Take up your cross and follow me: these are some of the most famous words of Jesus. The newest Christian knows them, and yet the oldest Christian might not understand fully what it means.
“Take up your cross and follow me.” What do these words mean for our identity as Christians today?
This phrase is found in three gospels, today we heard them from the gospel of Mark. They are found in chapter 8 where there is a pivotal story… a story where things change. Up to this point Jesus has been travelling around, healing, feeding and proclaiming the good news. He’s been performing powerful miracles. But so far the disciples have not grasped who Jesus is.
Here for the first time, Peter says out loud that Jesus is the Messiah. And here Jesus reveals that he will suffer and die. From this point in the gospel of Mark onwards Jesus continually reminds them that he will suffer and die. It’s like at this point in the story, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem.
I wonder if you noticed that the story began with a location. “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi…” Now if you are like me, you probably just skip over that place name because you don’t really know where that is, and it probably doesn’t exist anymore anyway. Jesus’ words are timeless, right? So does it really matter where he said things?
I used to think that way…until I went to Israel/Palestine a few years ago on a trip sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. Our tour group visited Caesarea Philippi. I still remember the day we went there. We were in the north of Israel, close to the Syrian border, in the beautiful great hills of the Golan Heights. Mount Hermon dominates the landscape, it’s the tallest mountain around.
The hills were all light brown because the country is semi-arid, and as we drove towards Caesarea we saw these striking and rugged red-brown cliffs. And at the bottom of these cliffs, there was a burst of dense green vegetation. That is the location of Caesarea Phillipi. There is a huge underground spring that gushes out of the ground here. This is the start of the Jordan River…which is the one major river in Israel.
Caesarea Philippi was given that name around Jesus’ time, but it was an important location, a place of religious pilgrimage for hundreds of years before that. The Canaanites worshipped Baal here, giving thanks for the water from the ground that brought life. They built a temple to Baal right at the site of the spring. “Baal, you are the great and powerful. Words like these echoed off the rocks for centuries.
Then the Greeks came to this area, and they worshipped their gods here too, especially their god Pan. They built a temple to Pan. “Pan you are the great and powerful.”
And when the Romans came, they weren’t going to let a holy site be dominated by other gods. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus here, and his son Philip named the town that had grown up around this place after Caesar and himself, Caesarea Philippi. The words “Caesar Augustus, you are the great and powerful.”
In the time of Jesus all these temples co-existed, people came from all around to pray and give sacrifices. There was no shrine here to Israel’s God…this was an entirely pagan place of worship.
Our tour group walked along the bottom of this cliff, and you could see the ruins of all these major temples, giant niches carved in the cliff face for statues that are long gone. Huge columns fallen to the ground, staircases leading up and down to altars. In Jesus’ day it was a bustling centre for pagan worship, a place of pilgrimage.
Our story from Mark 8 tells us Jesus went to Caesarea Philippi. That is a 60 km walk from Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi was not a Jewish place at all, it was a Roman city. As Jesus and his disciples travelled, they would have met people travelling to worship, leading animals that they were going to sacrifice to all sorts of gods…it was the thoroughfare of the gods. It is here in Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by all the people worshipping different gods that Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” And that is where Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”
This is a story about Identity. Now that the disciples understand Jesus’ identity, he starts to instruct them that he is going to suffer and die, he is going to be crucified.
I wonder if it was in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus was surrounded by the whole population running after other gods, who they called great and powerful, that he realized that his own identity would lead him to take up a cross. All Jesus has to do is be true to his own identity, who he is, the Messiah, and he will suffer.
Having looked at the biblical story, let’s turn now to our own context. How does our identity as followers of Jesus lead us to take up a cross? Today I want to share what I think “take up your cross” means in the context of family life Everyone is part of a family at some point…a family of origin or an adopted family, and even if you grow up and live alone, you still can reflect on that intense time of living together. And even when family members move away from each other, there is unique intensity to the relationship of parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and all the aunts and uncles and cousins
Now we don’t usually put ‘family life’ and ‘take up your cross’ together. Maybe it even sounds like an oxymoron, something that doesn’t belong together. I have never heard a wedding sermon on this text, so we might think it doesn’t have much relevance for that context. We love each other in our families, why should we talk about taking up our cross?
And maybe you think, “Why are you talking about family life?” when there are so many pressing social issues around us. We need to be thinking about welcoming strangers to our country, we need to think about social justice for people living in poverty. Don’t we have the family covered already? Aren’t we fine on the home front, at least?
I think the family context is where our identities are formed. Family relationships are intense, some of the most intense relationships of our lives. The home is a crucible, a testing place and there are some really big challenges we face about who we are, who we are as Christians.
I have two adult children…I can remember how overwhelmed I was with love for them. I remember holding little new-born Katie in my arms, and then later Alex, and knowing without a doubt, that these children were little miracles. Little God-given miracles that I had the honour and responsibility of raising. Having them was one of the greatest gifts in my life.
I loved my two children dearly, passionately, deeply and yet as they grew I found that I could become passionately and deeply angry with them. I was startled and shocked by how angry I could become. One time in particular comes to mind. They were about 7 and 5 years old. They were playing outside in the snow, and I was watching them from an upstairs window. And I saw my darling sweet beautiful daughter Katie, pick up a big metal shovel and smash her little brother squarely on the head with it.
Rationally, it doesn’t make sense to lose your temper to prove to someone that they should not lose their temper, but the rational side of me did not have the upper hand that day. Let’s just say that while all the windows were closed, my kids had no trouble hearing my reaction to what I saw through the window.
What does it mean to be a Christian when you are a parent and you lose it with your kids? Sometimes I think the great challenge is not “Love your neighbour as yourself”, but actually, “Love your family as yourself.”
In my life, people have done bad things to me, I’ve been very angry at them, but I have never yelled at the rude attendant at the grocery store, I haven’t yelled at the building contractor who cheated me, I haven’t yelled at the colleague who was mean to me. I am not the type of person to yell at people. That’s my identity. But I have yelled at the top of my lungs at my children. My defenceless beautiful gift of God children. When I look back, I realize that the yelling times as far as I remember, never happened in front of other adults, even my husband.
I have a friend who had a nanny living with them when they had little kids. She admitted me to me, “I am nicer to my kids if there is someone else always around…I hate to admit it, but it’s true.”
Often, we put our best effort to be kind when we have an audience in the wide world. We are model Christians at church and at work where everyone can see our loving and selfless actions, but when we get home, we are different.
Family life reminds us that there are distinctions between public and private, and we sometimes show our true colours when we are alone, and no one from our larger community can see us. And this is a problem, because certainly identity has to do with consistency. If we are followers of Jesus, we should be the same whether our whole church is watching us or not. It’s not easy being consistent, it is very hard, and maybe taking up our cross means being true to who we are, even when no one is watching.
But I think there’s more to the challenge of family life than just the public/private split. The family is often the crucible of identity, because it is a place where we face some of the biggest power imbalances in our lives.
In the family context, we meet each other at our most vulnerable, our most defenceless. When we have the upper hand and we know it, and there are no witnesses except very vulnerable people, how do we act? If I have a lot of power over someone, suddenly my identity is challenged in a way that’s different than when power is equally shared.
When we are young and defenceless, and sometimes when we are old and defenceless, or sometimes if we are sick and defenceless, people can hurt us rather than help us. Families can be the place of the most love but it can also be the place of the most abuse. The #1 place where children are hurt, where they are physically beaten and sexually assaulted, is in their own home.
The family is our Caesarea Philippi. It’s the place where we come face to face with the many gods that we worship in our lives. Each of us trying to get our own way: “I am the great and powerful”. And because of the privacy of our homes, and because of the power differentials, we can often get exactly what we want, at whatever cost to other people, at whatever sacrifice from other people. That’s why I think in the family context, we need to be reminded, “Take up your cross.” Remember your identity, you a follower of Jesus.
I think of someone I know who has had a very difficult struggle with her son. Over the years as a teenager and young adult he has been so difficult, with giant temper tantrums where he damages the house, he steals things, he has even physically assaulted his mother. In this difficult context, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to have an identity as a loving person?
For this woman, taking up her cross means trying to remember her identity as a follower of Jesus and as a mother. She must remember her foundational love for her son, which is so hard when he does hurtful things. But it doesn’t mean that she is a doormat. It doesn’t mean that she lets her son live with her and abuse her. Loving him means setting boundaries, “You aren’t allowed in the house anymore, ” she says to him. “We’ve changed the locks. I will meet you in a neutral public place, I love you, but we know that the home is not a safe context for either of us.”
A friend of this woman told her once that her son was her cross to bear. She rejected that. She can still, somewhere inside her, remember that he was a beautiful baby, a gift from God. And she loves her son, she has hopes for him that he can grow past this behaviour. Taking up her cross means remembering her identity as a loving person, no matter what.
A cross is never somebody. Think about Jesus…he had lots of difficult people in his life. Was Judas his cross to bear? Was Peter? Or maybe the Pharisees and the scribes were his cross? Yet never, not once, does Jesus turn to anyone and say, “You are my cross to bear.”
Like Jesus, we are called to put God at the centre. We don’t put ourselves at the centre of the universe, and we don’t allow other people to be the centre of the universe either. It is God we worship because God is great and powerful.
We all have to take up our cross in our own unique family setting this week. Maybe you’ll have to be a loving person at 4 a.m., when you haven’t had hardly any sleep and your child comes into your room yet again. Maybe it will be when you are trying to get your aging parent to do what you want them to. Maybe it will be when your sister totally lets you down, yet again, when she promised to be there for you. Maybe it will be the moment when a family member says something totally insensitive to you, after you’ve spent the past two months trying to be very sensitive to them.
Maybe your cross will be working through some very painful family memories; have you hurt people you love? Have you apologized, have you tried to make it right? Maybe your cross is being clear about your identity as you come to terms with ways you’ve been hurt. Have you been clear about your boundaries? Have you been clear about your identity?
Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Can we do this?
Suffering comes as we choose an identity that is sometimes hard to maintain .. Suffering comes as we take the deep breath before we blurt out a harsh word. We hold the words in, instead of shooting them out like bullets. Suffering also comes when we set up boundaries, when we refuse to let someone hurt us anymore.
Suffering comes as we learn the discipline of being a follower of Jesus. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us,
God gives us an identity not just as individual followers of Jesus, but as a community of followers of Jesus, the church. In our church community, can we be honest and let our defences fall? The ramparts of “I’ve got it all together.” The strong towers of “I am always a principled and caring person.” Can we admit to each other in this caring community that we are not perfect in our private lives, that we are broken, that we need each other’s help to be good family people. We need to talk about these things, because Jesus doesn’t address this command to take up our cross to just one person, he said it to a community of disciples. Our church community is the place where we can find support in our challenge to take up our corssa way to carry crosses.
We will not be able to do anything in the world with integrity if we do not attend to our identity in our most basic everyday human interactions in our own homes.
This week, let’s pray for each other as we carry our crosses in the context of family life. We can all draw strength from Jesus, who is the most great and the most powerful. He walked this road before us.
A sermon preached at
Rockway Mennonite Church,
by Carol Penner
March 19, 2017