March 4, 2012
+ I have been very good, so far, this Lent in my daily disciplines. One of them—despite my giving up things like beer—has been daily spiritual reading. And one of the books that I have been slowly and deliberately reading is the latest book by one of my favorite authors, Leonard Sweet.
Now, I’ve always prided myself on not being a follower. I’ve never been much of a joiner-in. I don’t like following anyone. Yes, I know. I’m kind of a rebel. And, I really kind of like leading. I even teach a class regularly at the University of Mary on Leadership.
So, this book really challenged me. But that’s a good thing. I need to be challenged. And, in this Lenten season, I need to be shaken out of my complacency a bit. For all my apprehension, I have really come to love this book.
Of course, Leonard Sweet is just one of those authors who makes such subjects appealing. And what he so gently reminds me—and hopefully all of us—is that to be a Christian means suspending much of what we once held dear. It is about sacrifice. It about looking at new ways of relating to one another in this world. And, as he also so gently reminds us, be a Christian—to be a disciple—is to be a follower. A follower of Jesus. And that being a follower is truly counter to everything we think about as Americans.
There are hundred and hundred of classes and book about leadership out there. But, Sweet reminds us, there are no books about being followers. And oftentimes to be an effective leader, we must learn first to be a good and effective follower.
I know. It sounds strange. And it still feels weird for me to say it. But I have to admit—this book has shaken me to my core and made me look anew of so much.
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus explaining to us in very blunt words what it means to be a disciple. For him, being a disciple, means being a follower. A follower of him. Hopefully, those of us who have gained any sort of maturity as Christians have come to the realization that being a Christian—being a follower of Jesus—means that we are being led into some unhappy circumstances.
Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean being happy and cheerful all the time. It doesn’t mean having our way all the time. Trust me. I know too many of these kind of Christians. These are the people who think being a Christian means having bright sunny days every day. It means that following Jesus means not having to think anymore. Just believing that all will well and there aren’t any problems. They think every day is some Technicolor musical from the 1950s, where everything just works out for the best in the end. And when it doesn’t work out that way, they despair and lose faith. They rail at God and shake their fists at they and cry to God, “Why?”
Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be joyful in our following of Jesus. Yes, we should be filled with a deep and sincere joy. But, as the old song goes, no one promised us a rose garden. Nowhere in scripture have we been promised that life is going rosy and sweet all the time.
Being a follower is not always so much fun. Being a Christian means not always strolling around in comfort and joy in a rose garden. As we are reminded in this season of Lent and especially in that week preceding Easter, being a Christian means following Jesus wherever he goes. And where he goes is not to the rose garden. It is to the garden of Gethsemane—to that place where he too would feeling anguish, where too would sweat blood, where he too would cry out to God.
Being a disciple means following Jesus. Now when we initially think of this, we no doubt have marvelous images of following Jesus as enraptured students following a great teacher. Certainly, I think, most of us would like to follow Jesus much the same way Buddhists get to follow the Buddha, or even Muslims get to follow Mohammed. Following in this sense is having a student-teacher relationship to some extent. We would like to take the best of his teachings, hold them close to our hearts and try to live them out in our lives the best way we can. Which is very, very good. We should do that as followers of Jesus.
But being a follower of Jesus means doing just that, but also doing more. Our relationship with Jesus is more than just a student-teacher relationship. Our relationship with Jesus is more like lovers. We love Jesus. Jesus loves us. And it is that love that drives us to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
It is that love that makes us feel the anguish he feels. It is that love that makes us suffer with him. It is that love that makes us bleed with him. It means following Jesus not just through the moments of teaching ministry, not just through the miracles he performed. It means following him through the dark days of his last week, through the blood and excruciating moments of his dying. It means that, like him, our love for him causes us take up our crosses and follow him wherever he might go.
Jesus knew, as we find in our Gospel reading for today, that he there were certain things he had to do. He had to “undergo great suffering,” He had to be killed. He understood that fully. He in turn tells us that we too must realize that we will have to bear our share of suffering in this life. We too will have to take up our own crosses.
Now, to be fair, this statement about taking up our crosses needs to be examined a bit. The cross being referenced here might not be what we instantly think it is.
Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, believed that the Greek word used for cross here—stauros—actually might not necessarily have meant the cross on which one was executed. Rather, he believed that it might actually mean the tau (the T) and chi (the X) that was used as a sign of ownership to brand cattle.
This adds a very interesting dimension to this scripture. The brand of the cross that we must bear becomes God’s seal upon us. And when we look beyond the events of Good Friday, we realize that the cross on which Jesus died truly does become the brand we must bear upon ourselves as followers of Jesus.
Even the thought of a brand is not a pleasant thought. Brands are painful, after all. And brands cannot be undone. They mark us forever. And that is what the cross does to us.
Most of us probably don’t give a second thought to the crosses we see in our lives. We see this mighty symbol of Christian faith everywhere we turn sometimes. Crosses mark the steeples of our churches. We place them on our altars. We cover them in gold and silver and bronze. We carry them about in procession. We bow to them when they pass by us. We wear them around our necks, or put them as magnets on our cars. We sanitize them and make them into something pleasing.
But we don’t really THINK about the cross and what it is. We don’t see it as the symbol of pain and torture that it is. We certainly don’t see it as a brand upon us. We don’t see it as that place on which Jesus—as well as countless other people throughout history—were brutally murdered.
The modern equivalent of the cross for us would be a hangman’s noose, or a lethal injection gurney. The cross is a symbol of degradation and physical, emotional and spiritual pain. This is what we are marked with as followers of Jesus. This is what defines us and makes us who we are.
And as such, the cross should be always before us—whether we want it to be or not. Because if it is, it is the reminder to us that following Jesus doesn’t just mean following him through the rose gardens of our lives. It means, following him all the way to that cross. It means taking up our own crosses and staggering with him along that path. It means sweating with him in the garden of Gethsemane. It means crying out with him in anguish. It means feeling with him the humiliation and loneliness of being betrayed—yes, even by one’s own followers.
But, it also means following him to the very end. Just as the cross is a symbol of death and torture and pain—it is, for us Christians, also the symbol of the temporal nature of those things. The cross is the doorway through those awful things, to the glory that awaits us beyond the cross. The cross is the way we must travel, it what we must carry, it is what we must be marked with, if we wish to share in the glory that awaits us beyond the cross.
I said earlier that no one promised us a rose garden in scripture. I should revise that. While we might not have been promised a rose garden, we have been offered glory. Glory comes to us, when we follow Jesus. It comes to us when we let our love for Jesus lead us through the dark and frightening places this world can throw at us. If we let that love guide us, if we let ourselves be led by Jesus, we will find true and unending glory awaiting us.
So, as we encounter the crosses of our lives—and we will—as we allow ourselves to branded with the cross, as we allow our love for Jesus to lead us into places we might not want to go, let us do so with the realization that glory has been offered to us. When we look at the crosses we see around—on the churches, around our necks, on our altars, let us see those crosses tinged in the light of glory. And when we do, will know that there will be no shame for us. We will not be ashamed when Jesus finally does comes in glory to us, with the holy angels, and will offer us—once and for all—that place of refreshment and unending joy.