It is good at times to step back and take a close look at what we really believe and in what we really trust. It is easy to define ourselves in terms of popular, easy ideas or false understandings of who we really are, of what our lives are about. Sometimes it takes a shocking word or an unexpected event to wake us up, to open our eyes to reality.
The disciples got precisely that kind of disturbing message when Jesus Christ told them that He was not a Messiah Who would set up an earthly kingdom and be successful according to the conventional political standards. In response to Christ’s prediction of His rejection, death, and resurrection, St. Peter had tried to correct him, to explain that such things would never happen to God’s Anointed One. The Lord famously corrected St. Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” And that is where today’s gospel reading picks up, with the Savior teaching that to be His disciple requires taking up a cross, denying oneself, and losing one’s life in this world. He warned His followers that it was no benefit at all to gain the whole world and end up losing one’s own soul. To live that way is to be ashamed of Christ and turn away from the eternal life that He has brought to the world.
It was not until after our Lord’s resurrection that the disciples really understood Who the Savior was or what it would mean to take up their crosses for Him. It was very hard for them to give up the political and military hopes that the Jews of their day had for the Messiah. To accept that the One they hoped would liberate Israel from the Romans would be rejected by the leaders of Israel and executed by the Romans was extremely difficult for them. For the disciples to give up their hope for a religious leader who would give them earthly power in a new regime was surely a struggle. But in order for them to share in the blessing and joy of the Savior’s Kingdom and His victory over the corrupt powers of the world, that is precisely what they had to do. They had to die to their ultimately self-centered desires for glory and to take up the crosses through which they would participate in the life of the resurrection.
In other words, they had to accept a new form of politics that stood in sharp contrast to the ways of their “adulterous and sinful generation.” They had to embrace the politics of the Cross, which required dying to their cherished hopes and dreams and redefining themselves in light of a Kingdom that does not operate according to conventional standards of hatred, division, and violence. Whether in first-century Palestine or today, those who desire worldly power often seem happy to do whatever it takes to get that power, regardless of their alleged philosophies or loyalties. The last thing that they want is to deny themselves, for that would mean putting something before their pursuit of their own exaltation. Even as the Lord said that it was hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, it is surely also quite difficult for those who rule the world– or at least their small part of it.
As best I can tell, the members of our parish do not rule the world. We are not powerful politically, at least not in a conventional sense. We do not gather to worship or place our ultimate trust in earthly rulers and their parties or kingdoms, though we do pray that God will guide our civil authorities according to His will and purposes. What we have in common, however, is the politics of the Cross, a way of relating to God, one another, and our neighbors that is shaped by Christ-like self-denial. When we follow that path, we are not ashamed of Him or overcome by the ways of “this adulterous and sinful generation.” When we live this way, we lose our lives in order to save them.
Some in our society define “their people” by characteristics such as skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, language, or political opinions. That is obviously not the case in our parish, where people who differ in these ways embrace one another as family. Some in our world think that everything boils down to how much money or status someone has or does not have, but in our parish we do not define ourselves like that. Whoever can help those in need does so, giving time, attention, food, clothing, and resources to their brothers and sisters. I have told people many times that as best I can tell there are no divisions in our parish, which is a sign that we are making progress in embracing the politics of the Cross, in dying to the prideful divisions of our corrupt world. Our answer to society’s problems is not a bunch of words, but our example of what it looks like when perfectly ordinary people take up their crosses in love for Christ and one another.
Of course, it is much harder to take up our crosses by living chaste and sexually pure lives than it is to make comments about the behavior of other people or simply to say what we are for or against in debates defined by our confused culture. Fighting our passions and opening our lives to the healing energies of God is a struggle through which we are transformed. The same is true when we go out of our way to help pregnant women in difficult circumstances welcome their children or when we befriend someone in a nursing home, someone with a mental disability, a prisoner, or a refugee. When we deny ourselves out of love for the suffering people with whom our Lord identified Himself, we take up our crosses and follow Him in ways that change us and bless others.
Unlike simply saying that we agree with this or that idea, taking up our crosses actually requires something of us personally in a way that transforms us, in a way that makes our lives offerings to the Lord and our neighbors. It requires something costly from us and joins us to the ultimate offering that the Son of God made on the Cross. It has nothing to do with cultivating the hate, fear, and love of domination that so often drive conventional political movements, whether in the first century or today. It has nothing to do with building ourselves up in self-righteousness so that we may feel justified in condemning those we deem to be our enemies. In His Cross, Jesus Christ specifically rejected such idolatrous forms of religious politics. That is why He said “Get behind me, Satan” to St. Peter.
Our brothers and sisters in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and many other places are literally taking up their crosses and making the ultimate witness for Christ at the hands of people who want to kill or enslave everyone who does not agree with their religious views. The Cross stands in total and complete contradiction to such blood-thirsty idolatry, and we must do all that we can support the suffering members of Christ’s Body in prayer and generosity, as well as to pray for peace and reconciliation throughout the Middle East. We must also not be afraid to take up our much smaller crosses each day in ways that will enable us to participate personally in the great victory over the corrupt powers that our Savior has achieved through His Cross. As His disciples, that is our true politics, and if we do not live it out, then we will have nothing to say to the world—or at least nothing worth hearing.