There is only one way to take up our cross and follow: it is to do just that, to follow Jesus’ example and offer our lives to others, to the world, as Paul describes, so that God’s love and grace can continue to transform and renew the whole creation.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22 A
texts: Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
So Paul begins Romans 12, a claim for which our reading today provides the real-life example. Be transformed, not conformed. Present your body as a living sacrifice.
In Romans, we prefer other words of Paul: chapter 3, about God’s righteousness draped over us; chapter 5, saying that while we were still sinners, God loved us; chapter 8, promising that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul preaches God’s grace that is unearned and freely given in Christ’s death and resurrection.
If that’s all we need, then why chapter 12?
Peter is thrilled that Jesus is God’s Messiah, but when he hears that will lead to Jesus’ death, Peter tries to turn him in a different direction. He is rebuked as “the opponent”, told to get out of the way. We’re so similar to Peter: after the resurrection, we incorporated the cross and empty tomb into Peter’s hope for a life of victory and success following Christ. Don’t talk about crosses, Jesus, unless it’s your cross; that means we get to live eternally. Don’t talk about sacrifice, Paul, unless it’s Jesus’ sacrifice; then, praise God, we’re saved.
Jesus and Paul say, however, that our life in this world matters to God, because this world matters to God. Following Christ is not about getting heaven, though we believe we have eternal life with him. Following him is as Paul says, seeking to be transformed into new minds, new hearts, by the Spirit. Becoming like Christ.
That’s going to be a sacrifice. There’s no way to avoid it.
“Take up your cross,” Jesus says to all who wish to be his disciple.
He is not saying, “life will have difficulties you can’t control. That’s your cross.” The cross is not disease, or misfortune, or things that make us different from others, or troublesome people who get in our way. Let’s put aside that piety once and for all. Taking up one’s cross has nothing to do with the difficulties of life we may face.
For Jesus, taking up the cross meant this: set aside use of your divine power in order to love people, even if they kill you for it. Taking up the cross meant this: let people kill you, and love them enough to ask God to forgive them, while they’re nailing you to a cross.
Taking up the cross is the only way to begin our discipleship, to live our discipleship, Jesus says. It means willingly entering into a way of life that costs us, that’s sacrificial. It means not only facing all life’s difficulties with patience, but also choosing a way of love and grace with people that will inevitably hurt us. Maybe not kill us, but who knows.
Taking up the cross means never saying “that’s not fair,” at least when it applies to us. Of course it isn’t fair that we lose while others win. How is choosing a life of sacrifice ever going to be “fair”?
Taking up the cross looks like . . . well, it looks a lot like Romans 12.
This transformed life Paul talks about costs, even if we aren’t killed.
If you want to understand this in your guts, take Paul’s words and hang them in your home where you see them every day. In every situation, from your relationships with those you love most to your encounters with strangers, from your personal decisions to your political views, start using these words as your template, your answer. Seek every day to live by them, instead of whatever rules you normally have.
It will certainly be a transformed life. It will also be a radically sacrificial life; you might not like it at first. So far as it depends on you, Paul says, live peaceably with others. So whenever the other person is angry, hurtful, you respond in kindness and grace. You act peaceably.
Do you have enemies? Fine. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they’re thirsty, give them a drink. Repay evil with good, not with evil. What will that mean? That person who doesn’t like you, you love them. That bad thing that happened to you, you answer with good.
If you don’t think you have enemies, fine. But what about when someone you love hurts you, neglects you, is hard on you? Can you return that with grace and love instead of your usual response?
There’s so much more here, but that’s enough to start. These words are a powerful vision of what taking up the cross means to the disciple of Jesus, of what Jesus means by “losing one’s life”. If our walk of faith doesn’t cause us to sacrifice, if only to those in our families, to say nothing of the rest of the world, Jesus and Paul would say it’s not much of a walk of faith.
We need to change our language.
Too often we’ve said the Christian life could be a challenge, might cause us to have to give up things, possibly could lead to sacrifice. Jesus and Paul leave no such openings, no “coulds” or “mights” or “possiblies”. Sacrifice and loss in our journey of faith are expected.
The Son of God came to show us the way of loving God and loving neighbor that leads to life for the whole world. Because the world is what it is, caused by human beings, we ourselves included, doing things our own way for our own benefit, following the way of Christ will be uphill, against the grain, upstream, whatever metaphor you like.
It won’t be easy. Try Romans 12 for one day and see for yourself.
Here’s a fair question: Why would we want to follow, then?
Many Christians teach discipleship that involves no sacrifice, only speaking of the success and winning God wants you to have. If Paul’s right, why would we want to follow? The Church has used threats of eternal hell to keep people in line, radically unlike Paul or Jesus. Is our only incentive so that we aren’t punished forever? Since we’re forgiven fully by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that no longer works.
What is our motive, if threats or fear aren’t valid, to choose a life that costs us everything?
Apart from simply to obey God, which would be best, the only way a sacrificial life is something we’d be willing to do is if it led to a way of life that is richer, fuller, more joyful, even amidst the sacrifice. If the Son of God came to restore us to a way of being with each other that, while it means we put others before us, is a path to a world of hope and grace and love among all people. That’s exactly what believers have claimed for two millennia.
Consider this: the life of Christian love, sacrificial and self-giving as it is, has inspired billions to change the world, even in their homes; has led millions to be willing to die to love others in Christ; has changed whole societies; has been an abundant and real way of life for billions. The way of this world, self-centered, get-my-own, do what I want to others, retaliate for wrongs done, offer no peace unless the other offers first, has led to Ferguson, the Middle East, ISIL and government beheadings, centuries of war; has led to uncountable tragedies in families, abuse, abandonment, death, hatreds that last entire lifetimes, broken relationships; has led to rampant economic selfishness where those who have keep, and those who haven’t go without; has nearly destroyed this world. You want to conform to that? Or do you want to be transformed to the other?
It’s no exaggeration to say that God’s new creation can only begin with each of our lives as we begin to learn to take up the cross, to offer ourselves first to those closest to us, and then beyond, to seek the Spirit’s transformation that we might begin to be Christ. This is a life or death question, not just for the world, for each of us.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, this is your spiritual worship.”
That’s the mystery, that as we learn this life of Christ, this is our worship: our lives of service and sacrifice. As we are transformed, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to others, that the world might be healed, and we worship the God in whose love we are bound forever. The cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus brought life to the whole world; our own dying to self and living for others will do the same. So that this becomes a world of love and grace as God has always intended.
If we know and live this, Paul says, we know the will of God, what is good, and acceptable, and perfect. Now we know. So let’s ask the Spirit to make it so among us, for our own sakes, and for the sake of the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen