“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.” Mark 8:34b-35 (NRSV)
What does “taking up our cross” mean, anyway? So often I hear someone say, “It’s my cross to bear” meaning that it is an unwanted burden that has been thrust on them, and they have no choice in the matter. This kind of thinking seems to indicate that we have no choice about our crosses, and it also seems to be a rather negative approach to following Jesus.
I think it’s helpful to look at Jesus’ cross bearing. Was it unwilling? I suppose we could say that he certainly didn’t want to carry the cross or die if we look at his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to remove the cup of death from him. And in Jesus’ day, anyone who carried a cross was headed for death, so it wasn’t exactly a feel-good idea to say that those who follow Jesus were supposed to take up their cross and follow him.
So, what is Mark talking about here? I think one key section of this passage follows in verse 56: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Eugene Peterson writes it this way: “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Things, possessions, money, people, prestige, power, money, and so forth are things that can have a great hold on our lives and become more important than anything else, especially God. Things get in the way of being in a whole, healthy relationship with God as well as each other.
This morning I heard a news article on the radio as I was driving to work that said people who become richer become more self-centered. They are more likely to cheat, lie, be unethical, and “take candy from a child” than others who are not very wealthy. Of course, this isn’t true of everyone who has a lot of money because we have a lot of caring, philanthropic people who use their money to help others. The point is that what we have in material goods can become a burden if we make it more important than our relationship with God and others, and it can turn us a different direction from “taking up our cross.”
Jesus took up the cross willingly, not because he was looking forward to what came with it, but because he loved us. His love was greater than anything we could ever imagine – strong enough to lay down his life for us. The cross we are called to take up isn’t one that it dumped on us whether we like it or not. The cross we are called to take up is walking with Jesus through life. When we take up a cross, though, we have to let go of those things that we can no longer carry. We are the only ones who can name those things in our lives that become such a burden we drag them around and don’t have room for God in our lives.
Taking up our cross means we follow Jesus, the Christ with joy! It isn’t a burden, but a privilege. We have the privilege of caring about others, of setting an example for others, of making the choice to offer care, compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love where the world would cling to its “things,” its ideas of what is important. As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol when the ghost Marley was talking to Ebenezer Scrooge, “[Humankind] is our business.” Following Jesus means being in relationship because God is all about relationships. It may seem hard for some people, yet it’s what we have been created to do as God’s children.
In Matthew 11:28-30, we read, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV) Jesus reminds us that we are not on the journey alone. When we take up the cross, our burden is easy, it’s light. When we take up the cross, we are given a way to follow and companions on the journey. When we take up the cross, we do so knowing that we aren’t alone on the journey, and it is a journey of joy. As we continue through Lent, let us clean out the “junk” of our lives and lay it down so we can carry the cross of faith, hope, and love with joy!