In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
We’re all probably familiar with the phrase “it’s my cross to bear”. It’s a phrase we might sometimes find ourselves using to describe a more-or-less unpleasant situation or duty that we cannot avoid. It speaks of the virtue of perseverance under adversity, of getting on with things uncomplainingly even when times are hard. Sometimes it can be used to speak of deeper, more personal struggles.
A little googling led me to the autobiography of Gregg Allman, onetime singer of the Allman Brothers band, the great pioneers of 1970s Southern Rock – some of you will know by now that my guilty secret is my fascination with the fusion of country and rock music in early 1970s America. Gregg Allman’s autobiography, which is titled “My cross to bear”, tells of his problems with substance abuse, his string of troubled marriages and the impact of the death of his brother Duane in a motorbike crash.
A little more googling led me to a quote from the actor Will Ferrell, which I only just have enough courage to use in a sermon. Ferrell says: “I’m a sex addict. It’s my cross to bear. It’s a real disease with doctors and medicine and everything!”.
Now I don’t mean to belittle the problems people suffer from when they speak informally of having crosses to bear, but I think the quote from Will Ferrell in particular illustrates the gap that has opened up between the phrase in colloquial English and its meaning in the gospel. I can only assume that the idiom entered the English language from the bible at some point, but when Jesus instructs his followers to take up their cross he speaks in a specific context. I think there is a danger that we might read the idiom back into the gospel, and imagine that what Jesus speaks of is the same thing we mean when we use the phrase in everyday speech.
What is the context in which Jesus speaks? Today’s gospel begins with the first of three passion predictions in the gospel according to Matthew. On three different occasions Jesus predicts his suffering and death, and this is the first of them. Peter protests, and is sternly rebuked. Jesus goes on to teach his disciples that they too must deny themselves and take up their crosses. The cross in the colloquial phrase is an emotionally painful and difficult thing to carry, but in the gospel it is much more: it is an instrument of suffering and death, but it is also the means through which Jesus’ self-giving love is perfectly revealed; it is both failure and triumph, both death and life. The call to take up our crosses is more than a call to bear up under adversity; it is more than a call to accept affliction bravely.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
The call to take up our cross is more than a call to bear up under adversity: it is a radical call to a life lived for others as an offering to God. Jesus’ journey to Calvary is not a matter of cold stoicism, it is not a matter of the passive endurance of unavoidable pain. Jesus denies himself and takes up his cross because he loves us, and he calls us to do the same out of love for him and love for each other.
But if there is a danger in reading the popular understanding of having a cross to bear into the gospel, there may be something to gain from reading the gospel back into that popular understanding. Because of course we do all have our cross to bear. We all have near-daily struggles over things we don’t want to do but know we should, and that’s before we get started on the things we do want to do but know we shouldn’t. We struggle with the selfish and hurtful desires that well up inside us, we struggle with the needs of others, we struggle with the demands of others on our time and attention, we struggle with the hurtful behaviour of others, we struggle with physical pain, with fear, and with grief. In those struggles we have the chance to see ourselves clearly, we have the chance to recognise our weakness, we have the opportunity to see our vulnerability laid bare; sometimes we see all too clearly our self-centredness; and we may come to recognise our dependence on the grace of God.
We might give in to the temptation to live selfishly, we might give in to the temptation to indulge our worst desires and to ignore the needs of others. Or we might do our best to resist temptation and to be kind to others out of a sense of cold duty, we might try to do the right thing as it were through gritted teeth. But if we see those daily struggles in the light of the cross, where Jesus self-giving love is perfectly revealed, something different can begin to happen.
If we face those daily struggles with a willingness to love as we ourselves are loved, we might begin to take small steps on the path of self-denial, we might begin to take small steps under the weight of the cross. And as we take those small steps, we might by the grace of God gain the strength to take bigger steps. We might by the grace of God gain the strength to make greater sacrifices, to do things we wouldn’t have thought possible before. After all, the Peter who reacts so strongly against the idea of Jesus’ suffering, the Peter who seems to want to follow Jesus to glory but not to the cross, the Peter who denies Jesus to save his own skin, the same Peter will eventually be given the strength to follow Jesus all the way.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.