Carlos Wilton, March 4, 2012; 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B; Mark 8:31-38
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
– Mark 8:34b
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending….”
Those are the first lines of a remarkable short story of the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien [The Things They Carried, Broadway, 1998]. The author tells the story of a platoon of soldiers – ordinary grunts – as they go about the hard work of fighting a war no one quite knew how to fight.
He tells the story using the things they chose to carry in their rucksacks. Some were obvious:
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.”
But, once the necessities were accounted for, O’Brien tells us of other, discretionary items: like Lieutenant Cross’ letters and photographs from the college student Martha, back home in New Jersey. He wasn’t sure if she loved him, even though she signed her letters, “Love, Martha.” He hoped she did.
Ted Lavender was scared; he carried tranquilizers.
Norman Bowker carried a diary.
Ray Kiley, comic books, brandy and M&Ms.
Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament presented to him by his father, back home on the reservation in Oklahoma. He also carried his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet – a tomahawk, really – decorated with feathers.
Being soldiers, they carried much in the way of weapons, of course. Also the heavy ammunition that went with it. “They carried all they could bear,” O’Brien tells us, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
It’s a brilliant literary move, telling the story of this small group of men according to the things they carried. Somehow, we find out more about them as people this way, than if the author had described them directly.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of an item of equipment he expects all Christians to carry: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
We’ve all heard those words before. They’re among the most famous sayings of Jesus. But what do they really mean?
What’s Jesus asking of us? That we do as he did, and find some desperate cause to sacrifice our lives for? That we seek out and welcome suffering in this life? That we even go out of our way to find it?
In the Philippines every Good Friday, there are devout Roman Catholic men who go out and literally have themselves nailed to a cross. The nails that pierce their hands and feet are much smaller in diameter than those used for Jesus, and the crosses are not raised up so the men actually hang from them. After a few moments of agony, someone pulls the nails out and they’re given immediate medical attention. There are some who consider this the height of piety, and honor them as living saints. Others – myself included – see this behavior as bordering on mental illness, and not at all what our Lord intended.
Yet, what does Jesus mean? What does it mean to see the cross as one of the things we carry?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I think there are four criteria we can apply, as we try to answer this question.
The first criterion is this: carrying the cross is a choice.
Sometimes, you know, people will apply the phrase, “the cross you have to bear,” to a whole lot of things that just happen. Like getting sick, for example. If a person comes down with a chronic illness at a young age, and either becomes an invalid or has to spend a large amount of time or money pursuing treatments, there are some who will say, “Take comfort in the fact that this is just the cross you have to bear.”
With all due respect to those who suffer from long-term illness or disability, I have to be honest and say I don’t think this is what Jesus means at all. “If any want to become my followers,” he says – and there’s one mention of choice – “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny, take up, follow: these are all choices as well.
If a person’s diagnosed with, say, ALS – and, looking ahead, can see little ahead of them other than an agonizing death – that is suffering (no doubt about it). Yet, it’s not something the patient ever chose. By the same token, if a person has a brother or sister or cousin whose life is one huge mass of problems, and has frequent and very public run-ins with the law, to the disgrace of the family name, that’s a sad and tragic thing for all concerned. Yet, for the horrified family member, it’s not a cross: because neither the black sheep of the family nor all the white sheep chose to be part of that flock.
Now, maybe if a family member sticks with the black sheep through thick and thin, trying again and again to get the prodigal to see reason and live more responsibly, that could be considered a cross to bear – but that’s because the element of choice is present.
It’s not a cross, my friends, if we don’t choose to bear it.
The second criterion is that Christian cross-bearing does require some suffering or sacrifice. Now, let’s be clear: the suffering is present, but it’s not the main point. That’s my quarrel with the Filipino zealots who get someone to literally drive a nail through their hands and feet. That’s suffering for no reason at all – other than, perhaps, to draw attention to oneself.
If suffering were all it takes to be a good Christian, then we’d need to look no further than a hospital burn unit, or a nursing home filled with patients who’ve lost limbs to diabetes, to discover the most spiritually-advanced souls among us. Now, I don’t doubt there are some Christians who have forged a powerful and durable faith in the midst of such adversity – and they deserve our admiration. Fanny Crosby is one name that comes to mind: that 19th-Century Christian woman, blind from an early age, who wrote thousands of Gospel hymns. Then there’s Joni Eareckson Tada, who dove into the Chesapeake Bay as a teenager and came up a quadriplegic. She learned to paint with a brush held between her teeth, and has written over 40 Christian devotional books and achieved fame as a conference speaker.
Again, in both these cases, it’s not the suffering in and of itself that’s the essence of discipleship. There’s something more.
That brings us to the third criterion. Christian discipleship is a choice that involves some level of suffering or sacrifice, but it’s also got to be something done for the good of others.
When Jesus shouldered the cross, it was a free choice on his part. He could have at least tried for a different outcome, as he stood before Pilate and Herod, but he did not. It also, undeniably, involved terrible suffering and the sacrifice of his own life.
Yet, Jesus’ death on the cross was a purposeful death. He died so you and I might have new life. And that is why the cross hangs in so many churches, including our own, and why it’s become the recognizable symbol of Christian faith worldwide, our logo if you will. The theologians may vigorously debate exactly how Jesus’ death on the cross atones for our sins – and there at least four leading theories – but they’re all agreed that the death of our Lord is a saving death. Jesus did not die for no reason at all. He died for us.
The finally criterion of crossbearing – as I understand it – is that it must glorify God. When Jesus breathed out his last breath on Calvary’s hill, a crusty old Roman Centurion in charge of the execution detail was moved to exclaim, “Surely this was the son of God!” In that moment, he didn’t just witness an enemy of the Emperor, accepting his fate with uncommon courage. Ancient literature is replete with stories of vanquished enemies who died nobly and well, but this is not what the Centurion’s saying, here. In observing the manner of Jesus’ death, the Centurion is watching someone who not only lives, but also dies, as close as a human can possibly be to the Almighty. In dying on the cross, Jesus points the way to God.
So, to sum up: if you and I are to fulfill Jesus’ instruction that we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, four elements must be present:
• service to others
• and, glory to God.
Beyond that, I can’t tell you how to do it – because this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Notice how Jesus says “take up their cross and follow me.” He doesn’t say “my cross.” We’re not called to re-enact the suffering of Jesus, thank God – despite what those fanatics do each year in the Philippines. Nor is cross-bearing, in our case, likely to be a single grand gesture, as it was for him. No, more likely it’s not so much a cross we bear, as many crosses, of differing sizes, shapes and weights, appropriate to different needs and circumstances.
There are many things we carry, in life – just as those soldiers in Vietnam stuffed a multitude of items into their rucksacks. The things we choose to carry say a great deal about who we are. Are most of the things we carry designed for our gratification only? Or do some of them hold a deeper purpose, of sacrificial service beyond self?
It’s not a bad thing, especially during Lent, to empty out the contents of those rucksacks and take account of what’s in there. There may well be some useless items that can be discarded. Yet, if we discover some crosses there, in the mix, we’ll know this gospel of Jesus Christ, this living Word, has taken root in our hearts and is ready to bear fruit.
Let us pray:
Lord, we are so weak in our resolution,
so scattered in our intent.
There are things we carry that weigh us down,
because they have no holy purpose.
You are the one who promises,
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
May we learn, ever more fully,
to leave our ungainly burdens by the side of the road
and replace them with your own:
the burden that is light indeed,
because it is freedom itself.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.