Carrying the cross means committing to follow the way of Christ, recognizing that doing so will transform our lives and relationships.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 C
Texts: Philemon; Luke 14:25-33
Siblings in Christ, grace to you, and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever been told that a physical or mental illness was “your cross to bear”? Or maybe it was a particular pain you were struggling with; an obligation that overwhelmed you; an injustice you’d experienced… Maybe you’ve been told that one of these things was “your cross to bear.”
Sometimes Christians talk this way about Jesus’ command to “carry the cross,” this idea that faithful people will accept trials and burdens passively and piously because “we all have our own crosses to bear.” Sometimes it even goes as far as to present suffering as necessary and spiritually redemptive.
But the God we know through Jesus’ words and actions in scripture focused on healing and alleviating people’s suffering,
not demanding it. Jesus provided for people’s needs, and protected the most vulnerable, even when it was scandalous or dangerous for him to do so. Even from the cross, Jesus speaks mercy and forgiveness. If we trust that Jesus, the incarnate word, reveals God’s heart, we can trust that God doesn’t desire for us to suffer. But God is with us when we suffer.
So what does it mean to carry the cross? Jesus gives this command a number of times across the Gospels, and every time he connects it to discipleship, saying “Take up your cross and follow me.”
If we want to know what it looks like to carry the cross, it looks like Jesus. Not just Jesus’ suffering and death, but Jesus’ life. Jesus gives these teachings about taking up the cross long before he himself is executed on a cross. So the example he is calling disciples to follow also includes his life and ministry. To carry the cross, we need to practice the same hospitality, generosity, and compassion that we see in the life Jesus. We, too, need to provide for others’ needs, protect the vulnerable, speak forgiveness. To carry the cross, we need to live like Jesus… even when it’s challenging.
And it does get challenging. The Gospel is good news, but it isn’t easy news.
If we commit to following the way of Jesus, things will have to change. Not just on the inside, in our hearts, but on the outside, in our lifestyles and our relationships.
In the Gospel passage we heard this morning, Jesus adds some drastic language to the call to carry the cross. Worried that the crowds drawn by his popularity won’t take seriously the difficulties of discipleship, he says, “If you want to follow me, you have to hate your own family, your own life!” Whew! That’s a tough bar to clear! We know, of course, that Jesus doesn’t advocate hating complete strangers, let alone close family. But he wants to be sure that people get the message that living in the way of Christ will change their lives. It will shift even their most intimate relationships in unanticipated ways.
This is a lesson Philemon learned the hard way. His situation, which we encounter through one of Paul’s letters, is an example of how living according to the Gospel can challenge the status quo. Philemon is a Christian in the early church, and Paul is writing to him on behalf of Onesimus, who has also become a Christian. Onesimus is in serious debt to Philemon, but Paul urges Philemon to let it go. He should accept Onesimus back into his household – not as a debtor enslaved to a master, but as an equal, a sibling in Christ. Within the social structures of their day, Philemon had a right to demand reparation from Onesimus! But their shared commitment to Christ has changed their relationship to one another. Paul reminds Philemon: This is what you signed up for when you became a Christ-follower! Your life has to change! The world may think retaliation and punishment are fair, but the Gospel demands a different standard. For those who carry the cross, relationships are defined by love, not revenge; forgiveness, not resentment; and mutual respect, not coercion.
As Philemon learned, the Gospel life can involve letting go of things we might prefer to keep: things like status, power, comfort, wealth.
Discipleship can be costly. But it’s not about losing just for the sake of loss. It’s about losing for the sake of love, as Jesus did.
Jesus went all the way to losing his life for the sake of love. And, in doing so, modeled sacrificial love for us. When we choose to follow the way of Jesus, we choose to follow that way. Our “cross to bear” is the burden of love – for ourselves and for one another. That burden is not light. We have to let go of some things in order that we might carry it. We may think we know what we’ll have to lose. But, like Philemon, we will find that the Gospel continually changes our lives in ways that will surprise us and challenge us. That’s the hard work of discipleship that Jesus warned about. When we agree to follow Christ, we will be continually transformed, like clay in the Potter’s hands.
But we can trust that the Potter is making us into something new, something good.
The change might feel painful, but it’s the kind of pain that leads to growth, not the kind of pain that wears us down or destroys us. Bearing the cross of Christ-like love is a way of life.
Every time you make the sign of the cross on your body, remind yourself that you are marked with the cross from your baptism, and your baptismal calling is to carry the cross. Which means your baptismal calling is to live your life with the radical love we see in Jesus. And when that burden feels heavy, remember that it is also life-giving. And the life it brings is stronger than anything: stronger than suffering, stronger even than death. We share in the cross of Christ, yes, but we also share in the resurrection of Christ. And thanks be to God for that! Amen.
 Mark 8:34; Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 9:23, 14:27.
 Philippians 3:10-11.