The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018
Have you ever said the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” It’s not a positive sort of phrase, is it—a “cross to bear” is something bad, something difficult, or even just something annoying—a pain in the neck, we might say. Something to put up with. Something you’d rather not have to deal with.
I have to say, that phrase sticks in my mind when I hear these words of Jesus in our gospel reading today. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mk 8.34b) I immediately get images of dour-faced disciples, shoulders slumped and heads cast down, shuffling along almost angrily following Jesus—taking up the metaphorical cross they must bear—and none too happy about it, either.
Friday was the feast of the Holy Cross—a day when the Church remembers the roll of the cross, of Jesus’s own crucifixion, in salvation history. A day when we remember Jesus’s self-sacrifice—Jesus’s self-offering love—that changes the whole creation.
The feast itself is actually a commemoration of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 325 Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem and discovered, tradition tells us, the true cross on which Christ was crucified. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on that spot in 335 by Constantine and would house the relic of the true cross.
Even until today the image of the cross inspires devotion—the image, the physical form, of the cross helps us to connect to Jesus’s own suffering and death—to Jesus’s own self-offering. There are crosses everywhere—on our rood screen, on the front cover of the prayer book—sometimes we sign ourselves with the cross—you may even be wearing a cross as jewelry—a symbol of devotion, or perhaps just a fashion statement for some. Liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw has noted that, as an instrument of capital punishment, the cross is a strange symbol to wear around one’s neck—that it’s sort of like wearing a little model of an electric chair or a syringe to represent lethal injection. But that would be weird, right? Uncomfortable. I squirm even just envisioning it! And yet seeing the cross as a symbol, as a piece of jewelry, doesn’t inspire the same feeling. We have come to understand something positive about the cross—not that it is an instrument of death, but that, transformed by Jesus, it is seen as an instrument of new life.
The disciples wouldn’t have had the benefit of that image of the cross, that particular hindsight, though—they didn’t know about the crucifixion because it hadn’t happened yet. They didn’t know about the resurrection—because it was in the future. They couldn’t even get comfortable with thinking about Jesus suffering—this Jesus, the healer, the miracle worker, whom Peter had just named as Messiah—the anointed one, the chosen one—surely he would lead Israel into a new day. Surely he would be the savior of his people.
And that’s why, when Peter hears Jesus talking about the suffering he will undergo, when he hears Jesus talk about his own death, Peter takes him aside—and what must he say to him? Jesus, you can’t be talking like this. What’s wrong? This is not what people want to hear—you’ll lose these folks. They won’t believe you’re the messiah if you keep talking like this. Can’t you tell them about victory? How you’ll save Israel? How you’ll triumph?
But Jesus’s work is not limited to earthly power, to temporal leadership, or even to a ministry of miracle wonder-working. Get behind me, Satan, he says to Peter. Jesus’s leadership—his ministry—his life—is bound up in his own self-offering—his death on the cross—the great love that he has for the world, for his disciples, for you and me—that cannot be stopped even by death. The love that will hang from the cross but then rise again from the empty tomb. The love that will change everything.
But that day, Peter wasn’t able to understand. And the disciples must have been confused. They didn’t know, as St Helena did, about the cross on which Jesus would suffer and die. They didn’t have this symbol that means not death but life. They didn’t know about the cross and the empty tomb.
Our minds go to the cross of Good Friday because we know the story—we know about Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. But commentator Reginald Fuller suggests that, in fact, the Greek word stauros, which we translate cross, might have, at that time in history, been thought of not as a physical structure, a cross, but rather as a cross-wise letter of the Greek alphabet—the Tau (T ) drawn as a mark, as a brand on animals, to denote ownership. That makes sense, Fr Fuller says, because the disciples wouldn’t have already known about the cross Jesus would carry. Depending on how we understand Jesus’s own knowledge of his impending death, it’s possible Jesus wasn’t thinking about a physical cross but about these markings.
These marks, or brands, were sort of like the ear tags that marked our cows when I was growing up. My father explained that these were just like earrings for the cows—that it didn’t hurt any more than piercing an ear—but it identified the cows—whose they were, which cow they were.
When understood as a forward-looking thing rather than reading backwards from Good Friday, the mark begins to take a different shape. Instead of thinking about “bearing the cross” as an onerous task, we might understand it as “bearing a mark”—of knowing whose we are. We are after all “sealed by the holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We bear the mark of Jesus on our foreheads, on our souls—we belong to him.
What does that mean, to live as though we belong to Jesus? As though we are marked by him? Are we more aware of the love that he has for us when we think of that indelible mark on our foreheads? Are we more conscious of our own actions as representing Christ in the world? Can we re-evaluate our actions, maybe even make different choices, when we realize we belong to Christ?
Sometimes when I’m driving down the highway I’ll occasionally see a parked police car. Apparently if you park an empty police car by the side of the road—with no officer in it—rates of speeding in that area will go down. People will slow down, obey the speed limit, because they think they are being watched.
I wonder if that same effect applies to our faith. Would we act differently if we knew the world could see that cross emblazoned on our foreheads?
This is a good thought exercise—to remember the mark of Christ on us—as a devotional act—a way to turn our attention to Christ—a way to pattern our lives after him. An opportunity to act out of the love that he has given us—to live out our lives in devotion to him.
But I’m not sure the project stops there, however. The stauros as mark is a good theory. But I wonder if Jesus suspected how he might die—after all, there were other messianic claimants, even people who were inciting rebellion, some of whom may have been executed by the Romans. Might he have suspected the crucifixion that the Romans had in store for him? If so, that puts a little bit of a different gloss on things. What if Jesus meant exactly what he said. Take up your cross.
If taking up our cross means not a burden but a joy, knowing whose we are, being conformed to the life of Christ, living out love in his name, that’s one thing. But if taking up our cross means the sort of cross that Jesus was crucified on, that’s a whole different matter. And I think he might have just meant that.
After all, he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8.35)
And we know from the news that indeed over the past years, each and every year, far too many folks have been killed for their Christian faith. There have been some martyrs. I give thanks that I am not one of them. I feel pretty safe being a Christian in New Haven, and I hope you do, too.
But Jesus is asking for my life, nonetheless, and yours too. He is asking for our lives—lived out in the world. Asking us to live for him. Perhaps he’s not asking us to die for him, though he was willing to die for us. But he is asking for our lives. What would that look like, to give your life to Jesus?
What is it that you live for? What does your life mean?
What about work, for example--Working to meet your own needs is a good thing, right? We need somewhere to live, after all. We need food to eat. But what if we flipped the question—what if we were working for Jesus? To take care of a body that belongs to Jesus? Rather than working to get what we want, working to get the things that Jesus wants—which includes food for ourselves, but also food for other folks. What if we thought about the life we have as not belonging to us, but about belonging to God?
After all, we have in our baptisms died to sin and self and risen to new life in Christ—what if we understood that not as a metaphor—but as an actuality. That our bodies are not ours but belong to Christ.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
We learn in the resurrection that not even death is to be feared. Jesus takes up his cross—and he rises from the grave—his love cannot be stopped even by death. When we live in Christ, when we love in Christ, the cross is not a burden—not a chore—but a freedom—a freedom to acknowledge whose we are—to put down the things that bind and hold us—to let go of the anxieties that shackle us—to throw off the things that are death—and to live in new life with Christ.
You and I are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are called to live out our lives in a cross-shaped life—in the pattern of Christ. But make no mistake, Jesus is asking for our whole lives—not just part of them, not just an idea. He wants all of us.
When you come to the altar today, what will you put down, let go, let fall away so that you may live as Christ’s own in the world? What will you receive from him, as he fills you with his life giving Spirit? What will your life be like when you take up the cross? When you follow him?
 Reginald Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984, p 348-350.