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Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 17/Year A ▪ August 30, 2020
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
Where Is My Cross?
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Can you see him? He is, for us, faceless and nameless. He is a Japanese Christian on a death march in Nagasaki, moving closer to the cross on which he will be hanged and stabbed to death with a javelin for refusing to denounce his faith in Jesus Christ. Tempted one final time by his executioners to deny Jesus, the faithful Christian eagerly asked, “Where is my cross?” When he was taken to the smallest cross, made just for him, he embraced it and held on to it like a child clings to his toy. That’s because he was a child—12 years old—the youngest of the first 26 martyrs of Japan—six Franciscan friars and 20 of their converts, who, on February 5th, 1597 (423 years ago), were crucified at Nagasaki in the swift backlash of the Japanese rulers to stomp out all Christianity.
Japanese Christians continued to be tortured and killed for 257 years (until 1854). Those who survived, risked their lives to worship in secret, and over generations, came to be known as the “hidden Christians.” Their unwavering faith in Christ preserved the faith for those who would come after them. Stories of those who have gone before us in unwavering faith, and who paid the ultimate price, remind us that saying, “Yes,” to following Jesus and living this life in Christ, is neither for the faint of heart, nor for the weak in stomach.
Jesus said to his disciples and the crowd around him, “If any want to become my followers, let them: Deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). The first of this three-part formula is the denial of the sinful nature of the human self. The seven deadly sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth create an environment within the human soul that turns the individual away from God and toward egocentricity.
When Jesus told the disciples about the suffering he was to undergo, his death and his resurrection, Peter’s well-meaning response, was met with Jesus’ rebuke. Jesus’ focus was on fulfilling God’s purpose and anything contrary to that was a temptation for disobedience. It’s not that Jesus was calling Peter Satan; it’s that Jesus was recalling Satan’s temptations in the wilderness which urged him to satisfy his own desires above his obedience to God’s plan for human salvation.
The second, of the three-part formula, is the taking up of one’s cross. The taking up of one’s cross is a decision to willingly participate in the death of the human inclination to sin. We are challenged to seek out those parts of ourselves that necessarily need to die, to make space for the kingdom of God within. Having the courage to take up your cross (or multiple crosses) is an act of trusting that God will transform not only your cross, but you—the cross bearer—into the Holy Ground upon which God calls you by name, as he did with Moses, and reveals to you His plans for your life’s purpose.
The third part, following Jesus, is not for those who may be easily tempted to view their own human power as all-powerful and their savior complex as salvific. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” was a reminder to Peter that a disciple must always stay in their lane, and follow behind the teacher, for “…Servants are not greater than their master…” (Jn 13:16).
“If any want to become my followers, let them: Deny themselves/ Take up their cross/ and follow me,” said Jesus. I imagine that the disciples, who heard Jesus speak those words, were like so many of us—trying our best to show up in this broken world while holding fast to following Jesus as we navigate the inescapable, universal, shared condition of human suffering.
If the human condition is to suffer unto death, our mission, as Christians, is to bear hope by pointing to the eternal life that, by faith, is ours now and after this life is done. Our task is to preach repentance of sin as Jesus did. Our task is to inspire others, by our lived example, to await, with hopeful anticipation, God’s kingdom come. Our task it to share the life-giving message that in baptism we die to sin, and are joined in Jesus’ glorious resurrection.
The academic discipline called practical theology that challenges people of faith to interpret the world around them through the lenses of theological principles. In his book, Practical Theology, Richard Osmer provides four basic questions:
What is going on?
Why is this going on?
What ought to be going on?
How might we respond?
If any want to become followers of Christ, we must be willing to engage social justice issues as Jesus did. Applying those questions to our current lived reality, we can see that what is going on across the country is civil unrest where peaceful protestors are being met with violence.
Why is this going on? The sin of racism and racial injustice have led to a state of terror for Black Americans whose voices have not been heard in the face of unchecked police brutality. Protesting is a collective voice to catalyze change.
What ought to be going on? Well, that’s where the lenses of the Christian faith come in. Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew’s fifth chapter come to mind—“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:10); Our Baptismal Covenant comes to mind, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?; and yes, the 10 Commandments come to mind—you shall not murder (Ex 20:13).
How might we respond? Let us not be Christians who struggle to “do” Christianity. Let us start by having holy conversations with God, who observes the misery of his people, and has plans to use us—the body of Christ—to bring about liberation for our brothers and sisters who are oppressed; who are in pain; and who live with no hope of relief. We might respond, as Moses did when God called him to go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, “Here I am.”
And, in the midst of those holy conversations, when God reveals your cross to you, the cross made just for you, may you, like the 12 year-old martyr, eagerly embrace it, and hold on to it like a child clings to his beloved toy. Amen.