“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Sounds somewhat harsh, doesn’t it? It sounds so harsh that there seems to be a concerted effort to make that teaching of Jesus less harsh. Every commentary written in the 20th century says that when Jesus said hate, what that meant was to love less, to love with a secondary form of love. “So when in [the book of] Deuteronomy… there are regulations for a man with two wives (one of who is loved and one of whom is hated) the meaning is not that there is literal, visceral hatred per se of the second wife but more that the second wife is less preferred than the first.”1 In a way, I’m not sure what’s worse, being hated or being loved less by the one person you want to love you the most, but I guess being abjectly hated would be pretty harsh.
And the surprising thing here, the surprising thing about this Gospel lesson, is that the whole “you have to hate your family” thing is not the harshest thing Jesus said to us this week. That honor goes to His next sentence: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Right on the surface, that doesn’t sound nearly as harsh as hating your family and yourself. But I know plenty of people who hate some of their family and plenty more who hate themselves, and though that sounds harsh and in practice it is harsh, it’s also easy. It’s easy to hate another person, and it’s even easier to hate yourself. Bearing a cross, on the other hand, sounds both harsh and hard.
So what does it mean to bear our own cross? Does it mean hoisting a cross or a crossbar on our back and carrying it around with us? Well, sometimes it does. In Spain and Portugal and Brazil and the Philippines and all around the world during Holy Week, men prove their devotion by actually bearing a cross, either just carrying it or by being actually crucified for a time. These guys are the lucky ones; they are devotional martyrs rather than bloody ones. Here in America it’s easy to forget that people around the world, every day, die for the Christian faith. In the 20th century alone it is estimated that some 45 million people were killed for being Christians, the good portion of those at the hands of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and a good portion of those died for opposing them or opposing the killing of others. Over the past few years violence against Christians has increased dramatically in many African nations, the Middle East, and in Asia. In India in 2008, there were “than more 200 episodes of anti-Christian violence… perpetrated by Hindu extremist groups. Among these acts are the gang rape of two Christian women, the murder of missionaries and priests, sexual assaults on nuns, ransacking of churches and convents, desecration of cemeteries, and Bible burnings.”2 That same year “Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, saw three Catholic high school girls captured on their way to school and beheaded, and a Christian market bombed.”3 In Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China or Somalia, being a Christian is living with a death sentence.
And so it is with us. Because that’s what it means to bear our own crosses. In Rome during the time of Jesus to bear your cross, to be “under the sign of the cross – was to be under the sign of death.”4 To bear a cross was to live as if you had already been sentenced to death, a dead man walking.
Nothing has changed. We, as Christians, even as relatively easy American Christians, live under the sign of the cross, under the sign of death. How many of you are wearing a cross as jewelry right now? Living under the sign of death. The highest thing on this church is a cross. You pass under one cross to enter the church and under another one on the rood beam to go up to the rail at the high altar to receive the Sacrament. In the chapel with us is a massive crucifix, lest we forget who it is we are here to see. This whole place, with us in it, groans under the weight of the cross.
And yet, Jesus tells us that living under this cross, living with this death sentence, is the way of discipleship. How horribly harsh. And it would be, if Jesus didn’t know the way of life and love. But Jesus is life and love, and so He can make that instrument of shameful death to be none other than the means of true life, a life in which we don’t need to be servants of power and success and violence, a life in which we don’t need to pursue the things that rust destroys and the moth consumes. Bearing our cross, living under that sign means offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, dead to sin and the world and yet holy and alive for God and for His people. Perhaps that sounds harsh to some and extreme to others, but that’s true life and true love. So when you come to the rail to receive that true Life and true Love, take a moment as you pass (under) that cross to remember who it is that gives us life and love, and to make sure your cross is where it belongs.