First Mennonite Church
March 17, 2019
A Cross-bearing People
Text: Matthew 16:21-28
From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus came to a point in his life where he openly began telling his disciples what awaited him. The future that awaited Jesus was a scary one and one which the disciples were not expecting. The disciples were expecting either a gradual takeover from Jesus of political power which would ultimately overthrow the Romans or a sudden eruption from heaven, in which Jesus would be declared king of the world. Therefore, when Jesus announced he was going to be handed over to the earthly rulers and be killed, they were shocked to their core. Just look at Peter’s reaction when Jesus said these things. Peter figured it out clearly and quickly. He knew the likely way Jesus would be killed was by crucifixion. That was the common way those in power dealt with troublemakers and those who dared to upset the system, things which Jesus obviously had done. So, Peter sort of dragged Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. “Are you out of your mind? Never, shall this ever happen to you!”
There is something we should remember about Peter. In this very same chapter in Matthew, Jesus asked his disciple who people were saying he was. After every attempt at identifying Jesus missed, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven (v. 16, 17). Jesus affirmed Peter for his inspired confession of Jesus, stating such knowledge could only come from the Father, meaning God. But upon Peter’s rebuking of Jesus, Jesus ordered, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” It is clear that even when Peter had rightly identified Jesus, Peter still did not understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Still more, what Peter did not know was that if he would dare to become a disciple of Jesus, he also would risk the same fate as his Master. Then Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus’ disciples are a cross-bearing people. Jesus’ disciples verge close to being masochists; they regard themselves of little value for the sake of loyalty to their Master. Jesus’ disciples are willing to pay a high price for a life of faithfulness. The disciple of Jesus must carry his cross and follow Jesus. Clearly, in our context as in many others, we have understood this as a metaphor and not in literal terms. But did Jesus’ disciples–Peter, James, John and the others, understood him that way?
Many times we hear people claiming to be carrying their cross because of something difficult they have to bear in life. Some believe that having to constantly accommodate or comply with a demanding boss or spouse is their carrying of their cross in life. Still some others believe their cross is a debilitating illness they have for a long time and that would not go away. We should know that carrying the cross implies suffering, which is not other than in our mortal body, but it is a kind of suffering precisely because of our commitment to Christ.
Before the cross became a symbol of religious identity for Christians, before the cross became something like a good luck charm, an amulet, or an accessory piece of jewelry, the cross symbolized the most hideous instrument of death. For the Romans, it was the preferred instrument of death for those who dared to upset the system. It was like the electric chair of today. (Just imagine Peter’s reaction if he could ever see one wearing a crucifix as a jewelry piece today. He would be stunned or embarrassed, especially if that one were a confessing Christian) So, when Peter and his friends heard that the condition for becoming disciples of Jesus was by picking up their cross and following Jesus, they knew what it meant. It was serious business. It meant complete surrender to their Master. It meant giving up all personal rights for the sake of faithfulness to Jesus. It meant even laying down their lives for the sake of their Lord.
When Jesus called on his listeners to “take up their cross” he was calling on them to put their head on the chopping block, to take that dangerous step of faith and to follow on his footsteps. From what we read in the book of Acts, the disciples did pick up their cross. James was killed by the sword. Tradition says Peter died crucified upside down. John was exiled and died alone.
My dear friends, often times the gospel of Jesus is marketed as the good news but without the cross. “Come to Jesus and he will give you a life free from troubles.” But according to Jesus, following him means putting him first in our lives. Jesus has died on the cross. His death is once and for all. Nobody has to die or can die for the reason he died, that is, for our redemption. But if and when we put him first in our lives, there will come occasions when we will have to choose between what we want and what we believe is the Christ-way—Christian way. There will be occasions when you wish you could go “tit for tat,” yet you will remember him who said, Do not take revenge, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:19). There will come a time when we have to decide who has control over our lives, Christ or we. As Jesus said to Peter, Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 22:18).
Each of us claims to be a disciple of Jesus. We are apprentices, learning from our teacher. And as every learner knows, there is a lot yet to be learned. In the process of this learning journey, it is important to know the words of Jesus. It is through his words that we can find guidance on how to follow him. There will be moments in which we might drop our cross and follow our own ways. Today we are being reminded of what is at stake. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
There can be no disciples if one chooses to avoid the cross. In other words, a discipleship without the cross is simply not possible.
It is through our deeds that we demonstrate whether or not we are carrying our cross and following Jesus. Let us, therefore, be conscious that everything we do is of great consequence. Losing self, our rights, and laying down our preferences for the sake of Christ might be our way of dying. But, according to Jesus, everyone who loses his or her life for his name’s sake will find it. Every deed will be rewarded accordingly. Let us decide each and every day to pick up our cross and follow our Lord. Let us do everything in his name and for his sake and we will find real joy and life. Amen!