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"Take Up Your Cross" 4th Sunday After Pentecost - June 25, 2023

Something remarkable happens in our Gospel reading from Matthew today. And I don’t mean the shocking revelation from Jesus that he did not bring peace but instead a sword. We’ll get to that later.

No, I mean the fact that Matthew uses the word cross for the first time in his gospel. Only, it is not a reference to The Cross that Jesus will die on, it is not a reference, not a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. Isn’t that curious and interesting? The first use of the word cross, and it isn’t about the crucifixion? The cross Jesus talks to his disciples about here is a way of following Jesus’ very footsteps, to imitate Christ. “Take up your cross” Jesus says to them. By placing this personal cross before the crucifixion in his Gospel, Matthew might try to show us that unless we take up our cross, we will not be ready to truly recognize Jesus Christ of The Cross. Unless we take up our cross we cannot begin to comprehend the way of Jesus Christ, who took up The Cross. Mission in the way of the cross comes before salvation by The Cross.

So, what does it look like to take up your cross? Anyone else ever wonder about that? When I was young, I had an image in my heart of people carrying invisible crosses. Sometimes, in my mind’s eye they become too heavy. People would put them down for a while, or forever. Now, what does that look like in real, unimagined form? How do we pick up our cross, follow in Jesus’ footsteps? Imitate Christ? To confess our faith and loyalty to Christ our Lord is certainly a necessity. However, it is not only faithful proclamation of the Gospel that is needed, but also faithful practice of the Gospel. The mission of the Gospel, the mission of the cross, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, to take on your cross means to align yourself with the marginalized people in the way Jesus did. And that faithful proclamation AND practice of the Gospel puts disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world. Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for their mission, and so is honest about the reality, the danger of this mission. Naming aloud the pain and suffering they will endure is the first step to freeing them from the tenacious grip of fear they must be in. After all, worldly powers can and will end your life. The very act of peacemaking, as shown in Jesus’ ministry, generates violence. We have more examples of this unfortunately. Martin Luther King Jr for examples jumps to mind. Why is that? Why does the act of peacemaking so often result in violence? Because healing, restoration, and a lack of fearing death threaten human powers, human institutions that are built on fear. Fear of being cast out, invisible, shamed and humiliated, on the margins, or even dead. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political landscape.

To pick up our cross, to imitate Christ is to align with exactly these people, the cast out, the invisible, the shamed and humiliated, the marginalized. Thankfully, Jesus does not simply leave the disciples and us hanging with the promise that following God will bring us sheer misery and potentially fatal physical harm. Instead, Jesus explains that while the worldly institutions have real power over us, over our bodies, they do not have God’s ultimate power. Only God has the power over both body and soul. And God’s love for us, Jesus assures us, is so complete that even every single hair strand is counted and saved. God exercises his ultimate power with mercy, grace, and great love. Therefore, we are not doomed to be ruled by fear. Without fear then, we can pick up our cross. And only by carrying our cross are we led to the salvation given to us by Jesus Christ crucifixion. To carry one’s cross is the prerequisite to being a disciple.

And as if that isn’t enough, finally, the call to discipleship renders secondary all other claims upon one’s identity and allegiance, even to family? “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” Jesus says. The sword here is a metaphor for the division Jesus ministry of peacemaking causes. And these divisions can often be felt most keenly and intently in our own families. And this is the real unsettling bit about this reading today, isn’t it?

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Say what? The way of love might make enemies of members of the same household? That can’t be right. Surely Jesus knows that blood is thicker than water and all that. Family first!

I found out something interesting. The whole saying about blood being thicker than water goes like this: The blood of the crucifixion is thicker than the water of the womb. The blood of the crucifixion is thicker than the water of the womb. In other words, our love and allegiance to God should indeed be greater than that of family.

However, it should be noticed that Jesus does not offer a simple rejection of the family. Obedience to Jesus, picking up our cross, imitating Christ, will relativize family relationships, not abolish them. By following God’s will the definition of the family unit is redefined. Depending on one’s individual and personal situation it may mean “family” loses its biological orientation altogether. However, by expanding the definition of the word family to those who share our faith, our love for God, to those who imitate Christ, and carry their cross alongside us, we enjoy an immense increase in family, a vast love encompassing and opening the whole world to us.

This is great. But it is so much easier said than done. None of this lets me forget my fears completely. None of this makes imitating Jesus and taking up my cross sound like fun. What is the answer to that fear? I have no one answer to that. But any answer must include a clear-eyed recognition of the façades of human power, even those rooted in the threat of death. We must be aware of the conflict and division the gospel inevitably produces. But most especially, we need the deep awareness and conviction that God is present in the world, in mercy and compassion.

Jesus did not prepare the disciples by assuring an orthodox understanding, it was not so much a matter of thinking the right thoughts, of grasping God on a cognitive level that Jesus passed on to them. Rather it is the mission of taking up our cross, of doing the work that we are assured will lead to our salvation. Will lead us to recognize Jesus Christ when he comes again.

It may be, that we are called to carry our cross, so that upon Jesus’ return, when he shows us his hands and feet and side we will recognize him, but not simply because these wounds show proof of his crucifixion. Because his wounds match our own wounds.

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