Isaiah 52:13-53:12 / Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 / John 18:1-19:42
The suffering of Jesus, which we remember on this holy night, would be appalling enough if this put an end to something so terrible: if Jesus’ death on the cross forever ended the tyrannical power of unjust rulers; or forever ended conspiracy and betrayal and discrimination; or forever ended martyrs’ giving up their lives; or forever ended suffering from disease and diminishment, or even death itself. None of this has ended. If anything, Jesus’ death on the cross was the start of something. We are not spared the experience of the cross, we are shared the experience. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (1) Down through the centuries, many people in many places have understood Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” quite literally. Even today Christians are being killed in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and countless other places around our world. Tyrannical power, injustice, discrimination, disease, and death continue without end.
How can we hear Jesus’ words, Jesus’ “good news” [sic], about our having to take up our cross if we are to follow him? Only you would know. What is the cross for you? Or where is the cross for you? The cross is what is killing you, just killing you now. Or the cross is something that has just killed you in the past. The cross may have to do with the circumstances of your life: where and when you were born, and to whom; the cross may have to do with your experience of searing injustice or discrimination and prejudice; the cross may have to do with your finances, or health, or addiction, or disabilities, or age. The cross for you may have to do with a family member, or friend, or colleague – who is now diminished or departed – and who loved you deeply; or the cross for you may have to do with a family member, or friend, or colleague – living or dead – who has hurt you deeply. Your cross may have to do with your destiny, with your sense of what your life was or is to be about, and the terms of your life, which you may have fought against at various points in your life. You can die many times before you die. I’m sure this was true for Jesus. The cross on Calvary was not the first time he died. The disappointments he witnessed, the arguments, the desertions, the betrayals he experienced even from those closest to him must have just killed him. The suffering which he clearly knew would await his followers, his friends, and his mother, must have just killed him long before he was crucified. And yet, Jesus was convinced and, ultimately, convincing that on the other side of death – death in its many forms – is life: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (2)
Here’s the best way for us to lose our life on Jesus’ terms: surrender. Surrender the lordship of our life to Jesus Christ, who wants to live within us. The only way to live life – which can be such a killer – is to allow Jesus Christ to live within us. This was St. Paul’s discovery. In his writing, St. Paul uses one particular phrase more than 85 times: “…in Christ.” He speaks of living his life “in Christ.” “No longer” living life on others’ terms or even on his own terms – he’s “no longer” doing that, he says repeatedly – but now living his life “in Christ.” (3)
Live your life inside of Christ, who lives inside of you. Surrender your life, surrender your destiny, surrender your death – your deaths – to Christ, and take him at his word: that life for you comes out of death. Your dying is the gateway to rising. You will face death many-a-time in this life, and that is the very cross that Jesus is sharing with you. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside you and you will absolutely, positively, undeniably, miraculously discover how life comes out of death.
There’s two ways to know this to be true about the way of the cross: how life can come out of death for you. Remember your past life. (4) Remember your own life experience. How has this been true for you in the past: life coming out of death? Your cross is your teacher. Where can you recall how your breaking has been your making, how your dying has led to your rising, where life – real life, amazing life, abundant life – has come out of something that just killed you? Bishop Rowan Williams speaks of how our life in Christ miraculously repeats a cycle of loss, then recovery, then transformation. (5) Draw on your own life experience, which will give you hope for what is killing you now. Draw on the miracle of your personal experience, how life, absolutely transformed life, has come out of death in your own past. That cycle will repeat. That’s a hopeful promise.
Secondly, if you can find no hope but only suffering and desolation in the cross you are now carrying – what is just killing you now – make the sign of the cross. Sign your life over to Jesus who died for you. Surrender your life, surrender your death, your deaths, to Jesus. The weaker you are, the more powerless you feel, the more readily you will understand this. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside of you. He will inhabit you and enable you. Make the outward sign of the cross. You may need to do this repeatedly for the rest of your life, binding yourself to Jesus who won’t let go of you. Jesus promises that life comes out of death. You can do this. You can face it all and become really alive in all of it through Christ who will give you the power. (6) You can do this.
This is Jesus’ way, the way of the cross. And it’s within reach. It’s within Jesus’ reach for you. And that he does: reaches out for you, carries you, makes good on his promise that life, amazing life, comes out of death. The cross is not the end, but it is Jesus’ way to the end, and that is to live fully in this life and in the life to come.
- Matthew 16:24-28. See also Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23-27; John 12:25.
- Matthew 16:25.
- St. Paul speaks of the radical turnabout in the management of his former life, using the term “no longer” more than 25 times.
- The founder of SSJE, Richard Meux Benson, wrote in a colloquy: “A disciple asks Christ, ‘Teach me the law of the Holy Cross, the mystery of our redemption.’ To which Christ replies, ‘My child, you must learn this mystery by experience: Take up your cross and it will teach you all things.’”
- Rowan Williams’ description of “the Paschal Mystery,” quoted from Rowan’s Rule by Rupert Shortt (Edinburgh: Hodder & Stoughton), 2008; p. 152.
- A riff on St. Paul’s writings in Philippians 4:13 and 2 Corinthians 12:9.
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