Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pick Up Your Cross

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed so that He could rise again, but Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him.

Every parent of a small child knows this scenario, or one like it.  The child is engaged in some kind of risky play… perhaps riding a bike or playing vigorously on a swing set.  One moment everything is fine, the next, disaster strikes.  A fall, a cut, a bump, a bruise… and tears, lots and lots of tears.  You rush to the child, hug, clean the wound, apply a band-aid, more hugs, and then… what?  What do you do next?  What wisdom, what counsel, do you give to the child?

Some parents caution: “Try to be more careful now.  Some encourage: “Go on back to having fun.  Some say, “Mommy (or Daddy) is going to be right here with you to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.  Some try to protect: “Let’s not get back on the bike (or the swing set or whatever it was). It is too dangerous for you. 

Each response sends a distinct and powerful message.  Try to be more careful,” tells the child that it is safe to engage the world again as long as you learn from the past.  Go back to having fun,” suggests that bumps and bruises are all a part of life’s natural ebb and flow.  Mommy is with you,” conveys the message that the presence of a caring adult can and will keep you safe.  It is a promise that can be difficult to deliver, unless you become over-protective.  Let’s not get back on the bike” sends a message that suffering and pain must be avoided at all costs.  Which message would you want to give to a child?

Here is another way to think about it… if God came to you and said, “I will give you either the ability to keep your child safe from all harm or the ability to comfort and heal your child,” which would you choose?  Based on today’s Gospel reading, I think it is safe to say the Peter would choose safety while Jesus would choose comfort and healing.

What is wrong with Peter’s approach?  Who doesn’t want to avoid pain and suffering and heartache and rejection and (ultimately) death itself?  Why shouldn’t Jesus get out of Dodge, head for the hills, hideout, and not be crucified?  What is wrong with that?  It seems smart.  It seems prudent.  It seems logical.  It feels right.  But, it comes with a huge, hidden cost: the price you pay for shrinking back from life.

Think about that child with the bruised knee or the bloody elbow.  What price does the child pay if he never gets back on the bike or if she never again climbs on the swing set?  Over time the child will become tentative, fearful, and withdrawn.  What happens if parent makes the child’s total safety his or her responsibility and never leaves the child’s side?  Over time it will diminish the child’s natural ability to engage challenges and to recover from setbacks; experiences every child faces on a daily basis.
It is also a struggle we in the adult world engage time and time again in many varied forms and fashions.  Think about what happens in life if you give your heart to another and somewhere down the road that person disappoints or rejects you?  You may regret ever opening up and trusting yourself to that person and you may vow never again to be vulnerable.  That is playing it safe, but it comes at a terrible price, doesn’t it.  You may be safe, but you will also be alone.

What if you take a risk to pursue your passion in life by starting your own business and it goes belly up?  You can chastise yourself for being so foolish and vow never to take another risk.  But which is worse: having your dream turn sour, or going through life with no dream or hope to guide you? 
When Jesus tells His followers that He must suffer, be rejected, and be crucified, he is showing us through his own life the most basic pattern of what human life is all about.  How could Jesus be our model if he led a life of privilege free of pain, suffering, risk, and death?  That was fine for the mythical gods on Mt. Olympus, but it cannot be the way of God incarnate in the fullness of our humanity.

But notice this about the pattern of living that Jesus himself engages.  It does not end with suffering, rejection, pain, and death.  At the end of this pattern there is always an experience of resurrection, of new life.  New life never looks like the child mopping fearfully with head in hands sitting on the porch step.  New life looks like the bruised, but bandaged child running and climbing and riding and swinging and going after life because he or she knows first hand the power of comfort and healing.

Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me because those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose it will save it.  In this I hear him say that you can’t walk well in life if you are fearful of all that might befall you.  You can’t always walk around the experience of suffering, you can’t always walk above it, and you can’t always walk away from it, if you want to walk in the fullness of life.  If you want to walk in the fullness of life then there are times that you must walk in suffering, with suffering, and even toward suffering. 

Walking this path, which Jesus names ‘picking up your cross,’ will be difficult at times, but it always leads to life… new, abundant, and whole.  Walking away from this life, leaving your cross and shrinking back, leads to fear, to regret, and to a gradual diminishment of what it means to be human.  When Peter suggests that this ‘safe’ path is the one our Lord should take, Jesus responds with the sharpest rebuke in all of scripture: “Get behind me, Satan!  I'll hear none of that! 

So in the end we are always faced with a choice.  The first is this: We can engage life to the fullest extent possible.  This path, which has many, many rich blessings, is the life Jesus shows us in his life, but it comes at a cost.  It means you will have to know suffering, rejection, hurt, pain, betrayal, and death, but the promise of Jesus is the Easter promise of God’s comfort and healing.  That is one possible choice.  The other is to shrink back by limiting your exposure to hurt and pain.  While this path looks safer, it too comes at a cost.  The price you pay is the dulling of life, the diminishment of the human experience.  And, if Jesus is right, if it is Satan who encourages us to walk this road, then the path of caution leads to something usually not associated with it: it is a choice to experience hell on earth.

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”