I have a friend who is good at working with his hands, especially with wood.  He’s so good with wood, in fact, that his pastor asked him to build a large cross for use during a Lenten program his church is doing called 24 Hours by a United Methodist Minister named Adam Hamilton.  What I love about my friend is that as he began to plan out this work, he began to wonder what it must have taken to build one of these things in the time when they were the torture and execution preference of the Roman government.

He began to research the kinds of tools that would have been used to craft one of these horrible devices, and to see if there were ways he might be able to replicate some of the methods.  He wanted to see how authentic he could make it.  When he told me about this, I told him that he really ought to create a blog to track such a project.  What a journey it must be during the Lenten season to actually build a cross.  Why did I find this project so compelling?

I found it compelling because the cross, the cross that we “lift high” the cross that we “take up,” is one of the central symbols of who we are as Christians.[1]  We may not agree on much with some other groups of Christians, but most every Christian group has a cross somewhere in their church.  And those churches who have completely removed crosses from their sanctuaries because they bum their congregations out too much did so to great cries of concern from brother and sister churches.  But generally, there are crosses everywhere.  There are crosses on my stole.  There are crosses on the altar.  Many of you have crosses hung from your necks. There are crosses all around our church.  We have a cross over the altar that is metal.  The cross in the fellowship hall is wooden. The crosses on my stole are made of thread.

There are crosses everywhere at our church and at most churches.  We bear this cross as a mark of our identity.  We bear the cross as a mark of who we are and whose we are.  The cross is a rich symbol that carries a multitude of meanings within itself.  Many of us bear oil crosses on our forehead at our baptism as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Just a week ago we bore ash crosses on our foreheads as a sign both of our mortality and marking us as ones who have entered into Christ’s death, so that we might have a share in his resurrection.  Crosses are everywhere…and yet…

To see what my friend is doing, slowing down and considering the creation of this cross, I wonder in our multitude of cross, if a large share of those meanings of the cross has been lost on us?  We also experience crosses as ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.  The easy shot to take here would be at rappers who wear large ornate diamond studded crosses, which, compared to the Old Rugged Cross are riddled with irony.  But let’s step back from the easy shot and turn the camera back on ourselves.  It is easy enough to point fingers at other people who wear crosses, but don’t follow through with lives that seem to be Cross and Christ-shaped.  What about us, who wear these crosses around our neck, who set them in our places of gathering and worship, who actually claim to be ones who recognize and embrace this cross as a symbol of our redemption?

Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to bear the cross?  Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to wear, to accessorize with the cross.  It is an object that is an instrument of execution and death.  What does it mean to accessorize with an instrument of torture?  If were to translate it into contemporary terms, if we saw someone wearing a little needle or a little electric chair around their necks we would receive that persson bearing such objects as jewelry as at best having a sick sense of humor and at worst having some deep-seated issues.  Why would you wear an instrument of death and execution around your neck?  Why would we lift it high?  One of the first gifts Mary Alex received on the day of her baptism was a little cross around her neck.  Why would we do that?  How are we to handle this?

Perhaps that a cross would be received at a baptism may help us to understand how it comes to be that we wear this object of death, this instrument of pain, around our necks.  Our baptism is the place where we God claims us and grace begins to work in us.  When we respond to that grace, we begin the life of discipleship.  The Gospel lesson today is really about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus begins to describe to the disciples that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter won’t stand for this.  Mark tells us that Peter “pulls Jesus aside,” and tries to rebuke Jesus privately.  As we have seen before, this isn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was looking for.

Yet, to deny this piece of Jesus’ life is to become an adversary, which is what the word and name “Satan” literally means.  And so Jesus rebukes Peter publicly.  Further, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples, but he tells the whole crowd exactly what it means to be a follower, to be a disciple.  It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  When we respond to the grace of our baptism that is the beginning of discipleship, and it is the beginning of we picking up our cross and beginning to follow Jesus.

Lent is the perfect time to begin to consider what it means to reflect on picking up our crosses because it is the season where we intentionally focus on our discipleship in way that we often don’t during the rest of the year.  Lent is the time when we become the most conscious of Jesus’ call to take up our cross because it is the time when we are following him to his cross.  This has been true in the church for a long time. In the early church, those who were preparing to be baptized would be the most focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  About the responses they would give and the actions they would take in their baptism.  40 days seems like a long time to wait for a baptism, but in reality it took more like 2 or 3 years of preparation before a person could be baptized and be a part of the church.  Before you could be baptized, you had to learn how to live and act like a Christian.

We tend to think of it in the reverse, with the heart experience leading our changed behaviors.  However, in the early church, changing of one’s behavior was part and parcel of the change they were experiencing in their heart.  So, by the time the Lent before their baptism rolled around, they had already been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple, to take up their cross and follow Christ.  Lent was a deeper, intentional time leading up to their full reception of life in the church and their first admittance to receive Holy Communion.  Lent was a time when they would prepare to answer questions that are pretty close to what we who are baptized have answered ourselves.[2]

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”[3]  That’s first question we ask when we are baptizing someone.  In the early church, they would actually have to face the west and renounce “Satan and all his pomp.”  As we join Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter the temptations.  But the temptation isn’t just to do explicitly evil things.  No, the temptations we experience are much more sinister.  After all, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” isn’t because Peter is asking Jesus to go out and steal from other people.  No, Peter wants Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that is the conquering the Romans and ruling the world sort of Messiah.  He wants Jesus to take over.  He wants to be part of the people who run things.  He wants to rule the Romans.  It is the kind of dominance we see Satan offer Jesus in the wilderness in the other Gospels.

It’s that kind of dominance that we still tempted with.  The temptation to skip all of that suffering stuff and just get to Easter.  The temptation to try to keep our own security and power in the world by trying o take over things, forcing others to see things our way, as opposed to offering up all the power we think we have to be weak in Jesus, who rules the world by suffering and dying on a cross.  It is that kind of control that Jesus rejects in the wilderness, and it is the kind of control that leads Jesus to see Peter as an adversary.

The next question we ask is, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil?”[4]  The freedom and the power God gives us to resist evil.  This question assumes that we need both freedom and power to resist evil.  The General Rules of the United Methodist Church basically say, “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Attend Upon the Ordinances of God.”  In addition to simply feeding people who are hungry, we begin to ask why they are hungry in the first place.  Are there structural things in our society that keep people hungry, that keep them in poverty?

I guarantee you when we begin to resist those structures, not everyone will take kindly to it.  We need freedom and power to resist evil in the world because to do that means not just that we “behave” ourselves, but it actually may mean getting into some trouble.  It will mean bearing a cross and being rejected by many.  It means we will look different.  We will look weird.  We will not fit in.

The third question we ask is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord?”[5]  To do this means that we pick up our cross, that we are willing to following Jesus in that cross bearing.  It isn’t just an intellectual assent or an emotional change in our lives, but it is a re-ordering of our lives based on Jesus’ love those who are the “least of these.”  It means that we are willing to resist evil by changing the way that we live in the world.

The final question we ask is, “Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”[6]  What does it mean to do that?  Jesus tells us exactly what it means in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Lose our life for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospels.  Deny ourselves in favor of others is how we represent Jesus.  In short, that is what it means to be a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and be his representative in the world.  We do this because in losing our life we actually find it, rather than being ashamed of this Savior who seems so weak that we have to make him look strong.

In my opinion, one of the scariest movements today in many Christian circles is one that suggests that Jesus has become too weak and too “feminized.”  Jesus is just not strong enough , and so they want to emphasize what they see as Jesus’ more masculine traits, with paintings in their churches of Jesus whipping the money-changers out of the temple.  The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t fit into the categories that we want to create for him and for ourselves.  Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, and so ours is.  Jesus conquers the world by saving it with his own weakness.

To bear our cross, to take up our cross, is a paradox now, even as it was in Jesus time.  Even as it is a symbol of government oppression and execution, we also experience it as a sign of Jesus’ victory.  Peter was horrified at what Jesus said because it is a paradox that the one who is the Messiah, this Son of Man the one who came to save Israel and the world would do so by suffering and dying.

In the same way the cross stands as this paradox that we would “lift high” the cross.  That this symbol of death, pain, and torture could become a symbol of love.  A symbol of victory.  A symbol of life.  How powerful is that this instrument of death could become a sign of life and victory?  A stumbling block the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, right?  It is the just the same as the paradox that we find our lives by losing them for the sake of one another and the sake of the Gospel.

It is the same kind of paradox that will allow us later in the service to sing about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as a “dance.”  Read the word when we sing “Lord the Dance,” later in the service.  It is a very upbeat, even whimsical tune, that folks love to sing, but it is describing in some parts events that are horrible.  Yet, we sing it joyfully because in it we hear the story of our life that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The difference between wearing a cross around our necks and wearing a little electric chair is that the cross has been transformed by the one who hung upon it, and the one who calls us and helps us to bear our crosses in the world.

[1] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 68.

[2] “Worship Notes – Calendar,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:  http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm, cited March 4, 2012.

[3] United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.