Take up your cross & follow me.

The Text: Matthew 10:24-39

 A minister in the US, who served a very wealthy congregation, was once invited by one of his parishioners to spend a week on their yacht in the Bahamas. They just gave him the keys. His response when asked if that was hard to take was “Well, someone has to minister to the souls of the wealthy, and you can’t do that if you don’t accept their invitations!” Hmm? Not exactly, “Take up your cross and follow me!” (Matthew 16:24b) is it?

In the Gospel for today, Jesus appoints twelve of His disciples to take His mission and message to God’s people, Israel. So, what does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to follow Christ? Are there perks? What are the benefits?

Some church leaders today teach that people who believe in, and follow Jesus should expect to be healthy, wealthy and – above all – happy. They say that if you believe strongly enough you can have that yacht in the Bahamas, you can bypass sickness and disease, you can have a happy, fulfilling life, and you can have that perfect marriage with perfect children. It has been said that you can have all these things because of your obedience. There is a whole industry out there of Christian ‘self-help’ books and products promising success in almost everything, if you will follow Jesus (and, of course, buy the books, CD’s, DVD’s and online courses).

This “happy, fulfilling life” is not the message of today’s Gospel lesson and neither is it the message of Jesus in the Scriptures. Jesus does indeed bring true happiness (what the Bible calls ‘joy’) to His followers. We can take our trials and troubles to God and He does hear and answer us.   We pray for our children when they are sick or in trouble and we turn to God when there is more fortnight left at the end of our pay than there is pay left at the end of the fortnight. Christianity is not an invitation to doom and gloom because Jesus says, …whoever loses is life for My sake will find it.  In Christ, we find life revealed to us by God’s Holy Spirit.

People who study things like church growth tell us that the church today faces a ‘consumerist’ culture, which (we’re told) must shape our outreach with the Gospel or we miss the boat. People are looking for services from the church, rather than a community to serve. Given a choice between wearing a gold cross or bearing a wooden cross – most people these days will take the gold!

Today’s Gospel challenges our perceptions and perspectives. What does it mean to follow Christ? And more than that – what does it take to serve Christ (to be a disciple)? Perhaps the best way to look at this is to ask the question, “What are our expectations in being followers of Christ?” What is it that we want from Him, and from His church? In spite of anything we might have heard to the contrary, Christianity is a religion where God does all the giving and we do all the hearing, believing and responding with acts of love and kindness which are only possible because of God’s grace and blessing.

When Jesus sends out His chosen Twelve, He tells them, and us, in very clear terms what to expect. Expect persecution and expect conflict – even within our own family. Expect to make a “no holds barred” commitment. However – in the end, also expect to receive the true meaning of life and living. There are three themes in Jesus’ words to us today: Persecution, Presence, and Promise.

  1. Persecution

When Jesus sent His chosen twelve out, He made it clear to them that they would receive the same treatment He received. They would face rejection, hostility and harassment. This may seem almost ‘other worldly’ to many of us. Some of us may not take much heat for our faith. But there are those like Michael Job, a twenty one year old college student, who was killed in India by fanatical Hindus in 1999 for his and his father’s faith. His father, Dr Job, was a well-known evangelist and Christian worker.

The fanatics did not like Dr. Job or his Christian message, so they killed his son. Dr. Job was devastated­, but not broken. He responded to the hatred by starting an orphanage unlike any other in India. This orphanage is only for girls (strange enough in a culture that doesn’t value girls); but even more unusual,­ is that this orphanage is only for girls of persecuted and martyred Christians. Today the Michael Job Centre for Orphan Girls is an invaluable refuge for hundreds of girls of persecuted families from all over the Indian sub-continent. Each child who comes to the centre is a vision of hope for the future – a hope that is born out of the sorrow of the cross and strengthened by the love of God.

You and I may not face that kind of danger for our faith and trust in Christ, yet there may be times when our Christian values challenge the values of the world around us. Remember that a strong commitment to Jesus Christ will bring a crunch somewhere, sometime, to all of us. And when that happens – how will we respond?

  1. Presence

The second theme of today’s Gospel is presence. Two things help when Christians face a world which is hostile to Jesus and our commitment to Him: God knows and God cares! In other words, God is present with us in every circumstance of life. It is God’s presence which gives us strength and courage to openly affirm “Jesus is Lord” and our deepest values, our commitment to our Lord! God gives us His Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, to say with St Paul, Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).

Jesus did warn that if we deny Him before others (either in word or deed) He would deny us before God. Thus we are to stand firm, all the more, because we have the knowledge of God’s care in the midst of our trials. And if our strength fades or our commitment wavers, we are blessed with the knowledge that the One who bought our souls with His life will heal our failures through His love (as He did with Peter when he denied Jesus prior to Jesus’ death).

  1. Promise

The third, and most important, theme of today’s Gospel is promise. One of the amazing and wonderful things about our faith is that in the midst of the most difficult test of all – when the worst which can happen to us has happened or is happening to us – the promises of God come through to bring, hope, joy and new life!

Jesus said, “…whoever loses his life for My sake will find it”. Here Jesus takes the values and presuppositions of this world and turns them upside down and inside out. The way up with God is down. The first will be last and the last, first. The world says that the one who has lots of servants is great, while Jesus says that the one who serves a lot is truly great. The world says that the one who saves and invests a lot in the markets of this world will be secure, while Jesus says the one who gives up the treasures of this world will have the ultimate security – namely “treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:20 ESV) An old seminary professor used to quip that the holy ministry may not pay very much but the retirement benefits are out of this world.

Whether we like it or not, our Christian faith is based on the way of the Cross. In Jesus’ cross, death has been defeated and the way is opened to life and immortality. Now it is our turn. Jesus invites all of us to take up our cross and follow Him. In other words, take the crosses off our churches, our altars and from around our necks, and take them out into the world and through our love and service, put them into the hearts of people as Jesus has done for us.

For the cross is not merely a symbol, but a way of life, the way of authentic love, the way of God. It is not merely an ornament, but our hope, our only hope (and indeed, everyone’s only hope) for true health, wealth, and happiness. In the name of Jesus.