Taking Up the Cross

It is not your job to defend Jesus. It is not your job to protect him at all costs -- he is not the President, and you are not the Secret Service. It is not your job to rescue him. It is not your job to keep him from harm. Get behind him, where he can keep you from harm.

It's as though Jesus said to Peter, "If I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, let me do my job. Trust me."

You can't get to the cross ahead of Jesus, you can't go there for Jesus, and you can't get in his way. Those are facts: you simply can't. It's not possible. It wasn't even possible for Peter, who was there! And yet Peter is still going to go through all the trouble of sneaking in to the scene of the trial, bluffing his way past guards and people who think he looks familiar, because he has to do something -- or Jesus is going to die! And then the cock crows, and Peter learns what Jesus was trying to tell him in the gospel today: Jesus' life is worthless, if he doesn't do what God does. What's to save? What could we conceivably give Jesus that would make up for his failure here? How could he still be what we hope and confess and know that he is: the Son of the Living God, the Messiah? How could he do what desperately needs to be done?

That's not to say that God sent Jesus into the world for the express purpose of dying on the cross. That wasn't the point -- but the Messiah is certainly not here to avoid death and confrontation if they come in the line of duty. And so it wasn't necessary for Jesus to die on the cross. But it was necessary for him to be in that place, at that time, among those people, and to do the right things. To do the things God does: to save, to rescue, to heal, to mend, to feed, to love. To make things right where they are broken. To demonstrate that this God truly is in charge, and truly does have power to save -- and to show exactly what that power looks like in action. The power of God is not just the miraculous. It is the stubborn, insistent faithfulness of the Creator, seen in love for the creature. Demonstrated as love to the very end, even if it means painful, gruesome, ignominious death.

There's an episode of M*A*S*H in which Radar O'Reilly notices that a patient's IV has disconnected. He tells the surgeon, who by way of thanking him says "You may have just saved his life." A while later, Radar -- who is on cloud nine because of this -- recounts the incident to Klinger, who isn't so impressed. Klinger asks, "Is he still in the Army?" "Of course." "Some saving."

It's important that Jesus isn't just a miracle man. That he isn't just a man blessed and sent by God. In fact, that's part of the "Messianic secret" in Mark, and Matthew keeps it. We don't go around shouting that Jesus is the Messiah just because he does cool things. "Some saving." Yes, Jesus makes us whole people in a broken world. But the job doesn't stop there. It isn't enough that Jesus do good things for the people around him, on his way through a few regions of Palestine surrounding the Jordan. The path goes on. The path of doing God's work in Judea leads inexorably through Jerusalem. It leads inexorably into conflict with human authorities -- even and especially with the authority of the people of God. Because the voice and actions of Jesus are the true presence of the Creator in creation. The Author, and the one authorized. And so it figures that the intersection of that vertical with this horizontal will result in a conflict that puts Jesus on a cross. Because he won't bend, except to raise those who are bowed down. And he won't stop, except to heal and to teach. And he won't recant. God is awfully stubborn like that. Implacably faithful. Unstoppably caring.

So Jesus knows, even today, even at the opposite end of the Jordan, that he is going to take up the cross, for us and for all creation. It's simple math. But we don't know that. We don't see that if he keeps going, there's only one way this is going to end. It looks preventable. Surely, he doesn't have to die! [No, but we had to kill him.] And because we don't see it, Jesus tells us, "get behind me." Why? Small bit of Greek thought for the day: the word for what's behind us is also the word for our future. The one direction where we can't see what's coming at us. And so the same word appears again: "If anyone wants to come after me, they must reject themselves, and seize their cross, and walk with me." We follow Jesus. He is the way to our future. We are the future of God's actions in the world, continuing long after Jesus' death, long after his resurrection, long after his ascension. And yet the only way to secure any future for ourselves, is to give up on securing the future at all. "For anyone who wants to save their life" -- just as Peter wants to save Jesus' life! -- "will lose it; but anyone who loses their life for my sake will find it." Why? Because death is not the end of the story. Not for Jesus, and not for us.

Crosses will come. And yet what it means for us to bear the cross is not what it meant for Jesus to bear the cross. Our destiny is bound to his, because he has already taken up the cross for us. If we bear the cross, we bear the cross that Jesus has already taken up for each of us. We grab hold of it as we stand in Christ. It stands before us, but he has already been there, and we hold tightly to that truth. In Jesus we have been brought into deep connection with the life and action of God. We are called into the stubborn faithfulness of God that will not let us go. We are called into the stubborn faithfulness of God that sends us out to live for the world. We are accompanied by the stubborn faithfulness of God that goes out into the world with us. Because we are in Christ, each and every one of us is a new intersection of that vertical with this horizontal. We have not been called to create conflicts with the world. We have not been called to antagonize, to provoke, to force the world to change. We have not been called to look for crosses to bear. We have simply been called to live out that stubborn faithfulness of God in the world. Through everything, the love of God will never leave us alone. Crosses will find us, but so will the people who need God's help.

We cannot prevent Jesus from doing his job. He truly is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And so, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, we walk with him. We follow him, and we are enabled to do the miracles that he does, to heal and feed and free and rescue and love our fellow creatures. And the one thing that we cannot do -- the one thing that only God can do -- Jesus does. He does not simply make us whole in a broken world. In Jesus the world is made whole and set right with God. Our brokenness is no longer in charge. The parts of this world that would break us are no longer in charge. In Jesus God has loved us to the end -- and beyond it. Death has given way to a new future.

We cannot go through life dodging the conflicts that come our way. We can't -- and still live the lives we have been called to in Jesus. But what we see as we witness the life, and death, and life of Jesus is that God is present with us in every one of the threatening dangers of our lives in the world. Stubbornly faithful. And that presence with us is our freedom: the ability to abandon ourselves to God's care and seize hold of the opportunities in every conflict, to do what we have learned as we walk with Jesus. To rest in God's love, and to be that love for others.

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