“Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Peter had seen what crucifixion was like. Sometimes you could walk along the roads of Israel and see the naked, tortured bodies of those suspended between heaven and earth. Because they had done something to cross Rome they ended up on a cross.
Sometimes it took people days to die. And you could hear the moans and the screams coming from those cross beams, and the anguish of the families and the loved ones who could only hope that death would finally come and bring an end of the soldiers’ taunts.
Rome was quick to hang people on crosses. And sometimes they did it by the dozens along the most traveled roads, so everybody knew what Rome was capable of. It’s kind of like Abu Grahib. You not only get to inflict torture on people you think are less than human, but you also get to terrorize a whole population.
It’s no wonder that Peter reacted the way he did. What kind of nonsense was Jesus talking about? The last place Jesus where Jesus needed to be going was Jerusalem. They all knew the religious authorities were out to get Jesus, and they would quickly trump up charges that would get Rome involved. And Rome already had more than its share of crucified ones.
And besides, just a couple of minutes ago Jesus had acknowledged what they all had started thinking; that Jesus just might be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. He more than acknowledged it. He said that what they were thinking had come to them straight from God.
So what was this business about going to Jerusalem and dying there? Everybody knew from their earliest days in Sunday School that the Messiah doesn’t die. The Messiah doesn’t fall victim to the empire. It’s the other way around. The Messiah raises an army of angels and the righteous and drives the occupiers, or what’s left of them, into the sea. Everybody knew that. It’s what the Bible says.
So Peter grabbed Jesus and said “Snap out of it. None of us are going to Jerusalem right now. Just get some rest and then we can start planning for when we are going into Jerusalem–on our own terms, and with an army of thousands. There are going to be people dying in Jerusalem, all right, but The Messiah is not going to be one of them.”
Now this story is just one of the several in this part of Matthew’s gospel where people are trying to figure out who Jesus is. Jesus is trying to figure out who he is. He’s been healing people. He has challenged the religious authorities. He has performed miracles like feeding the thousands in the desert. The things he has been teaching the people have left them breathless. But as I mentioned last week, these stories are not just about figuring out who Jesus is. They are also stories about his followers figuring out who they are.
Jesus responds to Peter’s attempts to block his way to Jerusalem with anger. “Get behind me Satan! You have no idea how God works.” And in the next breath he’s back working on the disciples, teaching them, not talking about himself, but them. “Jerusalem,” he says, “is not just a place where you go to go to die, but a place where resurrection happens. There is a cross waiting for me there. But it’s where we will find our lives, not lose them. It won’t be easy, but it’s the way to life.”
The disciples must have been stunned. Those men and women had never imagined The Messiah would end up on a cross. And now he was saying they would, too? And it wasn’t a sign of God’s abandonment, but God’s presence? They hadn’t signed on for this.
One of the problems was they hadn’t heard everything Jesus had said. They had been glorying in the fact that he might actually be The Messiah, the Promised One. It was such a jolt to hear him talking about crucifixion that they hadn’t heard the rest of it, that part about being raised on the third day. But that was not an insignificant detail for Jesus.
We don’t go walking down College Street or Main Street and see people hanging on crosses. Tappan Square and Wilder Bowl are pretty much crucifixion free zones. And we have completely separated crosses from what they are. For us they are jewelry, decorations for our homes and churches, signs of piety. For Jesus and the people of the first century they were gut wrenching testimonies to Rome’s cruelty and power and the evil of empire.
The first Christians didn’t wear crosses, or put them in their homes. It would be like us hanging up pictures of those prisoners in Abu Grahib and everyone admiring how beautiful they were, and asking where you got it.
The very first Christians didn’t know what to do about crosses. The symbol they used was a fish. We know even less about crosses. So what does it mean, then, when Jesus says we should “deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow him?”
It may mean lots of things, but for me the thing that stands out is that it means taking a risk for resurrection. That ’s sure what Jesus was doing when he picked up his cross. We often talk about the crosses we bear, usually in terms of the illness we are struggling with, the child we are struggling with, or the in-law we are struggling with. And it’s always something that is fatalistic. It seems like the current cross we are bearing is the one that is finally going to do us in.
For Jesus, though, the cross was never the end of the story. Resurrection was. When Jesus headed out to Jerusalem he had resurrection on his mind, it was a part of his identity. “The Son of Man must be handed over to the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He knew that the cross belongs to Rome, but the empty tomb is God’s. And Jesus knew that was what his disciples would have to realize if they were going to discover their identity as his followers. Cross= Rome. Empty Tomb=God. It’s the empty tomb that is the equation for our lives.
Jesus and Jerusalem, for Jesus anyway, was not the story of a good man who met a bad end at the hand of the Romans. It was not the story of another good man who died young, who became a martyr for his principles and practices. Jerusalem was about resurrection and redemption, and a redemptive community. Us.
His life and ours, his identity and ours all comes in the same package. Do you see, like we were talking about last week, why the Apostle Paul calls us the Body of Christ? Jesus is in us and we are in him. The church has it’s identity in Jesus, and Jesus has his identity in the church. That is not an identity crisis, but an identity opportunity for the church and Jesus. And it all revolves around an empty tomb, not a cross.
How does it change our perspective when we realize for Jesus the meaning of the cross didn’t stop at death, but at resurrection? What does it enable us to risk?
That’s an amazing paradox Jesus was talking about. By losing our lives we find them. By risking faith in God, risking love for each other, risking hope for what we and this world can become we aren’t throwing our lives away, but finding them. And we think we have so many more important things to do than take the risk to be the church, the Body of Christ.
All summer long we have been talking about how impractical Jesus was. Love your enemies. Trust in God. Forgive. Don’t seek revenge. Make peace. Give up on violence. Cross those boundaries of nation, class, race, gender, sexuality, and economics and make new friends on the other side.
“Don’t go there, Jesus. Jerusalem doesn’t understand any of that. What they understand is power, an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth. We just have to give it harder to them than they do to us. The last one standing is the one who wins. You go in your way and they will crucify you, crucify us.”
“Yes, Peter, you’re right. But there is resurrection. The ways of God will prevail over the ways of this world even if we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And it’s up to all of you to make it happen. Follow me to the cross and I promise you life. Stop before then and death will continue to swallow you up. You’ve got to take some risks Peter if you want to come alive. The God I believe in is a God of life. That’s why I’m trusting what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. God is not going to leave me dead, let death win. I really, really believe that Peter.”
Peter could not stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. But to his credit and the others, he went there with him. And the worst of their fears didn’t come true. They didn’t all die there, just Jesus. But Jesus got resurrected there. And here’s the twist. Even though Jesus was the only one to die he shared his resurrection with everybody.
Now we may need to pick up our crosses in a thousand of little ways when we risk following Jesus and believing in the God he believed in. But there are a thousand little resurrections waiting for us.
I was talking with a returning student this week, and she told me I could tell you this story. Because she is from a denomination that has been hard for her to connect with in Oberlin, she didn’t get to church as much as she wanted to her first year here. But she was home this summer and working pretty hard. But she took the time out of her schedule to help out with Bible School at her home church. And what she realized was how much she had missed by being so disconnected from a local congregation last year. She took a little risk with her time and her schedule this summer, when many people might have argued there were more important things to do with her time, and had a little resurrection. She came back to life in a way she had been needing, and is looking at this year in a new way, a way that will lead her to find some kind of connection to a church.
If this business about picking up our crosses and following Jesus isn’t hard enough to grab hold of, for Peter, the disciples, for us, what Jesus says next is even harder. “For the Son of Humanity is to come with the angels in the glory of God, and then 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 Humanity coming in the kingdom.”
What does that mean? Was it simply that Jesus was expecting for the end of the age to come shortly after his resurrection, and he just got it wrong? Was it the wishful thinking of the author of the Gospel because times were hard? Who knows what that was all exactly about?
But what if in coming alive with Jesus, the church finds its identity in the Risen Jesus, and we begin to sense what he was talking about all that time? What if picking up our cross helps us to see something of Jesus in all his glory as we find our identity in him?
And who says the judgment that Jesus is talking about is something we should worry over? What if the payback Jesus is talking about is on the positive side of the ledger, not the negative? The payback that comes when you pick up your cross and follow him to life?