B12 EASTER - The Cross
St. Matthew 16.vv.21-27
~ From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you". But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things". Then Jesus told his disciples, "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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done." ~
Nowadays we read or hear about awful things which were hidden from generations past because of the lack of easy and swift communication. Some say the "Golden Age" has passed. Not so! Not all is well today, but where and when were the "good old days"? In so-called civilised Rome, blood lust and gladiatorial fights were the order of the day. In early Christian days, the cry, "The Christians to the lions!" was raised all too often. Unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the name of religion in years gone by. Two hundred to one hundred years ago there was often a holiday spirit at public hangings and beheadings. We may take comfort that most of mankind have outgrown such cruel "sports".
As a youth, Jesus would have witnessed the sight of bodies hanging upon roadside crosses, as a grim warning to the beholders lest they should also commit a similar offence, for above the head of the victim was nailed a superscription stating the charge on which he was condemned. "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" I.N.R.I., were read over the head of Jesus crucified.
But what do we make of the cross? First we regard it with awe and then with love as we realise the significance of the sacrifice made for us.
The cross of Christ looms so large in the minds of Christians that we are accustomed to wearing it in public; some find this unfitting, but for committed Christians the symbol of the cross is very dear, and it is unnecessary to point out that before the cross became a thing of beauty, it was a symbol of shame and agony.
Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me". To deny oneself does not mean simply to deny oneself a treat - such as giving up sweets in Lent. Provided it does not become an end in itself, that may be meritorious - but something much more radical is involved. It means saying "no" to self, rejecting self and putting God and his kingdom first. It is something positive that we are called upon to do, for the "denial" is a means not an end.
The service of God is perfect freedom in every sense. We are called to his service. As he began his ministry, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God was at hand. In his words, his works and person, God's kingship is manifested. The God who helps and saves mankind has a kingly claim upon us. We do not belong to ourselves. We are bought with a price - and what a price! Jesus bids us turn from self-centred worship to the true and living God. The essence of sin (as with Adam and Eve) is attempting to put ourselves in God's place, putting self not God at the centre of our lives. Jesus calls us from bondage to our finite selves, to the glorious liberty of serving God and our fellows.
This is all well and good, we say, but how do we achieve this? We are not left to our own devices. God gives us his Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Freedom. Where the Spirit is, there is freedom. He sets us free from self, to deny ourselves and to live truly as children of God. This is not a five to six week Lenten exercise but a lifelong endeavour. The time of warfare will be long and hard with successes and reverses until we love the Lord with all our heart, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves - but until then we cannot rest content.
Sometimes the cross is trivialised in common speech and equated with the petty frustrations and irritations to which we are all at times subjected. Often such experiences are referred to as a "cross I have to bear!". This is not what Jesus meant by the cross. When Jesus said, "Take up the cross daily and follow me", he is really saying, "At the break of day ask God what he wants us to do, and in the evening ask oneself how far we have succeeded and thank God for his help. What an antidote to the modern malaise of "boredom"! There is so much to do for Christ and to suffer for his sake. Perhaps if we consider the task too daunting, we should pray early in the day,
"Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today which together you and I cannot cope with".