“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
All of you are familiar with the concept of “wish list”s. They pop up—sometimes at our specific request, and sometimes with no prompting at all!—they pop up around Christmas, or birthday, or in the more sophisticated form of the “bridal registry”. It seems to be an innate capacity of ours to identify and list all the things we need, or want.
I see wish lists in people’s lives in other forms, too. It may be talking about “what I am going to do when I grow up”, or “what degree I’m going to get when I finish VCE”, or “how many children I’m going to have at which years in my marriage”, or “what I’m going to do when I cash in my super”.
The positive thing about a wish list is that it gives us an insight into someone, an opportunity, a focus, an understanding, a goal. The danger of a wish list is that if it doesn’t eventuate—none of it!—(Not even one thing on my list, but all this other junk instead!)—we may end up desperately disappointed, disillusioned, even hurt, and angry.
The school of experience has taught me to value instead what I call the “prerogative of the giver”. Giving is the prerogative of the giver. A gift is the prerogative of the giver. It may well be that the gift is, in fact, exactly what I wanted, perfect, just right! But it is, before that, what the giver has wanted to give, is able to give; it is, first of all, a gift that is generated by the excitement, the love, the desire of the giver.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I think that probably 99% of the occasions on which I have heard those words, I have readied myself to do something, to take something up—“my cross”. But go back a couple of verses in the Gospel today and you are reminded that when Jesus talks of the cross he is talking not of something that you carry, but something that carries you, that fixes you, that leaves you powerless, naked, stopped—
At that moment—taking the cross (or being taken up by it)—you lose life. And from that moment life becomes, again, as it was in the beginning, a gift, and the prerogative of the Giver.
A little later, you’ll recall, Jesus—nailed to the cross—prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And then it is up to the Father. What will the Father give? In his teaching Jesus once made a point of talking about the Father’s giving. He pointed out that if we understand that even evil fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts”!
Easter is the prerogative of the Giver, the gift of the Father. The life Jesus lives is the gift of the Father. The life we live, in Christ, is the gift of the Father. The life we have seen one person after another receive in recent weeks in baptism, is the gift of the Father. The life given to you, body and blood, at the altar today, is the gift of the Father.
To put it quite bluntly, in denying yourself and taking the cross, you render yourself open to the gift.
This isn’t how we always think when we consider our “faith life”, or our “spirituality”, where we might prepare a list of what we think we should do…what we think we should pray for…how things must be. Sometimes we think that “denying yourself” is giving up ‘chocolate’ or ‘wine’ or ‘take away’ or ‘TV’ and choosing to improve yourself by spending more time on much more pious but probably less exciting indulgences.
The example of Abraham is rather interesting. Abraham is often touted by us as a man of great faith. Indeed he was! But the exercise of his faith is somewhat perverse. God promises many descendants and a wonderful land. And in order to actually receive these gifts Abraham has to—and this doesn’t happen easily: he often resists, he second-guesses God, he lies, he manipulates—in order to actually receive the gift of the promise of family and land Abraham has to accept that he and his wife are barren, and then give their home away! Abraham receives the promise by giving away. It is completely counter-intuitive.
We have watched some close neighbours in the last few weeks lose everything. Some of us have made little lists of what we would take if we were threatened by something that could very well take everything. What would try to keep? What would try to save? We’ve seen people in tears celebrate the poverty of life, of family when everything else is gone. We’ve been unsettled in ourselves. What is important? As the economy falls away, or as health deteriorates, or as age catches up, or as plans collapse, or as windows of opportunity slam shut, or as reference points shift, or as friends disappoint—
“My God, my God,” Jesus cries, “why have you abandoned me?” And yet, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
That is the emptiness of taking the cross. That is losing your life. That is trust that the God into whose hands we give everything is “for us”; that he who gave everything up for us, will not give us up!; that, in fact, he will give us all good things—clothed better than the flowers, fed better than the birds, loved better than the child loved by the best of earthly parents.
Taking up the cross is not about devising a spiritual discipline, praying a prayer list, giving something away (for Lent!). Taking up the cross is about relationship. It is about will. It is about identity. Ultimately it is about shifting our minds from “what could I do?” and “what could I want?” and “what could I be?” to “what has God done, for me?” and “what does God will for me?” and “what has God made me to be?”.
There is an old phrase that we use in the Church that talks about God’s “plan of salvation”. When we “take up the cross” we are not taking that plan into our control, but are recognizing that God’s plan of salvation takes us up into it, into his will, into his love. Abraham was taken up into that by giving up country, culture, home, status, security and receiving in return all the wealth of all the blessing of God—all of which had not been part of his plans, nowhere on his list. But out of it he became a conduit of God’s blessings to all the nations of the world. St Paul, who we heard today talking about and admiring the faith of Abraham, had had a similar challenging lesson about being taken up into God’s plan. Paul had been turned around in his own life, giving up his ‘religiosity’, giving up his ‘expertise’, giving up his perfection and status and authority and power, giving up his sense of security and even giving up his concept of what constitutes real ‘health’ and ‘strength’ and, in return ended up knowing the liberation of grace—of receiving rather than earning or commanding. He gave up what was his whole world and received an unexpected gift which, in turn, he would never give up even if the whole world were offered back to him.
Pastor David Stolz gave us, the pastors in his care, a little wooden cross he had made for each of us—just the right size to hold on to comfortably—big enough to fill your hand. In prayer, in thinking, or in sharing with another who needs to be reminded of the grace of God…
In a way you might say that in order to take up the cross, we have to put the “wish list” down. In holding the cross (and being held by it) our hands are actually freed, our eyes are freed, our minds are freed, our lives are freed to focus fully on the gracious will of God. [In the garden Jesus prayed, as he was about to be taken up on the cross, “not my will, but your will….”] The emptiness which comes from handing it over to God actually frees us to receive what does not necessarily appear on our self-made “wish lists”s, and opens us up to experiences of contentment, or healing, or recovery, or service, or generosity, or patience…or love…that we may not otherwise have planned.
In losing what we often think of as “life”, and in taking up the cross, we take up and are taken up by the fullness of God; we hold and are held by the eternal love of God. The cross and the resurrection are the one place, the one event, the one gift.
James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father….” It is the prerogative of the Giver!