“Cross Words”

Mark8

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“In the Cross of Christ I glory…”

The words of this hymn 441 will not come naturally to most Episcopalians.

Of course, we know that Jesus died by crucifixion. We acknowledge that Christ voluntarily offered himself for the good of humanity—and we followers of Christ admire that sacrifice.

But our tradition doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about what is technically called, “the theology of the Cross.” While we are aware that at in some way, Christ “died for our sins,” this idea isn’t central to the faith of the average Episcopalian.

Nor do we find the corollary of this belief appealing: the idea that as we are followers of Christ, so we should offer ourselves as Christ did. Yet this second idea is undeniably present in the Gospel for today.

Here, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”

Christ’s words are unambiguous–and sobering. Indeed, most of the original twelve disciples who accepted his teaching eventually died for their faith.

Contrast this message with another view of faith. Experts in church growth advise the church to present a version of Christianity that is “user-friendly.” We need to do that if we want to add members. If our religion appears to be too demanding, skeptics and agnostics will simply go about their business, ignoring the option of faith.

One successful evangelist, Joel Osteen claims that God wants us to have “our best life now.” He tries always to have a smile on his face because he rejects any religious attitude that might seem discouraging or defeating.

And, after all, there are many passages in the Gospels where Jesus gives the most upbeat of messages. He promises his disciples that the Kingdom of God brings “abundant life”: he says that God will give them freedom and peace, and rest for the soul.

So where do the crosses come in? Does Jesus really mean that the only way for us to gain our lives is to lose them?

And even if these words of Christ should become our priority–even if the true faith were essentially a matter of giving up our lives, would we really want to adopt this faith? Wouldn’t we prefer just to try to be good people, performing the odd act of kindness when convenient and trying to avoid major sins like murder? Isn’t religion supposed to be a source of love and joy?

Well, if the primary purpose of this life is to connect with something beyond ourselves, then sacrifice may turn out to be an essential part of the package. Maybe we can’t live a purely self-centered life and reach true happiness…

I recently sat next to a person at a dinner party who had been raised without belief. He had then married a woman who also had never practiced any religion. The man said he so rarely met a member of the clergy that he wanted to take advantage of the moment and ask me some questions.

He and his wife had decided to let their two sons make their own religious choices and so they hadn’t given the the boys any religious training. But now the man was questioning that decision. His wife had recently died, and the man now realized that his sons had no religious context that could give meaning to their mother’s death.

Now, religion can’t simply be put on like a new coat. I pointed out to the man that religion of any kind requires learning how to participate in ritual, so that one knows what hymns are and what prayer is. It also involves organizing one’s life in a certain way.

In other words, becoming religious is like learning a language. That’s why it helps to be brought up in a given faith; learning any language is easier when you are young.

Yet even those of us who are familiar with the language of Christianity might still be uncomfortable with the idea of taking up our “crosses” and sacrificing our lives in the service of Christ.

I don’t have to think about taking up my cross. But one way that I am sometimes able to overcome my reluctance is to use another word for sacrifice: “offering.”

Notice that “offering” is user-friendly. After all, in secular terms, we welcome the “offerings” in the menu of a good restaurant or the “offerings” on the schedule of a theatre company. While the chef in the restaurant may be sacrificing a lot of time and energy in order to produce his menu items, he does so gladly. While the actors in the theatre have to work night and day to learn their lines, they’re happy that they have plays to perform.

Indeed, the best optimistic theology recognizes that we Christians need to put something into our religion if we are going to get anything out of it. Joel Osteen suggests that when we’re feeling sad or discouraged, a way to feel better is to do something for other people. Our offerings of help distract us from our personal problems and lead us to values greater than our personal moods.

Granted, “offering” in this case isn’t exactly in the same category as “losing your life!” Indeed, it’s curious that we are so uncomfortable with the Cross when, at the same time, we in America have broad freedoms of religion that many Christians lack.

All the more reason then to take another look at the Cross. And to look at our own crosses, too.

All of us—even the happiest—have burdens to bear. And that means that all of us—even the unhappiest—have something to offer to God.

This offering doesn’t approach the offering of Christ on his Cross. But when, for example, someone I know has hurt me, I have an alternative to just letting the wound fester.

I can tell myself that this is one of those pains in life that I will have to deal with. I might have avoided it but I didn’t. I know that God didn’t plan for me to have it. But here it is.

It’s a burden I will have to bear, one way or another. If I follow Jesus, then I can see my burden as a spiritual cross and I can at least glimpse the possibility that surviving social pain will make me a stronger person and a more compassionate friend. And so, instead of losing, I will gain.

As the hymn reminds us,

“Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,

by the cross are sanctified;

peace is there that knows no measure,

joys that through all time abide.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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