Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
The last time this gospel reading was part of our lectionary was three years ago, and I preached a great sermon on having compassion for Peter in his moment of rebuke. In fact, it was such a great sermon--at least I thought it was--that I almost printed it from my files to preach again this morning. But I didn’t. You see, sometimes, it’s easier not to wrestle with the hard stuff of the gospel--like Jesus telling those around him “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s easier to be compassionate with Peter than to be told to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Yay for Lent--confronting us, challenging us, making us face fierce wild beasts in the wilderness.
So let’s dig in. To deny oneself...what’s that all about? If we start with the dictionary, we’ll find that there are other words to describe denying oneself: altruistic, generous, charitable, magnanimous. Let’s try Jesus’ statement again:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become altruistic and take up their cross and follow me.”
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become generous and take up their cross and follow me.’
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become charitable and take up their cross and follow me.’
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become magnanimous and take up their cross and follow me.’
Wow! That’s so much easier! I can be altruistic, generous, charitable and magnanimous. Sign me up!
But somehow that doesn’t sound like what Jesus is getting at. Let’s go back to the dictionary.
There are other words that might fit. How about self-sacrificing, devoted, selfless.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become self-sacrificing and take up their cross and follow me.’
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become devoted and take up their cross and follow me.’
‘If any want to become my followers, let them become selfless and take up their cross and follow me.’
I think we’re getting closer to what Jesus meant.
To deny oneself as Jesus has called us to do, isn’t about self interested martyrdom or resume building philanthropy. It isn’t about doing good for others to make yourself look or feel better. And as a professor in seminary used to tell us, watch out for the Messiah complex...this belief that somehow we can fix, heal, and save everyone. That’s not what Jesus is talking about in this call to take up the cross.
To deny oneself and take up the cross is really about letting go of our own agenda. It’s about being open to connections and relationships that aren’t of our own making, but God’s making. It’s about standing in solidarity with others, giving voice to the voiceless, and being free of the “stuff” that gives us that false sense of security--our pride, our ego, all the material possessions that we WANT but don’t need.
In our world, we are told to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and fiercely independent. We are told that we don’t need anyone else. And while independence, self- sufficiency and self-reliance are all good qualities to have, the truth is we can’t do it alone. We are meant to be whole, to be communal and connected. And that includes, being connected to God. This is part of what it means to deny ourselves and pick up the cross...that we are made whole by being connected.
A friend of mine used this illustration once. If you have a tray full of ice cubes, you’ll notice that each cube is it’s own being. It was once part of a whole--water--that became separated through constructed division. Now the ice cubes are content to stay individual, and the lifespan of an ice cube is pretty limited depending on the temperature. If you hold the ice cube in your hand, it will start to melt. And it will become water again, but not with all the water it originated from. If you crack the tray and put all the ice in a bowl together, it too will start to melt, and over time, as it becomes water, it’s hard to determine the boundaries of the individual ice cubes...they meld into one body of water.
This illustration, or metaphor, is meant to help us understand what it means to be self-denying and take up the cross...letting go of false boundaries and separations, seeking wholeness and community, and doing so all for the building up of the body--the Kingdom of God.
Last Sunday I shared a prayer with you to get you started on your Lenten journey. And you’ll find another one in the newsletter as well. But here’s one I found as you continue your wilderness wandering, pondering the cross you will carry and the freedom of self-denial:
God of Love,
through this Lenten journey,
purify my desires to serve you.
Free me from any temptations to judge others,
to place myself above others.
Please let me surrender even my impatience
that with your love and your grace,
I might be less and less absorbed with myself,
and more and more full of the desire
to follow you, in laying down my life
according to your example.
(Creighton University Online Ministries: http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Lent/Daily-prayers-02.html)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.