“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But what is our cross? Some people have interpreted this literally, to mean that we should seek out the path of martyrdom and live lives of asceticism and deliberate suffering. In some cultures, on Good Friday, Christians whip themselves and have themselves nailed to a cross as a way of taking up their cross. But Christ does not say, “take up my cross and follow me.” He tells his follower to take up their cross. Christ’s cross was a literal one, that was preceded by suffering and ended in death. Our cross simply means our own suffering and death. We are called, as followers of Christ who confess our faith in God’s power of life over death, to take up our own suffering and death. We are called to live with our own death, which will probably not happen as Jesus did, but will happen all the same. You will die. *I* will die. (Which, I confess, is a strange thing to announce on one’s birthday.) I. Will. Die.
To take up our cross also means taking up the reality that the things and the people we love will die. Our cherished memories of the past and our hopes and dreams for the future will die. The relationships in our lives will die. And sometimes, this is harder to face than the thought that we ourselves will die. I’m actually okay with the thought of dying. But the thought of my children dying, or of my childhood home being destroyed with all of those dear memories, or the thought that my family might never be able to go back to visit our friends in California, the community that helped us raise our children - these things are much harder to accept.
And yet our lives are filled with death. Or course, it doesn’t always come at us that directly. More often, it comes at us sideways, in the form of loss. Is there anything in your life that you are facing losing this year? A job? Your house? Mobility? Your driver’s license? Independence? When we lose something, we are upset because it has, in effect, died to us. The thing, or the person, or the relationship that we lose is no longer present in our lives - we have lost it - it is dead. And, in many cases, we fear this. Look at Jesus’ disciple Peter - he was desperately afraid of losing his leader, and so when Jesus talked about dying, Peter rebuked him. Told him to stop talking. How often do we do that? Refuse to really talk about losing something or someone we love dearly? When I asked you if there was anything you are facing losing this year, did you really think about it? Or did you think about it briefly and then think about what you need to get at the grocery store this week? There are many reactions to thinking about loss. Sometimes we obsess about it, but other times, we fear talking about letting go of something because we are afraid that will make it a reality. Have you ever talked to your children about your funeral plans? Or about living wills or medical intervention at the end of your life? Did they jump right into the conversation or did they raise some objections at first? We want to escape talking about loss and death, but the truth is that letting go and losing something and watching it die is already part of our reality.
But we still struggle with it. Even knowing that, we can’t let go that easily. We want to save our life, to keep holding onto those things, and those memories, and those hopes, and those relationships. We don’t want to let them go, we don’t want to let them die. Even Jesus, the night before his trial and crucifixion, prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that his death would not come. He begged God that, if it were possible, the coming suffering and death might be passed over. Jesus did not welcome death - he was not eager to lose his relationship with his disciples, or to lose the life he had.
Nevertheless, “not my will but yours be done.” Jesus did not embrace death, but neither did he refuse it. Even though we might avoid talking about loss and death, and even though it hurts to think about dying and letting go of what we have known, God empowers us to follow Jesus. Christ is clear, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And right after that, “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
So how do we let go of the things we hold so dear? How do we let go of memories, or hopes, or relationships? How do we lose our lives and let these things die to us?
Have you ever tried to take something from a toddler that they don’t want to give? When my oldest son was four, he still had a pacifier that he carried around. (And just so you know, I asked him if I could tell this story and he said it was okay.) And we had tried everything to get him to give that pacifier up, but he just wouldn’t let it go. So one day, I told him that the local toy store - one of those old-fashioned toy stores that has the train tracks running inside that the kids can play with - not like ToysRUs - the store was collecting pacifiers to send to babies in need in poor countries. (Yes, we lied to our children. He doesn’t know we made this story up.) So, the store was collecting pacifiers for babies in need, and now that he was a big boy, could he help out and give them his pacifier? No. Well, the store was also promising that any child that brought in their pacifier would get a toy in return. Well... that store happened to have some Thomas the Train items that Akira *really* wanted. So, off to the store we went, and he marched right up to the counter, slapped down his pacifier and walked out happily clutching his Thomas the Train engine. He wasn’t quite ready to give up his pacifier for nothing. He really needed to get something in return.
And the same is true for us. We haven’t changed much from when we were children - we don’t like to let go of something and stand with empty hands. Fortunately, God does not ask us to do that. You see, God is not asking to let of our lives for nothing. God is not calling us to lose the things we love for nothing. God is offering us something in return, something that we can grasp only if our hands are empty, but something far better than what we are currently holding on to. Christ says, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” God is offering us, in the place of those things that die in the end anyway, new life. God is offering us an everlasting relationship, through Christ, that will continue forever. We hear this promise first given to Abraham. God promises Abraham that when his life here on earth is done, he will live on in the multitude of generations to come, and that God will maintain an everlasting covenant with them. And, in fact, for thousands of years, Abraham’s name has lived on in Judaism, which proclaims faith in “the God of Abraham, and Jacob, and Isaac.” If having your name recited by millions of people for thousands of years as part of daily prayer isn’t living forever, I don’t know what is. So in Abraham, we see the beginnings of God’s offer of something new and wonderful and far better than what we are currently holding on to.
We are given God’s promise at the beginning of our scriptures, and also at the end. In the book of Revelation, the prophet presents a vision of God bringing down a new heaven and a new earth, to replace the current earth. We hear, ‘“I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: Now God’s home is among mortals. God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people, and God will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”’ God is offering a new earth, new things, new memories, new hopes, and new relationships, that are infinitely better than what we have now, so that we might let go of what we have now in order to embrace the fullness of what God offers.
These new things are better because what God is offering us most clearly, what God is holding before us to empower us to let go of our own lives, is the death of death itself. The poet John Donne wrote a poem about death that you may be familiar with - it starts, “Death be not proud,” and it ends, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.” Imagine - lives with no suffering or death, relationships that do not end but only ever grow deeper in love, memories that are not consigned to the past but live in the present. No more death. In Christ, we see that promise renewed. On Easter, we see death die.
Christ calls us to take up our cross. To take up our own death. Christ calls us to lose our life for his sake - to let go of those things that keep us trapped in our fear of death, to let go of those things that silence us and prevent us from talking. Christ calls us to let go of our fear of losing what we love, to let go of our fear of dying, our fear of losing cherished memories, our fear of losing long-standing relationships, even to let go of our fear of losing our hopes and dreams. Not because these things are bad in themselves, but because God is holding out to us even more wonderful things - new life in Christ, which does not die or fade or hurt or disappoint. When Christ calls us to take up our cross - to take up our death - Christ is calling us to live fully every day in anticipation of embracing the gift of new life that God promises us. We no longer fear death, for death is overcome in new life in Christ. To live in this world, to live this life carrying our cross and losing our life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, means living every day first acknowledging that we and all things eventually die, and then carrying on secure in God’s promise of an everlasting covenant with us, and secure in the reality that Easter has come and that death has died and that we have new life in Christ. We are freed to talk about those things we will lose, to talk about our own death and the death of that which we love. Even though we die and all things we love come to an end, God does not allow that end to be forever. We receive these things again, in abundance and eternally, when we stand in the presence of God.
Think again of whatever it is that you face losing this year. The reality of our world is that you will lose it - if not this year, then the next, or the year after, or the year after that. The things of this world die and become lost to us. But, so that we may let go of it, God offers us Easter, and invites us to grasp the promise of resurrection and new life fully, with both hands. Let go of the things of this world, and receive, in fullness, the new life that Christ brings you. You will die. You will live. Thanks be to God. Amen.