Taking Up and Putting Down the Cross
To prepare us for Lent and Holy Week I thought I would talk about the Cross of Jesus.
If you read the Gospels carefully you will find that the word "cross" is usually linked to one of two verbs - to "take up" and to "come down from".
Jesus invites anyone who wants to believe in him to "take up his cross"; by contrast, the people who nailed him to the cross invited Jesus to "come down" from the cross so that they might believe in him.
The two verbs "take up" and "come down" are almost in direct opposition to each other. The people who invited him to separate himself from the cross, to "come down" from it as a precondition of their believing in him are in contrast to those whom Jesus invites to "take up their cross", for he said "whoever does not carry his cross cannot be my disciple"
So the cross seems to be the acid test for both parties. If you manage to distance yourself from it, the world says it will believe in you; if you would be Jesus' follower or disciple then you have to "take it up".
"Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" said Jesus in today's gospel.
How are we to become perfect? "Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" says the writer to the Hebrews, "who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross despising the shame; and in another passage the same writer says " God, in bringing many sons to glory made the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
The world's wisdom is bound to see the cross as a symbol of failure, weakness and helplessness: something which any leader of the world, Jesus not excepted, has got to come down from if he is to have any credibility with the world.
On the other hand there are those who by embracing the cross of Jesus have discovered an access to power strength and potential good which the world in its wisdom knows nothing about.
Truly, as St Paul said in this morning's epistle, the wisdom this world is foolishness to God
That ability, to bring good out of evil, is, of course, what the Christian faith is all about. The Cross is God's "answer" to human suffering and the wickedness which innocent people have to suffer at the hands of others.
God's response to evil is not, in other words, to try and destroy it or make it disappear: that's what the world would like - they would like him to come down from the cross and walk away from it as they invited Jesus to do on Good Friday.
No. God's response to evil is to take it upon himself in the shape of the Cross and by doing so to turn a curse into a blessing.
To be able to turn curses into blessings and to prevent blessings from souring into curses is something which the grace of God enables the Christian to do for himself.
It's most important for us to believe that such a development is possible. If being a follower of Christ necessarily involves cross- handling, then it stands to reason that cross-handling is an ability which can be acquired and developed by the individual. Like prayer and honesty and kindliness, cross-handling is something which improves with practice.
I shall not call it a skill because "skill" puts it in the same category as flower-arranging, cooking or playing a musical instrument.
Cross-handling is in a different class from these. I will call it a habit - a habit which we are not born with, but which it is possible to acquire and develop.
Good habits don't just "happen". They are different in this way from bad habits which we just "slip into" naturally without even realising that we are dong so.
The first step in developing a good habit is to recognize those occasions when we are being given a chance to practise it.
What sort of things are the crosses which God asks us to carry for him?
Well there are experiences and there are people who (as we say "bring out the worst in us". What they are or who they are will differ from one person to another.
Some people find being kept waiting particularly irritating; others hate people being rude to them; for another it is Aunt Edith who is a dreary old gossip and troublemaker, always moaning about something or someone.
Each of us needs to draw up his own list of crosses - the things that "bring out the worst in us.
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