The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
31 August 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Each section of the Gospels read in worship, or many parts of Scripture for that matter, contains treasures that have traveled through the centuries and become fixtures in our own common speech—words that are well known and often thought of. At least in the case of today’s Gospel text, this is surely the case when it comes to that image of taking up one’s own cross—the qualification of the true disciple. Of course the rather bland ways it appears in our common speech, where “the cross I bear” refers to an incompetent bridge partner, or taking out the trash, makes one question how well the saying has traveled: all the more reason to reflect on it again. There are probably ways to read today’s larger Gospel text which force the eye to settle on some other less troublesome element. But if one wants to explore this story’s highpoint, its main point, the cross cannot be avoided. The rest of the details only make sense when the cross has been taken up. So, what does it mean, “to take up one’s cross”?
To get the atmosphere right, we have to recap some of the highs and lows of St. Peter in the story told by the Gospel writers. For those who think the Gospel writers were all somber theology and no play, a close reading of Matthew and Mark and their depiction of Peter could change their mind—in the long memory of these two writers especially there were some dominant impressions of Peter, which when strung together long after the events, to form the Gospel narrative, put him in a rather compromised, embarrassing position. Just before our Gospel lesson, Peter reached what might have been his absolute high point as a disciple. When Jesus directed the popular question about the identity of the Son of Man to the disciples—But who do YOU say that I am?—it is Simon Peter’s answer that is remembered, as he is made to announce singlehandedly: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” And what follows in Matthew’s version of the story is Jesus’ exalted affirmation of Peter, recipient of revelation, the rock upon which the church would be built. Not a bad letter of reference for one who would become the first Pope. But immediately following this bit of celebration, after instructing them not to tell a soul that he is the Messiah, Jesus begins to unpack for them the true meaning of Messiahship, and we enter today’s text.
The language makes several things clear. This is an event in which Jesus is opening up for them something they had never imagined. Jesus undoubtedly went to Isaiah and the Psalms to construct for them something completely outside of their purview—that the Messiah of God would suffer, die, and be raised again to life. And this literally appalled them. And just as appalling would have been the notion that this was in some way God’s will—which is precisely the implication of that little word “must.”
It’s as if Peter has assumed the role of the director of a play and Jesus, after mentioning Jerusalem, has gone completely off script, and even that brief reference to resurrection cannot rescue the matter for Peter. He takes Jesus aside to reprove him—an amazing act for one who has just confessed Jesus to be the Messiah and here calls him “Lord.” What our text translates as “God forbid” is really an abbreviation of “May God be gracious to you,” but in context has the sense of: “No, no, no Jesus…you’ve got it all wrong.” And as Jesus responds, Peter the Rock becomes Peter the Satan. And all who would be disciples are told to deny themselves and take up the cross. What does it mean to take up one’s cross?
By the time Matthew writes, the cross would have begun to acquire the symbolic and theological value that we give to it today—the effective, sacrificial death of the Son of God. The cross and salvation go hand in hand. But for Peter and those first disciples who heard Jesus utter those words and intimate the Messiah’s impending death, the cross was the cruelest form of execution the Romans could think of. They didn’t invent it, but they’d turned crucifixion into a horrific art form. It was reserved for enemies of state, slaves, non-Romans, non-persons; designed to inflict as much pain as a human could possibly stand; designed to prolong the suffering; and designed to utterly humiliate the victim. And all of the disciples had seen crosses, hung with their hapless victims, on the hills outside many a Judean or Galilean town. It was no symbol, no metaphor—at least not the kind of metaphor they wanted anything to do with. It was serious business; it was death. And yet Jesus had as much as defined his own Messianic destiny with a cross—and not just his own destiny but that of his followers as well. What does it mean to take up one’s cross?
The reference to self-denial and the earlier indictment of Peter’s failure to see things from God’s perspective give us some help. Taking up the cross will not involve self-preservation as it is normally thought of. A complete revaluing of . . . well, of everything is involved. But Peter himself, a bit more of his ambivalent story, provides the angle I want to suggest. Peter had just hit a low point, but his lowest was still to come. On the night of his betrayal, just after the Last Supper and just ahead of Gethsemane, Jesus warned the disciples that they would be scandalized because of him—they would deny him and fall away. We all know Peter’s response: “Maybe all the rest, but not me.” Even more dramatically, Jesus predicts Peter’s specific threefold denial. And Peter, now almost in an arguing match with Jesus, says, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But from the time of Jesus’ arrest, what is conspicuous in the scenes of Jesus that follow is Peter’s absence, his distance from Jesus, and indeed that too of all the disciples. What does it mean to take up the cross?
It is Peter’s absence that gives us part of the meaning of a phrase that takes a lifetime to understand. It is in the cross of Christ, better considered perhaps at another time in our year, that God was most present, or most poignantly and significantly present among humankind. It was as Jesus ironically cried out that God had forsaken him that God was in fact experiencing, in human flesh, the depths of authentic human despair. In the cross God was most fundamentally present in the incarnate Son. And in contrast to this divine-human presence in Jesus is the absence of Peter. In this time of Jesus’ supreme crisis—a time defined precisely by the cross and crucifixion—Peter and his colleagues could do nothing else than be absent. Yet the core meaning of taking up the cross is to be wholly present in Christ. At that moment of crisis, presence could well have meant the disciples’ crucifixion alongside of Jesus. This was often the case with revolutionaries in the Roman Empire. Peter would die on a cross one day; and in our times in some places godly women and men face death by standing with the marginalized on the wrong side of power, naming injustice and paying the full price for it.
But what does it mean to take up the cross in our space of relative peace and quiet? Is the qualification no longer binding? In the lesson read from Romans, we can see how Paul transposes the key from crisis to calm: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”; words describing the act we make to render ourselves present in Christ to God; words which the celebrant will transpose once again: “And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” In this way, we activate again our presence in Christ “that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
Taking up the cross then and now, at its core, means to be present in Christ; it means to embody Christ in our bodies, with our lives, in the values we live by and uphold, in the freedoms and equalities we are present to defend; in the lengths we will go to put the welfare of others ahead of our own. To make him present in the places we inhabit. To be his presence individually and together, and to decide against absence—this is to take up the cross.Amen.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner