Over the years people have given me lots of crosses. Necklaces of engraved sterling silver, wood from Jerusalem, art glass personally crafted for me, a Celtic cross reflecting my Irish heritage. And there are ones I have picked out. Each time either the giver or I described one of them, we said something well intended, but ironic-“Isn’t it pretty?” We know what we want it to look like. The wooden cross outside the church isn’t pretty now- it’s bare. Usually it’s lovingly draped in the color of the church year. But now it’s naked and bare. Honestly it looks beaten up, and dare I say it? Ugly. Maybe we cringe and can’t wait for it to be “nice” again. But whether we realize it or not, we begin to make the cross of Christ “our” cross. The one we want to see. We make it a reflection of ourselves and unintentionally a symbol of what we don’t want to sacrifice. We want to appeal to us.
At the 1987 Vancouver World's Fair, a Christian presentation used glitzy photography and flashing lasers to appeal to people to follow Christ. Writer Marva Dawn tried to explain her concerns about the production, but the attendant protested saying that the display had saved many people. Marva Dawn asked,”yes, they were saved, but saved by what kind of Christ?" She asks-When we only show appealing portrayals of Christ and his cross, do we nurture his identity of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? What about Christ who calls us away from the world's superficial things? How do we really see the Christ of the cross?
In Lent we’re to turn to renew our fundamental understanding and relationship to the Christ of the cross. The cross that proclaimed the ugliness of how we treat each other and of execution, suffering, rejection, sacrifice and death. We cringe as I am sure Peter did when Jesus spoke of his purpose and this fate, and began teaching the disciples by leading them toward the already long reaching shadow of his cross. He’ll repeatedly point to this and what it will mean to follow from now on-what will be necessary. Suffering.Rejection. Death. Sacrifice. Ugly frightening words. If we really let them sink in, they make us cringe. And I think it’s not that Peter fails to see, but that he stumbles over not wanting to. Mark Twain wrote: “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand." This is such a passage and we’d rather not let ourselves understand. If we do, we’d rather opt out.
Like the roller coaster I once rode. You climbed up several stories to get on board. The whole way to the top, people and signs warned you of what was ahead. That the first thing it did was a massive drop to within feet of the ground. Along the way signs reminded you and there was a “last chance to opt out” place just before the top- where you could say “never mind- not going there.” Because people wouldn’t really take it in til they were confronted with it. But as you got to the top and you heard the screams and saw the drop of the coaster, it changed.
I think we all have those places as disciples. Where we don’t want to understand but when we do- we wanna put down the cross and say, “nope, not going there,” telling God what is and is not going to happen. Asserting “our”selves. In such moments we become adversaries to God’s will. This is what happens when Jesus calls Peter “Satan”- it’s actually a way of saying- “you are my adversary. When you set your will on your desires, not God’s, you are my adversary.” Say “no” to your self will. Today we’re called again to this-to say “no” to our selves. Not by saying “no” just to get something so WE will benefit, or to be followers of Christ simply for what it offers US. Not by just taking up just shouldering our own worries in life. We’re asked to take on painful, redeeming actions voluntarily undertaken for others"[i] Because this is what the cross in the world will mean.
Here’s the cringing hard question- What might God be asking us to sacrifice, to say “no” to for the sake of the gospel?
Can we say “no” to our feelings of anger toward someone who has hurt us?
Can we say “no” to our belief something can only be our way?
Can we say “no” to our need for “personal time” when it leaves God out?
Can we say “no” to getting more good things when others are in need?
Can we deny ourselves the desire for OUR cross and OUR world and OUR Jesus?
The shadow of the cross of Christ is long.
In it, I see how often I am a stumbling adversary to Christ and the gospel. Even when I follow this path for awhile, I have limits and I find I am not walking with the cross but walk carrying my preconceived ideas and needs instead. I think I’ve got company. We can’t quite fully follow as Jesus asks.
So where is the gospel? One answer is to remember that before the section about "what we are to do" we hear Jesus' clear announcement about "what HE must do." Jesus stays the course on a way that will be spectacular but not power or glory or looking good. And he takes up this cross and path, even when we cry- may it not be so! But because of this cross, it’s not about our worthiness, or the beauty of our lives.
That shocking and ugly cross frees us to take up the symbol of the beauty of it all- God’s grace. Jesus keeps calling us back to this cross and leads us in this way- reminding us to let go of “our” cross we hold onto. To follow his path in the world in a continual response to what Jesus has done.
Proclaiming God’s saving grace alone makes it so- because Jesus defied our view of the world- for sake of all of the stumbling, the forsaken, the ugly and the messy- including ourselves.