5th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, July 1, and Sunday, July 4, 2004
Can you see this from where you are? It’s a nice cross-stitched cross bookmark attached to this satiny blue material. It’s nice. . .but besides the shape, it has nothing to do with Jesus saying in today’s Gospel reading, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” Jesus isn’t talking about some nice pastel, soft, light-as-a-feather cross. This bookmark might be OK when we’re talking about the peace that comes through the cross, the peace that we have in Jesus, but when we’re talking about “taking up our crosses,” this is the wrong idea.
When Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” the cross we should picture isn’t some pretty thing; it is the heavy wooden beams, the long spikes, the instrument of torture and death, the place of execution. If you, like me, have just gotten too used to seeing the cross and thinking of it like a trademark or symbol for Jesus, then it is time for us to pause and really remember what Jesus meant when He called on His followers, you and me, to take up our crosses.
As a congregation, we come together to call each other to greater discipleship. Being a disciple means to be a follower of Jesus. We urge each other, cheer each other on to follow Jesus with our lives. Jesus is making us realize that being a disciple isn’t just about carrying around a pastel, cross-stitched bookmark; being a disciple is about carrying around an instrument of death, being prepared to die for our faith in Jesus.
In the time of Jesus, crucifixion, being killed on a cross, was considered an “utterly vile death,” or as one author put it, “the most shameful, humiliating, and repulsive fate imaginable.” Maybe we’ve forgotten that over the years; maybe we need to realize again that Jesus is calling us to be ready to be executed for Him.
In one language, the word for cross literally means “killing pole.” Another language uses a word that means “nailing pole.” If we want to follow Jesus, we must take up our crosses, take up our killing poles.
Take up your electric chair. That’s a form of execution; that’s an utterly vile death; that’s what Jesus is talking about with the cross. Think through history of all of the ways humans have thought to punish and kill criminals. Any other time in history, and Jesus would’ve been killed a different way. Yet, He would still be calling us to the same kind of discipleship, a willingness to set aside our lives for the sake of His Name, for the sake of the true faith.
If Jesus had died at sea, forced to walk the plank, He would’ve said, “Take up your plank.” If He had been burned at the stake, He would’ve said, “Take up your stake.” If He had been sent to the guillotine, He would’ve said, “Take up your basket,” the basket that catches the head when it is cut off. If He had to face a shooting squad, He would’ve said, “Take up your blindfold.” If He was hanged, He would’ve said, “Take up your noose.”
It sounds sacrilegious to say those things, “Take up your basket,” “Take up your noose,” but maybe it sounds wrong because we’ve made the cross into this holy symbol forgetting what it really was—a bloody, gory, gruesome death. And that’s what Jesus is asking us to do: deny ourselves, take up our electric chair, and follow Him. Surrender our will in loyalty to Jesus, take up the possibility of a bloody, gory, gruesome death, and live our lives for Jesus.
If you’re twisting in your seat, if you’re not sure that you like this idea, if you’re feeling like I’m exaggerating, then pay attention. Looking at the words of Jesus here in Luke chapter 9, where is the wiggle room? If you’re uncomfortable knowing that Jesus is asking you to be willing to die for Him, don’t blame me for the difficulty of following Jesus. These are the words of Jesus, and by remembering that the cross is an instrument of execution, that the cross is like the electric chair, then you have to realize Jesus is calling on you to make a true sacrifice in order to be His disciple.
What happens, though, if you are killed with Christ? You receive life, new life, life after death, life forever. Jesus says, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will save their life.” Jesus calls you to take up your electric chair, to remain His disciple no matter what the cost, because He brings true life. Jesus isn’t saying, “Well, they’ve got our backs to the wall. Doesn’t look like there’s any way out of this. We might as well die together.” No, when Jesus asks you to take up your cross, to take up your noose, he’s not admitting defeat. He’s saying that death in this life cannot defeat us. Through Jesus, we have salvation, we will be saved from death.
Our instinct is to fight against death, to do anything we can to avoid being killed. Jesus is asking us to put aside that instinct, to surrender our lives to Him, so that even if we could stop someone from killing us by denying Jesus, we wouldn’t. We would not reject Jesus. Jesus asks us to do this, because He brings true life, life after death, life with Him forever where there is no more death. Jesus asks us to deny ourselves and take up our plank, because He has eyes to see what we truly need, eyes to see the spiritual dimension, eyes to know God’s will. Jesus can see that death in this life will not mean defeat forever; Jesus can see that we will be raised again through Him; Jesus can see that we can take up our crosses with all confidence that death will not separate us from the love of God.
There’s been a lot of interest in a book and church program called The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. I know some of you have asked me about this, and I hope at some point to do a short Bible study about the book. I think the book is popular, because so many of us are asking, what is God’s purpose for my life? What does God want me to do with my life?
Looking at Luke chapter 9, it is clear how Jesus answered that question. Jesus was completely committed to God’s purpose for His life. Jesus states the purpose clearly when He says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus had a purpose-driven life, a life driven by God’s purpose, which was to allow His Son to die on the cross in order to pay the price for the sins of the world.
When Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” He is giving us our purpose for life. As His disciples, we should expect no less than to suffer and die for the faith. Our purpose in life is to remain committed to Christ, to set aside our own desires in order to follow Christ, and to tell others about being disciples.
I’m afraid that sometimes when people get excited about The Purpose-Driven Life it’s because they have grandiose ideas about what God wants them to do. We get it in our heads that God intends for us to be successful, popular, wealthy, important, famous, perfect, but when Jesus tells us that our purpose is to take up the electric chair, to take our place on death row, to be ready to be executed, He’s telling us to check our glorified visions of ourselves at the door.
Watch how quickly He shuts down the inflated egos of the disciples. In verse 20, Peter has just spoken for the Twelve Disciples, saying that they believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Messiah, the Promised, Anointed King that God sent. You’ve got to think that Peter and the disciples were feeling pretty good about this. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, the King sent by God to save His people, then that meant the disciples were the King’s Boys, His royal court, as it were. That’s a pretty good place to be. They’re in the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to say that He as the Messiah King will suffer, be killed and raised again. They, the disciples, the King’s Boys must also be prepared to be killed. After Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” I think the King’s Boys probably stopped patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves for being in the royal court. If you follow the conversation, Jesus just asked them to die. When He said, “Take up your cross,” He meant, “Be killed with me.” Not the kind of royal court those guys were expecting.
But you’ve got to ask again: what do you gain from dying with Christ, from taking up your cross, from going to the electric chair with Him, what do you gain? The King’s Boys, the disciples, all who follow Jesus will truly be in His royal court. That’s what we gain. It isn’t a royal court that the world recognizes; there’s no palace and jewels and riches for you right now. But when death comes and when Jesus raises you from the dead, you will live with Him for eternity in the royal court of God the Father. God will give you His kingdom. So when Jesus says, “Be killed with me,” He calls us to do this, because our suffering and death right now are nothing compared to the gift of eternal life we will receive at the end.
Before we go any further, we have to remember that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” He was speaking to everyone. Luke says, “And Jesus said to all.” He’s not just talking to the Twelve Discples, the inner circle. Jesus is saying that anyone who wants to be His follower, anyone who wants to be a Christian, anyone who believes in Him will take up their cross. This isn’t just something for the leaders or those who are more inclined to be heavily involved in the church. This isn’t just for the more spiritual people, the churchy people who go to a lot of Bible studies. You can’t make that distinction here. Jesus is speaking to everyone.
If you consider yourself to be a Christian, to be a believer in Jesus, then Jesus is talking to you—“Take up your cross, take up your electric chair, be prepared to suffer many things for the sake of My Name.” As Basil the Great, one of the early church leaders, said, you must be ready to die for Christ, be prepared to face dangers on behalf of Christ’s Name, and have a certain detachment from this life—living as if the things in this life weren’t as important as knowing Jesus.
That’s discipleship, but how often do we make being a Christian a lot easier than that, when really Jesus is saying that being a believer means going to the extremes?
Think about it: what do you have to give up to follow Jesus? When I met with 2 guys in the county jail this week for Bible study, I asked them that question. They said in order to follow Jesus they have to give up a quick temper, getting drunk, doing drugs, having sex, and their friends who are bad influences. In his own words, one of them said he needs to give up “criminal thinking.” And it’s true. To live for Jesus, these 2 guys have to stop thinking like criminals, thinking of ways to steal or get high.
I also heard them saying that it feels like they have to give up having fun. Drinking and smoking dope, that was fun. To live for Jesus they feel like they have to give up having fun. We talked about how Jesus doesn’t ask us to give up these things to make our lives boring. Jesus is calling us to follow Him to where there is true life, where we can taste real joy. One of them admitted how getting high seemed stupid now, to get a buzz and just sit there. We talked about how God wants more for our lives than this.
Yet, no matter how good it seems to stop doing drugs or stop getting drunk or stop hanging out with the wrong crowd, following Jesus still means giving up stuff that is hard to give up—habits, pleasures, goals, doing your own thing.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, those guys in jail have a lot of to get rid of in order to follow Jesus,” but none of us are any different. Those guys got caught, but some of you might be guilty of the same crimes. Those guys did something that society says deserves jail time, but we all do sins everyday that keep us from truly following Jesus.
If you are going to follow Jesus, what do you have to give up? What habits get in the way of your relationship with God? What goals do you have in life that keep you from living for God? What pleasures are more important than learning about God? When are you doing your own thing, making your own choices, rather than submitting to Jesus?
We all have a lot to give up in order to follow Jesus.
But we all have a lot to gain by following Jesus. Jesus offers us life, true life, a life today where we know what love means, where we know true hope, where we know forgiveness, where we know that death doesn’t mean defeat. Jesus offers us the gift of eternal life, to live with Him forever. All of these things in this life that seem so important, well, they seem pretty small compared to having a relationship with the Son of God, having hope and forgiveness, having the promise of living forever. Like my friend in jail said, getting high is stupid, having a buzz and just sitting there. “What’s the point?” There is no point which is why Jesus calls on us to give up those things and turn to Him.
There is no point in finding a purpose in life outside of knowing Jesus. Jesus is giving you a purpose-driven life right here, “Take up your crosses.” He is calling you to be His disciples, because He knows that through following Him, we will have peace, hope, forgiveness, love, comfort, and life. We will have salvation. Even if we die, we will not die forever. We’re with the true King who will bring us to His Kingdom to live forever.