Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting,14th of Eleventh Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Luke 9:23–27, NRSV
23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Good morning, Friends!
We’ve now had the first snow in Richmond, yesterday and today: Saturday it was just a dusting on the grass and in the garden, and it stuck to the roofs of houses for a few hours; but nothing on the streets or sidewalks, nothing that needed to be shoveled. As such, it was a pleasant surprise, nice to look at, but not requiring any work. Still, it’s a harbinger of what is coming.
And in the natural world around us, creatures are dying, in this season, as the light lessens, the temperatures drop, and sources of food become exhausted. The trees are dropping their leaves, and the flowers and grasses in our garden are dry. The birds that migrate have been passing through for weeks now, and most of them are already on their wintering grounds. Some insects have found their way inside our house, in a bid to find hospitable quarters, but most of them won’t make it all the way through the winter (the squirrels in our basement are another matter).
Creatures are dying, in this season. In the plant world, of course, for the trees and many other species, it’s a matter of dormancy rather than death. And those plants or insects
that are dying now have scattered seeds or laid eggs so that more of their kind may come forth in the spring. So in some cases, there is death that yet bears the promise of future life.
Death is the context for the passage from Luke that we’ve heard this morning. Jesus has just been speaking to his inner circle of his own death; for the first time in Luke, he tells them in the preceding verses that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected by the authorities, be killed, and rise again (v21–22). Then, it seems he turns to a larger group of his followers, and speaks of what it means to be his disciple.
In these words, he doesn’t mention death directly, but again, it is the context. He says that discipleship means taking up the cross. Now, in that day, taking up the cross meant only one thing: great suffering and death. The cross was the tool used by a merciless empire to punish slaves and revolutionaries; it was meant to terrorize all those who looked upon it. For Jesus to say “take up your cross and follow me” would have meant, “follow me to my public execution.” And of course, since we know the rest of the story, we know that none of his followers would go to Golgotha in that way—in fact, most of those gathered around him here in chapter nine were nowhere near the cross on the day of Jesus’ death.
So if Jesus was calling his disciples to a physical death on the cross along with him, he would be disappointed. The call, it seems, is wider, and takes in more than just those who were there to hear it on that day. Nonetheless, it is a call to die.
Let me say at this point that I don’t like to talk about death; probably few of us do. Experiencing the death of others, as we inevitably do in a community of faith, is always painful, and especially when there has been suffering. And thinking about the prospect of pain and suffering for our own selves is daunting. I trust that the more spiritually mature among us have made their peace with what it means to die; if so, you are clear on how to approach the end of your earthly life, and thanks be to God for that. I continue to struggle with what this inevitable fact will mean for me. Actually, what I really should say is that on most days, I am going to avoid that struggle, and find something else—anything else—to occupy my thoughts.
And yet, Jesus’ call still echoes in my ears.
I said earlier that if the disciples understood Jesus to say that they should each immediately follow him to death on the cross, they didn’t respond. Indeed, I think that the call to die is not usually a call to physical death; it is certainly not a call to self-destruction, or to behavior that irresponsibly puts one’s life in danger. Some Christians are called to risk-taking in ways that could mean loss of life, but those should be carefully-discerned risks, undertaken only after having become clear on God’s will for the particular situation. Here I think of Christian Peacemaker Teams; when I took their training in 2005, they included at least one unit on death and its consequences, encouraging us to engage with the topic seriously. We each needed to be clear that the violence reduction work that CPT does, in conflict zones in various places in the world, could lead to death or serious injury. We shared what we each believed about death, the possibility of life afterward, how our deaths would affect our loved ones, and related topics. As CPT teams continue their work in the field, they occasionally return to this kind of discernment, when an action they are considering might lead to serious consequences for themselves, or for the partners whose work they support (who are, in many cases, much more susceptible to violence and the threat of violence).
But relatively few of us are called to the kind of work that CPT does, and the discipleship that Jesus is describing is for everyone. He says to them all, ‘if any want to become my followers...”). So taking up the cross has multiple dimensions.
One of these dimensions is that cross-bearing is a regular process or practice. To emphasize this, Luke adds a word that doesn’t appear in either Mark or Matthew’s version of this scene—he adds the word daily: “take up [your] cross daily and follow me.” Discipleship is not one-and-done; Jesus calls us to it, day in and day out.
There are few things I can so readily confirm in my own experience other than my need daily to submit my will to God’s. If I don’t begin the day on my knees, asking for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven, in me as it is in heaven, I will be set on my own agenda for the rest of that day. Indeed, submission for me often needs to happen not just daily, but hourly, or minute by minute. “Not my will, O God, but yours be done, in this meeting, on this phone call, in this visit, in this sermon...” This is a small part of what it means for me to take up the cross daily. And the tremendous grace in this, of course, is that God is willing to start over with me, each day, each hour, each minute—when I’ve screwed up and harmed someone, or relied on my own cleverness, or gone off on my own.
Another dimension of what Jesus says here about cross-bearing is in denying self. (Man, another topic I don’t like to talk about—who picked this Scripture passage, by the way?) I’ve never been particularly good at self-denial. In its extreme, I associate it with asceticism, monks living in the desert, fasting, and various other spiritual practices which I admire but that I’ve never been able to get very far with. In my day-to-day life, of course, self-denial has much more to do with not having that extra cookie, or another drink, or turning the TV off after dinner so I can actually get something productive done. But some commentators suggest that what Jesus is speaking of here goes much deeper than even the asceticism of a desert monk. They link “denial” here with what Peter will later do, when he is singled out as one who has been with Jesus: huddled around the fire there in the forecourt of the palace, a servant woman says, “You were with him!” He says, “I do not know the man!!” (22:57). He denies Jesus, utterly. So to deny the self, as part of cross-bearing, is to move oneself out of the center so far that one can say, “I do not know you!!” about oneself.
To some, this might feel not like self-denial, but more like self-annihilation; but the tremendous grace in this is that God will give us back so much of ourselves, if we first are willing to let go of all of it. We each have gifts and talents given to us by God—natural ability, personality, and fruits of learning—each of these things God wants to use for the good of God’s reign, if we will say, “I do not know these things in me because they are mine, but because you have given them to me.” Like those dying grasses in our garden that have scattered their seed, this is death that yet bears the promise of future life.
Isaac Penington is one of those treasured writers of the first generations of Friends whose words many of us return to, time and time again. Perhaps you're one of those people who knows Isaac's writings—I don't know them very well, but there are a few signal quotes that I have found very helpful. One that I want to read to you here is about that death of the self:
Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee...
“Sink down to the Seed...”
Let the self die...
find, within, the presence of God...
“...give over thine own desiring to know or be any thing”;
this is what the death of the self, as we bear the cross, can look like.
Cross-bearing of course has many other dimensions. One of the important ones is suffering. I'm not going to say much about suffering today, other than that cross-bearing involves suffering that is willingly chosen, not suffering that is imposed upon one by someone else, or by one’s circumstances. So sometimes the task is to discern: is this a cross I have been called to bear? Is this a cross I would willingly choose, or is this suffering that has been imposed upon me?
Another dimension that has been on my mind this past week, and probably on some of yours as well, is really a corporate element—if we can be said to be bearing the cross corporately in any way, or if there is a way for us to bear the cross together. And that relates to the climate emergency that we find ourselves in. It seems more and more evident that many things in our current way of living, in the way that we have become accustomed to live in the United States, must die in order for us to allow the creation to live more fully. I don't know what the death of the self looks like in the age of climate disaster. But I think that downward movement, that release, that letting go of things is one of the things we must consider as people who have much, and whose way of life is not sustainable.
To close, I want to read you more of Isaac Penington’s words, in the hope that these will be helpful as we enter our time of open worship. I'll begin where I began, but read a little bit further, as he describes the death of the self:
Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion. And as thou takest up the cross to thyself, and sufferest that to overspread and become a yoke over thee, thou shalt become renewed.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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