In the gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Jesus sets out what kind of life and what kind of commitment are necessary for those who would follow him.
A feature of Saturday night television these days is the reality competition. At the moment we have The Voice which will soon give way to Britain’s Got Talent, and then in the autumn Strictly Come Dancing and The X-Factor. Then there are Dancing on Ice, I’m a Celebrity, Big Brother … the list goes on.
Not everyone watches such things, so for those of you who don’t – in these shows people at home will have different competitors they follow through the competition. And a major part of such shows is the public getting the chance to phone in and vote for their favourite competitors. And those who watch such shows will know that along with the opportunity to phone in, the government considers it important that everyone, when they phone, is aware of the terms and conditions.
And so, every week when it’s phoning in time, we have to be told: calls to the 11-digit number cost this much if you’re phoning from a BT landline but other networks may vary, and it will cost you more if phoning from a mobile. So if you’re phoning from a mobile call the 7-digit number which will cost you that much. You must ensure you have the bill payer’s permission, and if you are under 12 you must have the permission of your parent or guardian. Don’t phone yet as voting isn’t open and your voter won’t count but you may still be charged – and so on.
Terms and Conditions – anyone can pick up the phone and vote, but the government believes we must all have been told what the terms and conditions beforehand and so requires that they are read out live on air. It’s not enough to leave it to the individual to find out what the terms and conditions are on their own.
Terms and conditions. Today in our gospel reading Jesus tells, not just the disciples, but the whole crowd who are following him around what the terms and conditions are. And at one level the terms and conditions are far simpler to understand than those we are subjected to on reality television shows – they’re very short. And yet, on another level far more difficult to adhere to.
So what are Jesus’ terms and conditions? If any want to become my followers he says – and here come the terms and conditions – let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
At one level simple for there are just three – deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Note the order – you deny yourself first, then take up your cross, and then you follow Jesus. It’s not a case of following Jesus, and then at some point in the future doing the two difficult bits of self-denial and carrying a cross. Jesus wants you to know the terms and conditions before you follow him.
And it’s those words, such familiar words – take up your cross – that I want us to particularly focus on this morning. Because although it’s a phrase we all know, it’s not actually that simple is it. What does taking up your cross really mean?
Well – let’s start with what it most definitely does not mean. It does not mean that we may have to put up with minor inconveniences as Christians. It does not mean, for example, that because we might decide to give away a bit more money to charity than other people we have to go without the extra holiday this year. It does not mean that because we want to help the environment that we put up with using less plastic. Those things are good. But that’s not what Jesus meant be denying yourself and taking up your cross. It doesn’t even mean denying ourselves chocolate or wine during Lent.
We sometimes hear people use the phrase it’s a cross I have to bear when talking about an illness, or a difficult relationship, or some other personal difficulty. Those things can be hard to deal with, and are rightly times when we look to Jesus for strength and support. But that’s not what Jesus meant either.
What Jesus meant is very difficult for us to grasp. And yet what he meant would have been abundantly clear to those who heard him say it the first time, because they saw it regularly inflicted by the Romans. Take up your cross meant only one thing – be prepared to be crucified, to willingly face death. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Give everything up, be prepared to submit yourself to a painful and degrading punishment, and then follow me where I go. And that’s where the terms and conditions that go with following Jesus get scary – how many of us want to do that. Take up your cross says Jesus. For the cross is at the heart of our faith and take it up we must.
Almost every Christian sanctuary has one – a cross. They are made of all kinds of material – burnished bronze or wood-hewn timbers, polished brass like ours at the high altar, or wrought iron. Some may be depicted in glorious stained glass or a simple and plain glass cross-shaped window. Some are devoid of any figure, reminding us that Christ is risen and the cross is now empty. Others depict the broken body of the one who died for our sins, and still others depict the Christ in majesty reigning from the cross which becomes not a symbol of torture but throne for a King.
Wherever you find Christians you will find the symbol of the cross. There may well be other symbols – a pulpit, altars with candles, Bibles, statues, icons – but the one symbol that is present right across the whole broad spectrum of Christianity is the cross. A symbol of torture, of extreme suffering, that has become a symbol of victory. A symbol that reminds us that at the end of the suffering there is an achievement that made the suffering worthwhile. But it’s still a cross – a symbol of suffering and death. And the cross is not just the cross of Jesus – it is our cross too. Jesus tells us we must carry our own cross.
Now, none of us I suspect is going to go out actively looking for ways to suffer for Jesus. And suffering, in the terms that Jesus is talking about here by using this picture of carrying a cross, may mean all kinds of things. Yet at the heart of it is the sense of being prepared to give our whole life for Jesus. And we may find this a hard teaching but there is no getting away from it. If you would be my follower, says Jesus, these are the terms and conditions – you must deny yourself, take up your cross and and then follow me on my way to the cross.
No picking and choosing how we live as Christians – Jesus didn’t give a choice – the terms and conditions that he gives in our gospel reading are very clear. We don’t get to pick and choose where Jesus leads or how we should be expected to live as Christians. The only choice we get is whether to deny ourselves and pick up that cross and follow him – or not. We make the decision that we are prepared to accept the suffering that carrying a cross may bring with it, and where he then leads us is his decision. Because after that it’s up to him. And it’s worth doing because the end result is so worthwhile.
In the first part of the reading. Jesus has begun to explain to his disciples that he must undergo great suffering, he must be rejected by the Jewish leaders, he must die before rising again after three days. Peter can’t take this. He can’t see that the end makes the suffering worthwhile – that the resurrection can only be achieved because of the cross. And, to be honest, you can kind of see Peter’s point of view at this stage in Jesus’ ministry. Peter has no way of knowing what lies ahead or what is in Jesus’ mind.
However, Jesus’ response is as instant as it is clear – he rebukes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” It is not for Peter to question Jesus, it is not for Peter to tell him he is wrong. Jesus has no intention of listening to Peter’s point of view. Today someone would complain that Jesus wasn’t a very good listener. Perhaps Peter even went off grumbling, “He never listens to anyone else, he never does what anyone else wants!” It is never for any of us to question where Jesus leads – only, he says, to take up our cross and follow him.
The message that Jesus has this morning is unequivocal – hard, scary even, but unequivocal – deny yourself and take up your cross. Those of us in ministry find this difficult – I certainly do – so I’m guessing that you all do to! And it is not up to anyone else to carry your cross for you. Look at the reading – even Jesus isn’t going to be carrying it for you – he’s carrying his own cross. If you want to be my follower, he says, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
What that will mean for each of us will be different for each of us. And it’s never going to be easy – if it were, it wouldn’t be a cross. Jesus’ terms and conditions aren’t “Take up your comfy chair and follow me.” No, “Take up your cross,” he said.