“Take up your cross and follow me.” Few of Jesus’ words have caused more consternation than these. “Take up our cross?” What does that mean? Does following Jesus mean we’re supposed to suffer? To follow Jesus properly, must we have a death wish?
It sounds extreme, I know, but for some, Jesus’ call to take up our cross is a call to suffer. In conversation with a clergy colleague in Washington state where she pastored, Pastor Rebecca Ann Parker learned how devastating the consequences of misunderstanding Jesus’ call to “take up our cross” could be.
“He killed her,” Pat said. “With a kitchen knife. In front of three of their children. The baby was sleeping” (15).
In their small town, there were no social services for victims of domestic violence. The place people turned for solace was church. But the theology most church-goers got was the idea that suffering violence was holy. Jesus suffered violence, so it must be, right? Women especially took in that message.
Pat said, “Almost every woman who’s come here for refuge has gone back to her violent husband or boyfriend. She thinks it’s her religious duty.”
After one especially violent episode, with support, Anola, the woman who was being abused, pressed charges against her husband and testified against him. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail. When he was released, Anola let him come back home.
When Rebecca asked Pat why Anola had let him come back, Pat said, “She thought it would be the right thing, in God’s eyes. In the church she went to, the intact family was celebrated as God’s will: father, mother, and children were meant to be together in a loving home. Anola believed that because this configuration of family was the will of God, God would somehow make it alright. For her to break up the family would make her a bad person. Doing the will of God was more important than her personal safety. The possibility that faithfulness to God’s will might mean pain and violence could even have been in its favor. A good woman would be willing to accept personal pain, and think only of the good of the family. You know, ‘Your life is only valuable if it’s given away’ and ‘This is your cross to bear.’ She heard that Jesus didn’t turn away from the cup of suffering when God asked him to drink it. She was trying to be a good Christian, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.’” “Anola believed God expected her to risk being battered, like Jesus.” (18-19)
“Take up your cross and follow me.” What did Jesus mean? What might it mean for us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus?
Last week, we spent some time with Jesus in the wilderness. During his 40 days without food or companionship–that is, without distraction–Jesus gained clarity about his calling, about what his response to God’s love for him would be. As he reflected, we wondered: Did he know what his calling might lead to? Did he suspect that acting the world into wellbeing could lead to his death? Did an image of a cross float into Jesus’ consciousness during his sojourn in the wilderness?
There’s no way to know for sure what Jesus was thinking in the wilderness. By today’s passage, though, the cross is front and center. He shares this insight with his disciples. He began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later.
Peter protests. A few verses before, when Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, they answer, “Elijah.” “Moses.” When Jesus asks, “But who do you say I am?” Peter nails it: “You are the Messiah.”
But, apparently, Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah and Peter’s aren’t the same. For Peter, the Messiah had come to save people! A dead Messiah couldn’t save anybody. Jesus, in dramatic fashion, offers another understanding of what kind of Messiah he would be. “Get behind me, Satan! You’re looking at things from a human perspective, not God’s!”
And then, Jesus doubles down. Not only is he going to die, but he calls his disciples also to “take up their crosses,” “to lose their lives in order to save them.”
Suddenly, what had been all stories, healings, and miracles, takes a darker turn. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that things take a deeper turn. It’s like Jesus has been bringing folks along, but–at last–wants them to know he hasn’t been playing at this thing of living God’s love in the world. Living God’s love in the world–if we do it right–asks everything from us. Living God’s love in the world isn’t something to play at or to engage in half-heartedly. Living God’s love in the world isn’t a death wish, but it does call us to commit our whole selves to the work, even unto death. As we heard Dr. King say last week, “We don’t know why we’re alive until we know what we would die for.”
Do you know what you would die for? Or, to put it another way. What are you living for? To what have you committed yourself wholly, entirely?
In Sunday School, we’re exploring different understandings of the cross. Last Sunday, we quickly learned that we have a wide diversity of understandings of the cross in our congregation… which is going to make for some terrific conversation. 🙂
I was struck by one person’s response to the question: What does the cross mean to you? “Focus,” they said. Focus. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he invited his followers to “take up our crosses.” Maybe he was calling us to live our lives–our entire lives–with focus, with intention. Perhaps the call to take up our crosses is a call to pare away anything that doesn’t contribute to living God’s love in the world. Perhaps it is a call to commit ourselves wholly to that work and to not allow anything, anything to distract us from that calling.
Maybe that’s the difference between the understanding of the call to take up our crosses held by women about whom Pastor Rebecca Ann Parker writes and other understandings. Maybe it’s about focus. Maybe it’s about intention. Maybe it’s about suffering, not because someone is perpetrating violence against us, but because we choose to suffer for a greater good.
A few months after her visit with Pat, Lucia knocked on Rebecca’s door. She, too, was being beaten by her husband. He was beginning to turn his violence on their children.
Lucia told Rebecca, “I went to my priest 20 years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried,” Lucia said, “but I’m not sure anymore. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”
Rebecca told her it wasn’t true. “God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband. God wants you to have your life, not to give it up. God wants you to protect your life and your children’s lives.’
Hearing Rebecca’s response, “Lucia’s eyes danced. “I knew I was right!” she said. “But it helps to hear you say it.” Lucia began taking courses at the community college to gain a marketable skill. After that, she got a job and moved herself and her children to a new home.
When I announced the Sunday School class on the cross, I wasn’t sure there would be any takers. As Jesus’ words today suggest, understanding the cross is hard…so hard, in fact, that sometimes we just ignore it or push it to the side or simply believe what we’ve always believed about it without ever reflecting critically about those beliefs.
But what we believe about the cross matters. What Anola believed about the cross led to her tragic death. What Lucia believed and had confirmed by Rebecca led to her leaving her abusive marriage and beginning her life anew. What we believe about the cross matters…not only for our lives, but also for the lives of others.
So, what does the cross mean to you? What difference does your understanding of the cross make in your life or the lives of others? Are you ready to commit yourself wholly to the work of living God’s love in the world? Do you know what you would die for? Do you know what you’re living for?
Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus?
In the name of our God, who creates us redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021
Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.