28th February – Second Sunday in Lent

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In Jesus’ time there were crosses everywhere you went. They were a common sight. The people nailed to them were not the Messiah, nor even heroic freedom fighters or brave idealists, by and large they were petty thugs, criminals, runaway slaves and frequently innocent people murdered because those in power sometimes do things just because they can.

Every cross had a meaning, it was a noticeboard, It’s message was who is in charge, and who is nailed here doesn’t count. Anyone who challenged authority was nailed up as a public spectacle – this is what happens if you stand against us. This is what happens if you rebel.

Those nailed to the cross were non-persons, non-citizens. Roman citizens were never crucified because Roman citizens mattered. They might be punished, even executed, but they were never crucified. Only the people who don’t count were crucified.

When Jesus walked amongst the towns and villages crosses were everywhere. They said who was in charge. And who wasn’t. He of course had a message about who was really in charge – so he knew full well the risk he was running.

Art and religion have often missed the point of what Jesus said to his friends. If you want to follow me then you should know the consequences. If you accept the authority I speak of you will be in conflict with the powerful of this world.

Art has so often depicted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s suffering for the world. Whether it be a painting, or the bloody reality of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, the focus has often been on the pain and gore of the cross.

Religious people have also often focused on the suffering.  Sometimes using the cross to shock and arouse guilt. Sometimes using it as a sentimental self-obsession that God loves us this much.

But that is not the point of the cross.

You’ll have heard people say, we all have our crosses to bear – some minor inconvenience that has upset our plans – a broken washing machine, an awkward colleague, some disappointing news. Or giving up chocolate or wine for Lent. Taking up the cross becomes nothing more than doing something slightly uncomfortable to prove we’re faithful.

But that also is not the cross Jesus points to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”

He knew the message nailed to the cross. This person doesn’t count. This person doesn’t matter. This person means so little we can do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Step out of line and this person might be you.

He knew that message all right – and he knew that those who followed him would tread the same path.

The point of the cross is not the suffering. The cross is where non-citizens are killed. Those who choose the kingship of Christ reject the kingdom of this world. Those who are non-citizens of this world are citizens of another. You have to choose who to obey. And if you choose God, be prepared to be rejected by this world.

We know, because we are an Easter people, that the cross is not the end. But its reality not denied by the resurrection. The risen Christ displayed to his friends the wounds of the cross. His risen body was still a crucified body. God’s greatest hope, greatest gift, greatest love, is revealed precisely in that moment of rejection.

God has chosen to belong with us, that is the crazy claim of a God born in a back street stable. The question Jesus poses to his friends is – do you choose to belong with God?

There is an irony in his question – “will you deny yourself?” The reality is that most of the time most people act and think in self-denial. It is the driving force behind the hunger that drives people to desire and acquire more and more. The illusion that happiness is a newer car, a posher house, a bigger television – which of course never works so the cycle repeats itself.

This is real self denial – the pursuit of happiness, and meaning, and love in all the wrong places.  We know it is self-denial because it simply doesn’t work.

Over lockdown we have been walking every day, mostly through Whitegate woods down to the river. You see a lot of dogs being walked, and the happiest dogs are those with sticks.

One doggy was a very happy doggy, he had a massive stick. A branch fully six feet long. His tail was up, his eyes straight, his head held high. He was ever so pleased with himself. Until he came to a gate.

You know what happened next, he tried and he tried, but he simply couldn’t understand why the stick wouldn’t go through the gate. Any more that the fully loaded camel of a rich man would pass through a narrow gate in a Jerusalem city wall.

Jesus’ irony is a grim irony. He could see crosses all around him. He saw the denial of hope – will you turn your back on this, and embrace the cross? Will you stand with God with the rejected? Will you take that chance, and discover where that takes you?

The cross is essential, because it takes us to that point where the illusion is denied, and a reality unimaginable revealed.

O Lord, our Saviour and our God, whom nails could not hold to the cross, but only love; grant that we, who have received the fullness of your love, may be ready to bear before the world the marks of your Passion; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

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