This is a crucial point in the gospel. If something is crucial, then it is extremely important. It is a matter of life and death. Thus, we get the word crucifixion from the word crucial. This message, that we just heard, was crucial for the disciples. It is the first time they heard it and it was hard for them to hear.
Jesus, for the first time, tells his disciples what is going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. He says that he will soon “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the teachers of the law, and be killed.” He goes on to say that after three days he will rise again, but I’m not sure anyone heard this.
We know from other gospel accounts that the disciples were shocked. Peter even reprimands Jesus. He tells Jesus he must be mistaken. The disciples had a different kind of messiah in mind -- one who would conquer Rome and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. Prosperity, honor, glory -- that’s what a messiah should bring. But here Jesus says something very different. He talks about sufferings and sacrifice? What could these things have to do with being the messiah?
Well, the answer is everything. Jesus did not come to seek earthly honor and glory or to restore an earthly kingdom, for one group of people. He came to reveal God’s love, and open the way of life to all. He does this by coming all the way into our struggle, our suffering, even our death. He came to take our sin and death and crucify them on the cross – to take away their power over us. That’s the way of God.
And then we are invited to participate in this love and this life – right now. This is not something that is waiting for us when we die. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Right now! This is to be a way of life for us in this life, as the church.
In Wesley’s sermon that inspired this message, he explores, for a bit, the differences between a Wesleyan/Methodist understand of our calling and the understanding from the Calvinists/ Lutheran/some Baptist/ Continental Reformation side of Protestantism. There are those on that side who say that this word from Jesus was only for that time. Jesus must suffer and he called those first disciples to suffer through as well. Because Jesus suffered, we don’t have to. All we need to do is believe that he suffered and died for us. We can manage our sin and try to be good, but we should not try to be Christ-like and strive for this level of holiness. To do that is to engage in “works-righteousness,” or trying to establish ourselves before God. We cannot be saved by doing that.
Now, there is a sense where Wesley agrees with this, but he also believes that the Spirit works within to transform us and to empower us to fulfill this higher calling. We believe that Jesus calls us to be the body of Christ in the world. He invites us to participate in this work and grow in this love, and he is optimistic that we can do this, as God working in us. Wesley calls us to take Jesus at his word. “Take up your cross, daily, and follow him.” This is not just for them. It is for us. This is the way to honor, and glory, and life ... all those things that the first disciples wanted, but just not in the easy and limited way that Peter and the others originally thought. Jesus is calling us to something so much more.
So, what is your cross? Sometimes we hear people talk of their “cross to bear,” referring to some personal pain or problem. Here, Jesus has something more in mind. Our cross is about our ministry. When we follow Jesus, we find that we cannot think only about our own comfort; instead, we find ourselves reaching out to others. When we follow Jesus, we will not only think about our own fulfillment, but will want others to be fulfilled and blessed. So, our cross is what we do to bring life into the world. It always involves some personal sacrifice.
I’ve tried to think of some examples. Here’s one. A person in our congregation would describe herself as shy and introverted, not comfortable speaking in front of others, and yet God has called her to speak out for a particular cause and to teach others. It would be so easy for her to just say, “I’m not comfortable with that. That’s not who I am,” but she doesn’t say that. Why? Because God has given her a ministry and she trusts that God will work through her as she steps out of her comfort zone. That’s a real example of a real person among us.
Here’s another. I remember talking to a man who started counting up the money he was spending on sports, including season tickets to Razorback football and basketball games and he compared that to what he was giving to the church. He was convicted and gave up the tickets so that he could be a better steward of all that God had given him. Yes, that’s another real example of how one person is trying to follow Jesus.
Our cross is what is crucial in our lives. It is what moves us from death to new life. It is what moves us out of our easy chair, out of our comfort zone, out of our selfishness, and into our shared ministry that makes the world a better place.
For us, as Methodist, we proclaim that faith is more than just “believing.” Faith is believing by following. It is an active desire to become more like Christ and to give witness to his love. We are called to be disciples, to be the body of Christ in the world. To fulfill this calling we need the Church. We can’t do this alone. And so we join together in what we might call the method of Methodism – where we intentionally come together for worship, for prayer, for holy conversation where inspiration and guidance is given. These are God-given means of grace that provide the strength we need to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus does not just mean “walk behind Jesus” and trust him to do it all. To follow means to be his disciple and his representative, to be his heart and hands in the world, where we, as the body of Christ, love others before they prove themselves, show mercy to those whom others condemn, welcome the stranger in our midst – in a word, take up our cross.
To put it as clearly and as bluntly as possible. Life is not found in things. It is not found in self-focus. It is not found in gaining the whole world, for as Jesus asked, “what will it profit if we gain the whole world and forfeit our life?” We find true life when we are willing to lose our lives in service and love. Friends, this is crucial, for your sake, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of the world. Amen.