Recently, I was getting breakfast at a diner, and was sitting next to a table where a woman was flipping through the giant diner menu, ignoring suggestions from her daughter and granddaughter who were sitting with her. When the waitress swooped in to take her order, the woman looked up and said: “Okay, this is what I want. I want scrambled egg-whites, lightly scrambled, not too much grease; I want some spinach, some onions, and some tomatoes mixed in. Do you understand?”
I glanced at my own menu. Not only did this dish not appear on the menu, but the top of the menu plainly stated in block letters, NO SUBSTITUTIONS. The waitress replied carefully, “so… you would like a vegetarian omelette, then?” “NO,” the woman snapped. “That’s different. I want lightly scrambled egg-whites with cheese, spinach, and tomatoes. You’ve got all that back there; that’s the way I want it, so just fix it and give it to me.” The waitress looked at the woman for a moment, shrugged her shoulders, and retreated. About 10 minutes later, her egg-whites and veggies arrived, lightly scrambled, not too much grease.
“You can do it; that’s the way I want it, so give it to me.” One of the things that international tourists comment about most when visiting the United States is how focused we are as a culture on catering to individual preferences. We are all about options, all about service; the customer is always right, so everything circles back to fulfilling the order, “this is how I want it.”
Jesus, clearly, did not study marketing or customer service in the United States. Look at him. Things are finally going well here in this story: he’s defeated the Pharisees in public; he’s on the road to Jerusalem, he’s got large crowds following him wherever he goes, pressing in just to hear what he’s going to say next. And now he blows it; he just blows it!
This isn’t good service; this isn’t effective marketing of your organization! You don’t turn around to the crowd that’s happily following you, stare at them, and bellow, “If you don’t hate your family, you can’t be my disciple! Carry the cross and follow me!” You don’t tell them, “you know, you should really think this thing through. Are you sure you want to be here? Because it’s going to cost you. It’s going to cost you your family, it’s going to cost you everything you have, even your life itself. Now, if you’re not prepared to see this thing through, why don’t you just run along somewhere else?”
This isn’t giving people what they want; nobody wants that. Jesus has the perfect situation for growing his ministry: people are lining up to be near him, they’re feeling good about themselves, about each other, and particularly about him. They’re getting something out of being near him; they want to be there. The disciples must be frustrated that Jesus isn’t capitalizing on this growth opportunity. Why does he have to be so difficult? Can’t he just work with people for once?
You have to give Jesus points for honesty, though. He’s not talking to people he’s called, or healed, or even taught very much. He’s talking to those curious hangers-on who have joined up in mid-journey. They hear some good stories, see a healing or two, and decide this may be worth checking out. Each of them is looking for something, looking hard enough to follow Jesus around because they think he might have it.
Maybe they want a way out of the life they’re leading now; they may feel trapped by circumstance, or weighed down by something they’ve done. Maybe they want answers, for meaning, for purpose. Maybe they want some of his power for healing themselves or a loved one. Maybe they’ve heard others in the crowd whispering about Elijah, or even the Messiah, and they want to be with him when he starts his revolution and rises up against the Romans. Like the woman in the restaurant, they all know what they want, they’re sure that Jesus can get it for them, and they expect him to serve it up.
They’re all at least a little bit off, though; none of them understands where he’s going. They’re more focused on the journey than the destination, more interested in what they’re going to get from their time with Jesus than with what he’s really up to. They all assume they know what he’s doing: he’s a prophet, a rabbi, a healer, even a political Messiah. That’s what they want him for. They don’t have the slightest clue that his journey to Jerusalem ends with a slow, staggering walk up out of the city gates, up a hill, and onto a cross to die.
So Jesus decides to open their eyes. He stops, turns around, and scans the people in the crowd, who whisper to one another and lean in to hear what he has to say. And then he says one of most challenging things he said during his entire ministry: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Not exactly what anybody wanted to hear. Hate; why’d he have to use a word like hate? Well, he’s using an ancient rhetorical flourish; you would declare your love for one thing by declaring your hatred for something else, especially something that could be its competition; it doesn’t have the emotional content we associate with the word “hate”. But that’s still a problem; our family, our loved ones, and all that we have are real competition. We don’t want to separate from them or give them up.
That of course, is the point Jesus is making: if you’re going to be my disciple, he says, you’re going to have to choose me first, choose me over everything and everyone else, when it comes down to it. Christian discipleship is not a hobby or an activity; it is not a philosophy or a set of values and principles. It is certainly not a passive pastime, something we simply receive and experience that gets us through our day. Christian discipleship requires an active faith, an active following of Christ; it transforms how and why we get through our day, of what our day is even for. As disciples, we don’t simply receive God’s grace through Christ, we reflect it by living Christ-like lives, imitating him and carrying the cross.
But let’s be careful here. Carrying the cross is an act of faith, but it is a voluntary act. There is a terrible, terrible misconception that the cross is something that is pressed down on us that we have to carry. There are people who talk about negotiating a disability, or fighting a disease, or even suffering domestic violence as their “cross to bear;” but to associate such suffering with carrying the cross is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
It’s important to remember that such things are not voluntary. We don’t choose to take them up out of faith; they are not hardships that come as a consequence of our faith. So they are not what it means to carry the cross. Carrying the cross means deliberately imitating Christ and following his path, even when it leads up that hill outside the gates of the city. It means intentionally engaging the suffering of others and throwing in our lot with them as we work to proclaim God’s kingdom. It means taking the consequences of living out our faith wherever we may find ourselves.
Carrying the cross has to be a voluntary act if it is to be an act of discipleship. We’re not kidnapped, arrested, shoved, or dragged behind Christ when we follow him. We have to choose to carry the cross; doing it out of a sense of duty, or fear, or resignation isn’t much better than not doing it at all. We have to choose to follow, and we have to keep following.
For most of us, the challenge to our faith is probably not going to be dying for Christ; our path of discipleship will probably not involve us going out of the city gates and up a hill of our own to die for him. The challenge for us is probably living for Christ. Turn around for a minute and look behind us. What we are called to do is carry our cross down that driveway and into this town, and valley, and nation, and world, to live for Christ. And that is more than enough of a challenge, because following Jesus means carrying our cross everywhere we go.
It means not putting it down or leaning it up against the wall of our workplace, or our home, or our school, and leaving it there while we’re inside, and then picking it up again to carry on our way to church. That’s what we’re often tempted to do, what we’d sometimes prefer to do. Our arms are simply not big enough to carry all we have, all we want, everyone else we love, and the cross as well. Inevitably, we have to make choices about what to put down and what to hang on to, who to follow and who to say goodbye to.
For Jesus, true faith has to be faith with open eyes. He wants us to understand at least something of what we’re being called to do, to risk, to be. He wants us to choose to follow him, and for that to be a meaningful choice, we have to have some understanding of what it costs.
But that doesn’t just mean what it costs us. Thank God for that! For even the most faithful disciples, the ones with him from the beginning, even they dropped their crosses and ran when the enemy came for them. On that night of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, on the next day trudging up that hill outside of the city on Good Friday, Jesus was the only one still carrying the cross. By pointing to the cross, Jesus is really opening our eyes to what it costs God. That is, of course, the ultimate significance of the cross: the price God was willing to pay to get us back, not because he had to, but because he chose to.
God has counted the cost of building up his kingdom; God knows how to beat the forces arrayed against his kingdom that seem so much stronger and more numerous. The miracle is that God wants to use us to do it, that we get to go out that driveway and participate in bearing God’s love to the world, even when we’re so prone to fumbling it, hiding it, or putting it aside for other things.
The miracle is, the more we carry it, the more prepared we are not to let it go; not just because we grow stronger, or more used to the weight, but because our eyes are opened to the fact that even as we carry it, Christ never stops carrying us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.