The cross of Jesus has a hard but necessary lesson to teach us: that, although life inevitably ends in death, it is in death that eternal life has its beginning.
Some people, faced with a chronic disease diagnosis, try to write their way out of it. This has resulted in a type of blog on the internet that’s become, as they say, “A thing.” It’s called a cancer blog.
One of thousands of cancers blogs out there was written by Lisa, a young wife and mother from Pennsylvania. She contended with ovarian cancer for several years, and, sadly, died in 2009.
Here’s one of Lisa’s final postings (for privacy reasons, she used pseudonyms for her daughters):
Telling Cam and Teeny the truth, that I’m not going to get better, was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to do. .... Listening to them cry was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard. Not being able to fix it is the worst feeling in the world ....
Dude [her blogging nickname for her husband] and I decided to deliver the news to the girls last Saturday afternoon, a few hours before they had to go to church. Teeny has been consistently lighting a candle for me every week and she finds a lot of comfort in going to mass with Dude. Cam doesn’t complain about going nor does she get really excited. Dude and I thought they might find some extra comfort in going to church after talking to us earlier in the afternoon.
I’ve been too sick to go to mass for a while so Dude takes the girls by himself. He said that each girl was snuggled up as close and as tight to his side as they could be during mass. And of course, Teeny lit a candle as she always does. When she got home, she told me that she still believes in the hope that I’m going to get better. God, how I wish that little ray of sunshine was right ....
My kids are strong, but they have been dealing with cancer in their lives for five years. I hope the lessons they’ve learned and continue to learn make them stronger and don’t scar them.1
A similar thought may have been running through Jesus’ head that day, long ago, when he decided that was the day he would tell his disciples what was going to happen to him. We read about it in today’s New Testament lesson: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. ...”
“After three days rise again” — surely there would have been comfort in that! Chances are pretty good, though, that Peter and the rest never heard those words — they would have never gotten beyond the shocking words “suffering” and “killed.”
Peter, Mark tells us, “Began to rebuke him.” That word “rebuke” stops many of us short, every time we read this story. Who is Peter to rebuke his Lord and master, anyway? Sure, Peter’s an impetuous sort. He’s prone to speaking without thinking. But this seems a bit much, even for him.
In Peter’s defense, this is no ordinary thing Jesus has told them. He’s announced to them, his closest friends, that he’s going to die soon.
The natural tendency, on hearing something like that, is denial. It’s what Lisa heard from her daughters. Partly because of their young age, but also because they’re simply human, they weren’t equipped to hear it. It’s what a host of other people have heard from their own loved ones: “You know, the day is coming when I’m not going to be here anymore ....”
It’s an important thing for a dying person to say, and what they hear back from their loved ones, in response, is important as well. Sadly, dying people don’t always get to have that blunt and honest conversation — sometimes because they don’t want to talk about it, and sometimes because their loved ones aren’t ready to engage in it. Many times, the dying person, as well as friends and family, have the superstitious idea that even talking about death will hasten its arrival — and so, they change the subject.
The psychologists call this “denial.” It’s a defense mechanism, something our subconscious minds do to protect us from pain. Peter’s in denial when he rebukes his Lord.
Jesus rebukes him right back: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Calling someone “Satan” is not something you hear every day! But it embodies Jesus’ frustration.
Jesus next talks about cross-bearing, words that are familiar to anyone who’s spent time in church. Few of us, though, remember the context, how he spoke those words out of gut-wrenching frustration.
Let’s look at the three parts of Jesus’ famous teaching:
Deny. The first thing he says is about denying oneself. Notice there’s no object of this sentence, beyond the individual. Jesus isn’t advising the disciples to deny themselves anything. He’s not suggesting they give up chocolate for Lent or anything else so trivial. No, what he’s telling them to do is to deny themselves.
This is not the same as rejecting themselves. The way of Christian discipleship does not lead through the valley of low self-esteem. No, to deny oneself is to recognize that the selfish desires we’re all born with are the things that will destroy us in the end, if we’re not careful. This self-centeredness is the beast we must banish from our lives if we are to follow Jesus.
Bear. The second part is to take up the cross. The cross was nothing less than an instrument of torture. If you’ve read anything at all about the notorious water-boarding technique sometimes used on terrorists, then you know what an agonizing ordeal that is. Yet, compared to the cross, waterboarding is not nearly so severe. Although it may convey the sensation of drowning, the waterboarding victim — we’re told — is not in any real danger. The cross, by contrast, is deliberate torture unto death. Who would consciously choose such a thing?
Someone filled to overflowing with love for his fellow human beings, that’s who! Someone like Jesus. For him, the cross is not some meaningless death but the purpose of his entire life.
So, what is the cross we are called to bear, as disciples? The most direct reply is to say this: We bear the cross of Jesus whenever we take on a difficult, even painful action in order to make someone else’s life better. Jesus was called to save the human race. You and I are called merely to save the person next to us from pain or suffering or difficulty, using whatever means may be within our power. Crosses come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have the same, ultimate purpose: love.
Follow. The third part of this teaching is “Follow me.” Here’s the thing that makes the first two parts — self-denial and cross-bearing — possible. None of us can make the journey of Christian discipleship without someone to show us the way. We place our feet in the footprints of the one who has gone before us on that pathway, Jesus our Lord.
Cross-bearing is not a message that plays so well, though, in our present culture. We idolize success. At the very heart of our national identity, as Americans, are stories of people like Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison — and even Steve Jobs and Elon Musk in our own time — brilliant innovators who caught a vision of what was possible and chased it all the way to fame and wealth and glory. “Be like these people,” is a message of our culture. “Follow after them, and you, too, will be a success!”
It’s a different thing from following Jesus, isn’t it?
Brendan Manning, in his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, points out a certain myth in our modern culture, and sometimes even in our churches. This myth, Manning says, has done believers “incalculable harm.” It misrepresents the way a Christian life is lived. The myth goes like this: “On the journey with Jesus I can expect an irreversible, sinless future. Discipleship will be an untarnished success story; life will be an unbroken upward spiral toward holiness.”2
Friends, it’s not true! Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy, effortless journey in this life of discipleship. He says we’re going to have to deny ourselves. And, he says we’ll have to follow not ourselves — not our own inclinations and desires — but him.
Back during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War, a college campus minister was speaking with a group of students. Everyone was talking about war and peace in those days. With the military draft still in effect, and male graduates having to decide whether they would accept the number that fell to them or burn their draft cards and flee to Canada, one of those students remarked to the campus minister, “There is nothing in the world that’s worth dying for.”
To that, the chaplain replied, “Well then, since we all must die, that will mean that you will one day be confronted by the absolute necessity of dying for nothing.” It was a hard work, but an honest one.
It’s not an easy thing to admit to our loved ones that we’re going to die. Nor is it easy for any of us to hear such a thing from someone we love. It is, however, the way of the world.
The good news of the Gospel, however, is that this world is not all there is. There is another world, one that’s ruled over by this very same one who obediently took up his cross and died for us. If he dwells in our hearts, then after death comes new life.
If we can grasp that great spiritual truth — simple to articulate, hard to accept — we will be a long way down the road to becoming the sort of courageous, spiritually generous believers Christ would have us be.
2 Brendan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 2005), 16.