where we consider what “take up your cross” really means
a sermon for Good Friday
The Rev’d Rhonda Waters
Take up your cross and follow me. That’s what Jesus told his disciples and those who would be his disciples as they gathered around to watch him heal diseases and cast out demons and go toe-to-toe with the Pharisees. Take up your cross and follow me.
How many of them, do you imagine, understood what he meant before this moment? How many of them, as they watched in horror as Jesus was forced to carry the instrument of his execution – how many of them had to discard lovely poetic explanations for what he meant, for what the cross represented, for why they were right to follow him in the way they chose to follow him?
How many of them, as they watched in horror as Jesus was nailed to a cross and lifted up so that his death might be a sign and a warning – how many of them wept not only for Jesus but for themselves?
When Jesus chooses to speak in plain language, it is often too much to bear.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Even then, Jesus owned his cross. It was not imposed upon him by Rome or the Temple authorities, although they were the ones who passed sentence. He took it up as an act of self-giving – knowing that the life he was called to lead; the life he was inviting others to lead – would surely lead to suffering and death for the sake of that life.
Because a life faithfully lived for the love of other people, the love of the world, necessarily includes suffering – and all life necessarily includes death.
This truth is revealed with an unpleasant starkness on this particular Good Friday when we are all called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, albeit in different ways. And to name all the ways as participation in Jesus’ suffering is not intended to suggest that all suffering is the same; all risks equal; all sacrifices interchangeable. But there is no need for competition – there are crosses enough to go round.
People working with and for the sick and dying; people working with and for those living in shelters and rooming houses and under bridges; people working in grocery stores and pharmacies under stressful circumstances and not knowing who might be bringing disease into their places of work.
People living in fear for vulnerable loved ones; parents and grandparents who won’t stay home or who are in retirement residences or care homes; dear ones who already suffer from illness or disability.
People who contracted COVID-19 and are sick; some of whom are dying of a disease that seems to barely touch some while it kills others; people who are mourning those who have died but have to wait to gather for funerals.
People who have lost income; mental well-being; physical well-being; relationships due to social distance and isolation. People who have had to postpone weddings; cancel long-awaited travel; give up classes.
People who are working long hours to learn more; to find solutions; to reach decisions.
Even, simply, people who have lost the ability to gather for prayer and song and sacrament.
People are suffering for the sake of the well-being of all; for love of the world – so that the greatest suffering may be lessened, especially for the most vulnerable.
This is, fundamentally, the sign of the cross; suffering entered into for love’s sake.
Jesus did not live his life for the cross’s sake – he lived his life for love’s sake and so willingly took up the cross that such a life demanded. His love for the people he dwelt amongst – people suffering from illness and oppression and division and guilt – led to a life that led to the cross. God’s love for the whole hurting world, led to a life that led to the cross.
Our love, for a world endangered by a virus we don’t yet understand, leads to a life that leads to the cross.
And today we are reminded that we are not alone with our cross for suffering entered into for love’s sake is transformed by that love – not made easier, necessarily, or less risky – but made holy because it is God’s own suffering.
Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus said. He is with us as we struggle under our burdens, before and beside us to show us the way.
And, lest we forget, the way leads not simply to death but through death to life – this is our hope and our faith.
So, this Good Friday, as we contemplate the cross, I invite you to claim it for yourself. Unite yourself to Jesus in his compassion and his love and his suffering. Offer your own sorrows and struggles and fears as a sacrifice to be made holy by God’s love in and for you. And then I invite you to wait, in faithful hope and longing, for the life that is to come.