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How are we to understand Cross Bearing?

 

 

Mark 8:34-38     2nd Samuel 23:13-17     James 1:2-8

 

I: — A beach holiday looks good in the March break. Snow-shovelling is behind us, heating-bills are decreasing, and the cough-syrup stays in the bottle. When the travel company dangles the beach holiday in front of us nothing ever looked so good.

There is a kind of preaching which is just like this. People are jaded on account of life’s jolts. The preacher speaks of joy and peace and contentment; great surges of strength and wonderful infusions of enthusiasm. The preacher links it all to Jesus. When he dangles Jesus in front of jaded people, it’s all as attractive as the prospect of a beach holiday in the March break.

There is only one problem with the preacher’s presentation, but it’s a big problem: regardless of what he says, in fact he has left out Jesus. He thinks he has included him, since he ascribes all the “goodies” we get to him. But the huge error the preacher has made is this: he thinks we can have all that our Lord genuinely wants to give us without having our Lord himself. But we can’t. Jesus Christ does not give us joy, peace, contentment, strength and encouragement as though he were dispensing tonic from a medicine bottle. Our Lord can only give us himself. As he gives us himself, he does indeed give us “all things with him”, in the words of Paul. Popular preachers too often persist in overlooking something crucial: to be bound to Jesus Christ is to be bound to a cross. Warmly Jesus invites people to become disciples; realistically he also tells them that there is no discipleship, no intimacy with him apart from cross-bearing. To take up with him is to take up our cross.

I should never deny that fellowship with Jesus Christ is glorious indeed. He does bring us peace which the world cannot bring, peace which therefore passes the world’s understanding, peace which nothing and no one either gives or takes away. At the same time, fellowship with our Lord is double-sided: he insists that he brings not peace but a sword; specifically, that sword with which a hostile world wounds his disciples.

When the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her two sons can have extraordinary places of honour in the kingdom of God , Jesus, as his custom is, does not answer her question. Instead he asks his own question: “Can your two sons withstand getting kicked in the teeth on account of me?”

Jesus insists that cross-bearing is as essential a part of discipleship as obedience or prayer or worship. It’s not the case that we become disciples and then discover, much later, that every now and then there is a minor down-side to it all. Quite the contrary. Jesus calls us saying, “I promise you such blessing as to be available nowhere else, so wonderful that you may describe it but never explain it; I also promise you suffering that you have never imagined. Now do you still want me?”

Scripture never moves away from this conviction. In the Sermon On The Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Elsewhere, “you cannot be my disciple unless you take up your cross.” In Acts 5 the apostles finally leave the Sanhedrin (call it the church courts) “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for [Christ’s] name.” Paul writes so matter of factly, “Anyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” James encourages his readers, “Count it all joy … when you meet various trials.”

One thing is plain: to shun cross-bearing, to shun that suffering which faithfulness to our Lord brings upon us, is to shun our Lord himself. Peter wept heart-brokenly in the wake of his denial. Peter had seen that the most intense suffering would shortly be visited upon his Lord. Quickly he disowned any connection with Jesus in order to spare himself similar suffering. In the same instant Peter knew he had divorced himself from the one for whom he had earlier said he would walk on broken glass.

When the National Alliance of Covenanting Congregations Within The United Church of Canada was formed the Rev. Gervis Black, senior minister from Metropolitan UC, London, toured the maritimes speaking on behalf of the Alliance (my former congregation Streetsville United Church, was a founding member.) At his first stop he found half-a-dozen congregations expressing much interest in the Alliance and eager to meet with him. The ministers of these congregations, however, were so frightened (of denominational authorities) that none of them would permit his church-building to be used for the meeting. The meeting had to be held in a school; in Halifax the meeting had to be held in a hotel. I understand why the ministers were frightened. I understand why Peter was frightened. Who wouldn’t have been frightened? Peter, however, wept. His weeping was his salvation.

 

II: — Christians live in the world. There is an aspect to our existence in the world to which Christians are surprisingly naive: the world is hostile to Jesus Christ and therefore hostile to the gospel. The world, however, is not hostile to religion. The world tolerates religion, even approves it. In fact, it is a mark of sophistication and broad-mindedness to find value in religion. As long as Christian discipleship, so-called, passes itself off as religion all is well. But as soon as Jesus Christ is seen to contradict the world’s self-understanding and self-projection, then Christ’s people are set upon. When Jesus sends out his missioners he says, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; you are going to get flogged in the churches.” (Why would the church flog apostles of Jesus? Because religion is acceptable in the church as it is in the world; whereas Jesus Christ, his truth and his people frequently are not.) “You will be hounded by all on account of me”, the master says chillingly. In John’s gospel Jesus prays for his people. Earnestly he says to his Father, “I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”

But why does the world (including a worldly church) hate our Lord and his people? Because the world sees Christians as disturbers of the peace. Jesus himself is a disturber of the peace. He and the world collide. Righteousness and sin cannot be reconciled. Truth exposes falsehood for what it is. Transparency shames duplicity. The kingdom of God and the work of the evil one are forever incompatible.

The irony of it all, of course, is that Jesus is the world’s friend as no one else is. And yet the world hates the only one who can save it. Christians stand with their Lord in solidarity with the world for the sake of the world; yet the world abuses them. In brief, to be a Christian is always to be saddled with affliction. There is no escape. Affliction at the hands of the world progresses through three phases. The first is defamation. Things are said about disciples, accusations are made, which are simply not true. The second phase is ostracism. You aren’t on the inner circle any longer (if you ever were); you aren’t on the “A” team; you’ve been waved to the back of the bus. The third phase is out-and-out abuse. Jesus illustrates this progression himself. First he was called a demon-possessed bastard. Then he was relegated to the fringes of the religious establishment. Finally he was “terminated”. What have you been called? I’ve been called much. Of course it hurts. But in fact it’s a badge of honour, a mark of our discipleship.

 

III: — People who ask about cross-bearing don’t usually have in mind what we’ve discussed so far. They usually have something else in mind. When people speak of bearing their cross they customarily mean not that extraordinary suffering brought upon us through our loyalty to him whom the world despises; they mean the ordinary suffering that comes to us simply because we are fragile creatures who live in an unpredictable environment. We fall sick, our teenager gets derailed, our aged parent is chronically confused, our brother-in-law is meaner than a junk-yard dog, we lose our job. We sigh with genuine weariness and wonder how we are going to “bear our cross.”

There are two things I want to say about this. In the first place, the suffering that comes upon us as part of the human lot the NT never speaks of as a cross to be borne.   If tomorrow I am found to have encephalitis or Lou Gehrig’s disease it will be dreadful, and not to be made light of. At the same time, it is not a “cross”, strictly speaking, since it is suffering brought on me simply through being human, not through being Christ’s disciple.

The second thing I want to say bears very careful attention. In the Roman Catholic tradition especially, it is acknowledged that the suffering we incur simply through being human, if borne cheerfully, without bitterness or rancour or resentment — this “ordinary” suffering becomes a sacrifice offered up to God and now has the significance of suffering incurred through being a disciple. You see, it comes naturally to us to resent suffering, chafe under it, be embittered by it and then poison ever so many others on account of it. Left to ourselves, this is how we fallen human beings react. It is by grace; in the words of Hebrews it is by “looking unto Jesus” that the suffering we neither brought on ourselves nor are able to get rid of doesn’t embitter us, disfigure us and poison others.

If, as our Roman Catholic friends insist, suffering borne in this way is indeed a sacrifice offered up to God, then it is legitimate for us to speak of it as a cross to be borne. After all, it is our discipleship which keeps us looking unto Jesus in the midst of our ineradicable suffering.

A year or two ago I was a speaker at a summer Conference in the course of which there was to be a healing service where the worship-leader laid hands upon people as he prayed for them. Two people at this event captured my attention: a 60-year old woman, a widow, together with her 35-year old son. She was a Registered Nurse and worked for the Peel Board of Education. She had had a small stroke. It had not impaired thought or speech, but it had inhibited movement in one arm and one leg. She hobbled. Her son, on the other hand, was very ill; he was severely schizophrenic. He lived with his mother inasmuch as he couldn’t live anywhere else. She was struggling to go to work every day despite her disabilities, even as she had to look out for and look after her psychotic son. In the afternoon before the evening’s healing service the son and I were sitting in front of the coffee machine chatting about anything at all. Suddenly he faced me in dead earnestness and said, “At the service tonight I am coming to you to have you lay hands on me. I want to be free from the voices; you know, the voices.” My heart sank. I staggered to my feet, bought us each an ice-cream cone, and took him for a walk. Ever since then I have pondered his unrelieved suffering, his mother’s difficulty, the struggle she has day by day — and the genuine cheerfulness in which she contends with it all. That’s what I ponder most: her transparent good nature and cheerfulness in the face of it all! It is by her looking unto Jesus that the suffering which isn’t a consequence of her discipleship has the significance, before God, of that suffering which is; for it is by looking unto Jesus that she has offered up to him what would otherwise embitter and disfigure her even as it poisoned others.

 

IV: — There is something more we must be sure to notice today. While in passage after passage the NT insists that cross-bearing is a necessary part of discipleship, in no passage does the NT speak of this in terms of protest or complaint. No complaining, no bewailing our appointment, no griping, no self-pity. Why not? Simply because Christians of apostolic discernment and experience know that Christ’s cross is that by which he conquers. They know that his resurrection means not that his cross has been left behind; his resurrection is precisely what continues to make his cross effective; they know that his resurrection is precisely what makes his ongoing suffering victorious in the world.

Few people understand that the risen Jesus suffers still. Many people assume that Jesus had a bad day, one Friday. Then he had a super day on Easter Sunday and things have gone swimmingly ever since. In other words, they assume that in his resurrection Jesus left his crucifiedness behind him forever. Not so! It is the risen Christ who says to Thomas, “Look at my gaping wounds.” Even as raised he is still wounded. It is the risen Christ who cried out to Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?”, when Paul (at that time Saul) was persecuting Christ’s people. The risen one suffers still. However, his resurrection means that his ongoing suffering is now the leading edge of God’s victory in the world.

The cross which you and I bear is the leading edge of God’s victory over whatever evil laps at us. Taken up into this victory ourselves, we know that the afflictions we bear will never best us. Indeed our affliction itself will be used of God to alleviate someone else’s affliction. Is it not Christ’s wounds which heal us? Is it not his death which brings us life? Is it not his suffering which comforts us? Then as cross-bearers with him it is our privilege to be used of him in similar manner on behalf of so many others. Remember, nowhere in the NT is cross-bearing, an inevitable aspect of discipleship, spoken of in terms of protest or complaint.

None of this is to suggest that cross-bearing is pleasant or will ever be. It is difficult; frequently it is dreadful. Our Lord knows this. That’s why he urges patience and cheerfulness upon his people. “In the world you will have tribulation”, he says, “but be of good cheer, the world is precisely what I have overcome.” Intense as suffering is, however, it is not the case that we are to hang on grimly until the day comes when we are finally relieved by him who has overcome the world. Right now, rather, Christ’s people are those who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”. What we have already tasted convinces us that it is real; it quickens our longing for more; and it assures us that what we have already tasted and now long for, God will supply one day in fullest measure.

Paul says that the life of Christ’s people, our true life, real life, is at present hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, we shall appear with him in glory. Then may you and I ever be found cheerfully bearing whatever cross we must. For just as our Lord endured suffering and shame only to be vindicated before the entire creation, so shall we be vindicated as his people; for he will have brought us, cross and all, through that turbulent, treacherous world which he has overcome on behalf of every one of us.

 

                                                                                            Victor Shepherd

January 2005