The call of Jesus to Peter, to the other disciples, and to us is to set our minds on divine things, not human, Jesus’ take on things, and not our preconceived notions.
With such focus, Jesus goes on to teach Peter and the others about their share in Jesus’ mission divine: “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.”
These are some of the more profound words from scripture.
In response to and to elaborate on this teaching from Jesus recorded in Matthew, I am drawn now to incorporate into my sermon my usual reflection questions which I have always stated in my conclusion. This way, you can see my own responses to the kinds of questions I pose to you each week.
What does it mean today to deny ourselves and to take up the cross to follow Jesus?
Here’s my response. “Oh, that’s my cross to bear.” This is a common phrase to refer to our personal suffering. We can fill in the blanks with circumstances, situations, people, relationships, and on and on.
While I do not deny anyone naming the particularities of their suffering as crosses to bear, I am also compelled to proclaim that bearing the cross in its more biblical sense has specifically to do with the suffering we undergo precisely because we are following Jesus as his disciples.
Speaking personally, I don’t know that in my lifetime of attempting to follow Jesus, I have suffered specifically and taken up a cross because of my discipleship – at least not until now. Up until the present circumstances, my Christian journey has been pretty cushy, quite easy, truth be told.
But our current life in Christian community during the pandemic, because of our stance of not gathering in person, does strike me as being particularly cruciform. That is, our life in our church now has the shape of and perhaps the feel of the cross more than any time at least in my current memory and experience.
Of late, we have been denying ourselves the grace of worshiping in person, the benefits of Christian community, communal singing of hymns, the Holy Communion, and more because we have made the decision in the name of Jesus to focus on love of our neighbors, especially those most vulnerable to the coronavirus and Covid-19. We practice this self-denial, this cross-bearing, specifically because of our discipleship, our following Jesus, who teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This abstinence may cause us to cry out at times as Jesus did from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This season of fasting from the central things of the Christian life is a cross we bear together as a congregation. It has individual dimensions, to be sure, but it is also a communal reality.
I know we miss seeing each other in person in community, but in Jesus’ name we deny ourselves our beloved routines to take up this cross together currently to follow our Savior on this uncertain path, again, in the service of our most vulnerable neighbors in need.
What does it mean today to lose our life for Jesus’ sake?
Again, speaking personally in terms of my own response to this question, our fasting from that which nourishes me personally feels as though I have lost so much of that which gives me life – being pastorally present to you in person individually and communally, public singing (oh, how I love to sing hymns together), preaching in person, and presiding at and receiving Holy Communion. All of these things are central to my Christian identity both as a person of faith and as a pastor, and without them there are times when I feel lifeless. It feels like a real loss, and it’s taking its toll on me, even as I know that it is taking a toll also on you.
Another personal loss made more challenging by the pandemic’s sheltering in place is the loss of regular in-person visits with my son, a reality that was part of my responding to God’s call to serve as pastor in this place, at this time, made all the more complicated because of the pandemic. I don’t know when next it will be safe to travel to see Nathan. This feeling of loss is palpable.
You also have your stories of what you may have lost in this season of giving away our churchly lives for Jesus’ sake.
What might it mean today to find our life after we have lost it for Jesus’ sake?
This is a more difficult question for me to respond to and to answer, for what life I am finding right now, frankly, is not yet entirely clear. But Jesus promises that the ones who lose the life for his sake will find it.
There is life-giving-ness to be sure during my days, and many, many blessings. And I remain in a state of privilege, given my social and ethnic and professional contextualization.
But Jesus, I suspect, has other things in mind about finding our life. Recall that he admonished Peter in today’s gospel reading for having the mind set on human things and not on divine things. The blessings I know currently are certainly more of the human-centered sort.
In terms of the divine life to be found – the life that may find me, amidst the cross-bearing and loss in Jesus’ name – I am drawn to suggest that the life gift I may receive very simply, but profoundly, is a still deeper faith, a still more profound trust in God that in Christ, somehow, some way, all shall be well, come what may.
In the stripping away of so much of that which is near and dear to me in Christian practice during this pandemic season, all that is left spiritually-speaking is a kind of radical, naked trust, clinging to God in Christ alone via the winds of the Holy Spirit.
When it is all said and done such faith is all that there is – sola fide, faith alone, so rings out one of the Reformation-era Lutheran rallying cries.
And then there are those moments when I realize, by God’s gift of God’s own insight, that in such radical, naked trust I possess absolutely everything, as do we all in faith. Anything prized by human standards and human wisdom pales in comparison. Faith alone is all that is needed when it’s all said and done.
So, these are my responses to the kinds of questions that I pose to you week after week. It’s only fair that you get to hear some of my own responses.
But now I pose these questions to you for your quiet reflection and holy conversation at home:
- What does it mean today to deny ourselves and to take up the cross to follow Jesus?
- What does it mean today to lose our life for Jesus’ sake?
- What might it mean today to find our life after we have lost it for Jesus’ sake?
As ever, may you know God’s blessing in your reflections and conversations. In Jesus’ name, for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of our world crying out for healing. Amen.