Our Cross (8:30am)
Topic: Relying on the Cross Scripture: Psalm 118:19–118:29, Galatians 2:20–2:21
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, there were pilgrims from all over the Roman world. They had journeyed to the Holy City for the Passover. They could not have come in the expectation that they would see the Messiah, but somehow many recognized Jesus and hailed Him as the One. In fulfillment of prophecy, the Lord came riding on a donkey. This sign of humility was in strong contrast to the Roman custom of vast displays of power, with conquerors and generals on white stallions or perhaps being carried by others. Humility was not their forte. Jesus came representing not the love of power, but the power of love.
This day of triumph, with lots of supporters, had embedded within it a theme that would become increasingly prominent through the course of the week. The cheering crowd would drift away, dwindling by Friday afternoon to a handful of loyalists who stood near him at the cross as he was dying. Ever since, the cross has been the chief symbol of Christianity. It’s our brand. It stands for Christ’s self-emptying and self-giving. It says, “We follow him.”
In one of the great texts of scripture, Paul declares, “I have been crucified with Christ.” Taken in isolation, it’s a shocking statement. It’s not meant to be taken literally. There were two thieves who were crucified with Jesus. Paul wasn’t one of them. Paul of course is referring to the theology—the mystery—that declares our oneness with Christ in his death, and our oneness with Christ in his resurrection.
Paul pushes it further. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Try applying that one to ourselves—we who so often prioritize self: my needs, my desires, and my opinions. Leslie and I celebrated our 31st anniversary while in Hawaii last week. Through all those years we’ve had a running argument over something really important: air conditioning. I like it, she doesn’t. She thinks I take it to an extreme. I’ll leave it to you to guess who wins most of those arguments. Do my needs take priority—or do I think of others first? Paul’s sweeping statement convicts us merely by saying it: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
For those of us who are not the apostle Paul, it is a reality declared by God—accomplished fact, done deed—and also a truth that we are to grow into for the rest of our lives. I suspect that even Paul, for all his seeming confidence, had to struggle with it. People who think they have already achieved perfection should consult with those nearest to them: family, friends, and co-workers. See what they have to say about it. The old “self” that died on the cross has a way of coming back to life and reasserting itself. Our need for forgiveness and grace is ever-present. So we must continually return to the cross, seek forgiveness of our sins, and ask for renewal in Christ.
The work of the cross goes on. It can help a lot when we cooperate with this inner work of God. There is also an outer work of the cross. Many people have a cross to bear in their lives. As pastors we marvel at what some of God’s best friends have to endure, and how faithfully and cheerfully they do so. Illness that seems to have no end…family and kid-related issues that go on and on…work related challenges: these are crosses to bear.
A man named Simon of Cyrene (now Libya) was forced by the Romans to carry the very cross of Christ. The Savior had become too exhausted to continue climbing the hill under its weight. Interestingly, Simon’s two sons—Rufus and Alexander—are named in Mark’s gospel, though Mark’s gospel mentions few others by name. Scholars conjecture that the two sons would have been recognized as leaders of the church at that stage. The mention of them establishes a direct link with someone who literally carried the cross. “Our dad helped Jesus carry the cross.” Perhaps that incredible experience led Simon to become a disciple after the resurrection, and his sons followed his example of faithfulness.
Most of us have some kind of cross to carry up life’s hill. Sometimes we manage to do so with faith and even good cheer. When we don’t quite exhibit those qualities—when we’re grumpy or discouraged or too tired to go on, God is still with us. When we can’t carry the cross, the cross will carry us. Like Footprints in the Sand, the Lord will carry us.
Lastly this: there are crosses we are given to carry in mission. We may choose to accept, or not. Paul wrote, “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” That knowledge empowered him to all kinds of missional activity. We were deeply moved by the witness of Bob and Kristi Rice who spoke here as they prepared to go to South Sudan. That nation that matches Joseph Conrad’s description in Heart of Darkness—originally referencing Congo, where Bob and Kristi also ministered. Yet, South Sudan is also close to the heart of God. The Rices are carrying the cross alongside the people there. We can uphold them by our prayerful support.
Recently I met a little girl, age 3, who was very well-spoken. Her name was Vera—she told me three times to be sure I got it. She had on a nice new pair of shoes that had been given to her by her grandma, and she wanted to know what I thought of them. I told her I thought they were beautiful. Vera probably doesn’t know that her daddy is subject to deportation at any moment, and could disappear from her life. Her family lives in fear because of this possibility. Millions are in that same situation and would dearly love to be accepted as citizens but there is no path for them to get there. So families are being torn apart and they have a cross to bear. My heart breaks to think about it, as I tried to imagine myself in the “shoes” of Vera’s dad, and mom, and Vera herself. Maybe by somehow standing with them, I can help carry that cross.
We call it Holy Week. It has begun. Christ will follow his calling to the end, for he knows it is his Father’s will. He invites us to receive, to have faith, to know that his cross is our cross, his death is our death, and his life is ours, too. He says, “Whoever would be my disciple must deny herself, deny himself, take up the cross, and follow me.”