Sermon for October 7, 2018
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.
Some will see through the illusion that the world can fulfill us relatively early. For others, it will take longer, with more painful lessons, more wearing away of the layers of our identity. When we finally see that even the greatest joys life has to offer are fleeting, unable to truly satisfy what we are really seeking, Christ points to the way beyond this predicament.
One way we can view these verses is to apply it to our worldly lives. We can see ‘taking up our cross’ as encouragement to persevere through the troubles of the world. The cross, and those trials in our lives we undergo, bind our worldly bodies, and our worldly minds, to the world. We, however, carry the cross ourselves, to our own crucifixion, often denying the final destination. We believe carrying the cross will benefit our individual identity in some way that will be lasting. We believe we can save ourselves. Our burden, and our binding, however, are the path to ultimate salvation that transcends the individual, but we must first persevere through the trial.
If we stop here, we remain trapped merely in a trial. We will naturally try to understand this process in term of merit in exchange for suffering, pay for work etc. This is our individual ego trying to make sense of a seemingly hopeless situation.
What would be the point of constant struggle unless we could gain something for ourselves? Why would we want to constantly take up our cross with only reward that don’t last as the result? This is what we will eventually feel if we see Christ’s admonition as merely some type of motivational speech. All motivation eventually wanes. All desires eventually become empty. Yet this feeling of pointlessness is extremely valuable to our spiritual progression. When we begin to tire of the daily grind, of all the things that once seemed to give us pleasure, we begin to seek something more, something beyond the worldly. This is an opportunity to really hear Christ’s message, to begin to let go of the world and sincerely turn toward God.
There is a seeming paradox in these verses that is a key to how we are to go beyond mere toiling, day after day.
First, we are to turn away from our individual identity, accept the cross that binds us to the world, and allow Christ to lead where we formerly assumed control. This demands personal will, but then yielding one’s personal will. It is the same as beginning our spiritual journey with faith, and then later surrendering even the need for faith as one draws nearer to God.
The seeming paradox continues as we are told that in saving our own lives, we lose them, yet losing our lives we really gain them. This is where the cross takes on a different role. The cross, which Christ tells us to take up daily, can only take away our bodies, our worldly idea of who we are. In this sense, when we identify ourselves as individuals, as a people in the world, the cross will destroy us as identities that we’ve built up. Its power, however, ends where the worldly identity ends. It cannot touch the one who turns to Christ just as death could not ultimately touch Christ once his individual identity was cast away and his Spirit reunited with God. When we deny our individual self, take on the cross, and turn to our true identity through Christ, we are no longer bound- we are free.
We must understand that, even while we see ourselves as in, and of, the world, we still must begin with faith, with the act of taking up our cross. We do this in spite of our desire to follow our own ways, our own worldly desires. What we will find is that once we embark on this path, confront our desire to save ourselves, is that God will fill the void, the void formerly filled with all the things we created, with something words cannot describe. This is why we are being compelled to action, not mere thought. We must be, not conceptualize.
We often make the mistake of seeing our ability to ‘do’ something for our ‘control’ over it. Think about your life, from birth until now. Think of the general path it has taken, and then of specific actions which you believe you have chosen, controlled. Do you really know why you chose the career you did? Why did you choose the spouse you married? Why do you drive the car you drive? If you really delve deep into who you are, the supposed choices you’ve made, they begin to appear much less like controlled choices and more like a tapestry of forces that have no beginning and no end. Your great, great, great grandfather had as much to do with your career choice as you did. Keep making those interconnections and you’ll find that you are not even close to the ‘individual’ you have believed yourself to be.
The point of all this is that we will eventually see that we have no real ability to control this thing we call life, or our idea of who we are. The harder we try to control, the more we attempt to be ourselves rather than allow our being, the more unhappy and frustrated we will eventually become. This is the lesson of Christ beckoning us to take up our crosses, and of the realization we will have when we examine what makes up our lives. The individual identity of “you”, the ego, the self, is ultimately helpless. This is the greatest freedom you will ever realize but it will seem like a trap until you allow it beyond your tendency to protect yourself.
Make no mistake, we are free to chase the wonders of the world as much, and for as long, as we deem it necessary. We are free to see yourself as the gods of our lives,, in control, enjoying each moment until it cannot satisfy, and then racing after the next thing we deem worthy of pursuit. When we are ready, the cross will be waiting, waiting to show us that we were already perfect, already saved, and that it was only our own creation of what existence was that made any kind of struggle necessary.