Matthew 16 verse 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Very often these days when I think about a sermon for Sunday I look back in the file to see if I have addressed the text before. Matthew 16 verse 24 is a challenging verse and I was slightly surprised to discover that I hadn’t preached on it. But when I came to reflect on the text and its implications I wasn’t surprised anymore. Good news? Is this good news? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to be his followers they must go all the way. That is to say they must submit to carry the means of their own execution, to endure the mockery and scorn of the crowds and to be put to death in hideously prolonged and painful manner. That is what is meant by taking up the cross. It doesn’t bear thinking about so we don’t think about it.
How might we avoid the message of these words and similar ones in the gospel record?
One method is to pretend that Jesus never said it or if he did say it it was as a kind of rhetorical flourish. Sometimes we might say to someone; and if you fail your head will roll. Nobody seriously believes that public decapitation will be the result of a poor performance.
Another tactic of avoidance is to refer to a text like Luke 9 verse 23 where Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross daily. Nobody can take up their cross on a daily basis. Remember what the cross means. It’s not to be compared to a minor physical handicap, a disagreeable boss or an unhappy relationship.
A similar approach is to treat the cross as a kind of metaphor for sacrificial living and loving. Jesus is teaching us to live unselfishly promising that if we do we will live more satisfying lives. No doubt that is true. Indeed I have said it myself in one form or another many times. But that’s not what is being said here.
What is being proclaimed here is a complete revolution in human affairs. The coming of Jesus marks the end of the old order-the former mode of life. Jesus calls upon his disciples then and now to embrace death to the old order in order to receive life in the new order. Through this revolutionary act the old order is judged and found wanting. This is a basic point not just in Matthew but in all the gospels. Discipleship is costly and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. For baptism, an event not usually associated with death in most people’s minds a key text is Romans 6 verse 3 where St Paul writes: “Do you know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Well most people don’t know but we need to know and we need to keep the idea in the forefront of our minds.
What is the cost of not knowing? Christianity is turned into a benevolent form of do-gooding according to the precepts of the present time. It becomes what I like to call in my more cynical moments: political correctness with hymns. Such a philosophy of moral improvement, kindly sentiments and humanitarian ideals all associated of course with Christian texts and the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher pushes out the historical Christian faith with its radical demands. This has been summed up in a famous quotation, one of my favourites: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (full reference supplied on request)
A religion based on earnest self-improvement and effort is ultimately unsatisfying and depressing. We need to be in Charles Wesley’s words ransomed, healed restored and forgiven and then, Charles Wesley again, “we can show by deeds that our sins are forgiven”. And thus we show that we have passed from death to life and our hearts are filled with joy. Anything else is too gloomy for words.
We proclaim Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. And one way in which he comes again is through our acts of love for one another. As Mother Theresa said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”. Nice one Tess!
If we are honest we know that Christianity has now become a counter-cultural movement. That’s nothing to be upset about; indeed we should embrace this moment with joy. What I find exasperating is the sight of Christian leaders refusing to acknowledge this and claiming for themselves all kinds of ancient privileges and establishment status. No brothers and sisters you were not called to be Chaplains to Pontius Pilate and his bodyguard.
When I was growing up all my family were Christians of one kind or another. That generation has passed and now I find myself in a tiny minority of believers. I must be careful what I say if I am not to attract comment such as: you don’t believe that do you! I have also discovered that I am a more traditional and orthodox Christian than my parents. I find myself saying quite frequently: “and that is what Christians have always believed”. Such sentiments are not always acceptable even today among thoroughly modern Methodists.
Most of us when we grow up want to embrace modernity and serve the present age with body and soul. Slowly I became disillusioned with this approach finding the present age to be a spiritual desert however much it promised by way of amusement and entertainment in “vanity fair”. For me the Christian faith came to seem more and more attractive and to offer answers at both the political and the personal level. But I still wanted to have my cake and eat it-to save my life for myself. Then I encountered texts like todays and I saw the light. Love bade me welcome. I put my doubts to one side and I followed what I now know to be the true light. Now I am quite sure, despite the cost, following Jesus is the best way.