Yet his message to us today makes clear how starkly paradoxical is this way to life. It is the way of the cross. If we are following Jesus Christ in order to save our lives, we need to listen to this: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). Say what now? See what I mean about a paradox?
This is the message of the cross: life – but life out of death. And get this: It’s our life out of our death.
I am often struck by the fact that the words of Jesus we hear today on this Sunday of the Cross are his first words about the cross. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first cross Jesus mentions is not his own cross. It is our cross.
“He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38).
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Or, as Luke has it: “”If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Luke adds that “daily” in his recollection of the teaching. Not only is this our cross Jesus is talking about – it’s something we’re to take up daily – not only once and at the end of our lives, as the image of crucifixion may seem to suggest, but every day.
Later, according to Matthew, Jesus will prophesy that he will himself be crucified (Matt 20:17-19), but before that, how must this teaching about the cross have sounded to his first hearers?
The cross was a known instrument of torture, humiliation, and death. And it was not yet known as the life-bearing tree – the tree of life, upon which Christ, the life of all, conquered death by death. Yet Jesus is already teaching that this is what it is to deny ourselves and take up the cross – the paradoxical way to life through death. Later on, he will prove it – by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. But imagine the faith of those who accepted his teaching about the cross ahead of time! It’s almost unimaginable.
Here’s the thing, though: I promise, as we face our own cross – as we each assuredly will (and even do daily, as Luke reminds us) the promise of life through it is going to sound hollow to us – at least at times. The thing, the dream, the identity we’re going to have to give up to follow Jesus is going to seem to us like our true self and the life that Jesus is offering us is going to seem like less. Not worth it. There will be moments of feeling like this. I believe that Jesus himself felt this way upon the cross when he cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We will feel like God has forsaken us when we behold our cross.
If the cross we’re imagining don’t seem like denying everything – our very selves, our very lives – then I’m not sure we’re actually imagining our cross, but perhaps something else.
Now this doesn’t mean that we all need to be tortured to death for the sake of Christ – though many martyrs give even that witness. At every liturgy, the deacon leads us in prayer “for a Christian, painless, unashamed, peaceful end of our life.” But if we’re not to be tortured to death, we might find that we’d prefer that to the actual cross we must personally carry.
For example, perhaps we will be called upon to forgive an abuser. There’s an injustice as great as crucifying the innocent. If someone hurts one of my babies, I’m supposed to love and forgive that person? Believe me, I’d rather you nail me to the cross.
Or sometimes we have to watch the one we love more than anything in the world suffer and die before our eyes. You know that’s a thousand times worse than being the one suffering and dying ourselves. May the Lord heal the sick throughout the world today.
Whatever it will be for us personally, if we have decided to follow Jesus, we will all have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. We will recognize it as the cross rather than as self-destruction because love will demand it – not pride or shame or some other foolishness. But remember the paradox: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
The life that the Lord is giving us through our crosses is our true life. The life he asks us to lay down is something else – an identity we’ve constructed rather than our created nature. It’s dear to us and seems to us to be our real life, and that is why it hurts as much as crucifixion to lay it down. But when we do, we will discover a joy on the other side of the cross greater than anything we can imagine – like the joy of Pascha morning – the sun rising on the empty tomb – the dawning realization that life has just begun.