The first time I ever really paid attention to the cross was through the window of a jewelry store. It was a small gold cross studded with garnets. I was twenty-one or twenty-two years old, in the process of a slow, painstaking awakening of my spirit after a time of anesthetizing myself with drugs, alcohol, and bad behavior. I certainly wouldn’t have described myself as a Christian. I could count on one hand the number of times in my life that I’d been to a church service. But I’d been spending quite a bit of time in church basements where people drank bad coffee and talked about God and prayer. I’d walk past the jewelry store and linger at the window where the cross sat on a black velvet tray with some other random pendants. This went on for weeks. I wanted it, and I didn’t know why. I knew I was jealous of people I’d met who wore miraculous medals with the Blessed Mother on them, or medals of St. Jude or St. Christopher. Finally, a friend said “get the cross already! You want it. Maybe you don’t need to understand it.”
The cross certainly meant more to Peter and the other disciples in today’s gospel than it did to me, but I’m not sure they understood it all that well, either. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is harsh and surprising, given what has gone just before. But for Peter to deny the danger that Jesus is in is to misunderstand or ignore the danger of the call to discipleship. To deny Jesus the fate of the revolutionary he is, is to deny the revolutionary nature of the gospel itself. Jesus’ response to Peter, so soon after promising him keys to the kingdom, sets us up for Jesus to talk about discipleship and the cross in the particular way he does:
If you want to follow me, you’ve got to deny yourself and take up your cross and…. follow me. If you want to protect your own life, you’ll lose it; if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll have the life that truly is life.
Many of us wear crosses, or at least have a few of them hanging around on our dresser or in our jewelry box. What does that mean?
I think if someone stopped me on the street 35 years ago and asked what the cross I wore symbolized to me, I might say it means I am coming to believe in God and new life. Much later in my journey, I might say the cross is a sign of the triumph of life over death, the triumph of love over fear. And I’d like to think I’d be right, but there’s more that we can say than that.
The good news Jesus brings, the good news that cost him his life, elevates the downtrodden and welcomes the marginalized to his center. The good news calls into question the validity of social, economic, and political structures of his day and of ours. This is dangerous good news. To those in power, the good news was a threat. For us to deny the danger of the gospel, to see the cross only as a symbol of Easter triumph, is to turn our backs on the work that has been handed on to us.
To deny the capacity of a Messiah to sacrifice and suffer is to deny our own capacity to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of the gospel.
Death by a cross meant death by empire. To pick up one’s cross is to say to empire: I’ve got this. I’ve already got what you think is the worst thing that could happen. To pick up one’s cross to follow Jesus is to say: I’m willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel. I’m willing to have a share in the suffering of the world in order to be part of the salvation of the world.
What if, when we wear a cross, or when we bow to the cross in procession, we are proclaiming our own dangerous good news?
So what is dangerous good news in our day? As people of privilege living in Seattle, we can only guess at others’ experience of danger, from poverty, floods, deportation, exposure, and racism. And I know many of you have had experiences of rejection, discrimination, and marginalization.
As a person of enormous privilege, picking up my cross begins with paying attention. I need to own that privilege and use it to proclaim dangerous good news.
As a person who wears a cross, I affirm that white privilege is the indelible result of the fissure in our society torn open the moment white Europeans set foot on North American soil and said it was ours, the stain of sin poured out onto this soil when the first slaves were taken from their continent to this one. As a person who wears a cross, I deny the temptation to let that privilege to morph into helplessness and complacency, ever.
As a person who wears a cross, I affirm the place at our table and all tables of people who came to this country more recently than my family, people who would be rejected because of their heritage or their religion or their gender identity. I deny the power of empire to kick them out without people like me putting up a fight.
As a person who wears a cross, I affirm the gospel command to love as God loves, without exception. I deny the equation of love with sin, ever.
As a person who wears a cross, I affirm that young men who join white supremacist gangs or otherwise choose a violent life are beloved children of God, hurting and lonely. As a person who wears a cross, I deny the premise that hurt, loneliness or other hardship justifies violence, ever.
I affirm the need to pray, daily and hourly, that the Holy Spirit will continually reveal ways to turn these words into action. I deny the resignation that is the luxury of us in our liberal bubble that tells us there is nothing we can do to come alongside those who are poor and marginalized.
If we wear our crosses as signs that all is well, Jesus may say to us: “Get behind me, Satan.” If this sounds harsh, remember that through all the ups and downs of discipleship, Jesus loved Peter. Let Jesus’ love for us and for the world fuel us as we pick up our cross and proclaim dangerous good news.