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Taking Up Our Cross: Matthew 27:32-44

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 27.

Before we start, I want to celebrate a little bit, just some of the things I’m seeing God do in our church and in our community. Isn’t it so good to have Jake and Sarah and Wrenna here with us today? Thank you so much for worshipping with us today. That made my heart glad this morning. I love your thoughtfulness and your creativity and your love for Christ and the people around you. Y’all probably don’t know this, but I asked Jake to lead for us once before, but it never happened. Instead Hurricane Ida hit. It’s wild to think about, God’s movement and work in the midst of our chaos to bring him back here today.

I hope y’all are all able to see and understand how faithful God is to this little church. God has given us real musicians, a liturgist with a deep and wide understanding of worship through the ages—like even when she’s not here, these beautiful, original prayers and responses just appear in my inbox—we have people who pray deeply and constantly.

Last week, too, at our kids ministry meeting, I’m looking around realizing as we’re beginning to foster again, brining in children from hard places, our childcare team is comprised of trauma-informed parents, professional teachers, TBRI practitioners, and Phil.

I’m just kidding, I’m very glad to introduce myself this morning as a pastor here, since we ordained Phil last week. I’ve been praising God for Phil agreeing to come on alongside me, even though this is just one of many steps which need to be taken to recognize and celebrate the giftedness and callings of people in our church. I want to tell you my hope.

I already mentioned fostering, because that’s something we have in common with Jake and Sarah—Anne-Elise and I strive to have our family be a place of healing and thriving for whatever amount of time a child is in our home, be it 20 years or 20 days. To create trust and connection for healing and preparation for all that life will bring. We do this imperfectly. My goal and prayer is to be a church family like that, too. A church who recognizes and celebrates giftedness and calling. A church who disciples and prepares people to labor for the kingdom here or elsewhere, whether we have ten years or six months, wherever God leads. A church who is able to allow people to trust, and benefits rather than uses the people who decide to be involved.

I’m also already very much looking forward to hearing from my friend, pastor Thomas Glover, next week. He has been living and working as a pastor in New Orleans for decades, and has aided in the planting of several churches, one of which was the first black SBC church in Louisiana. He has expressed to me a deep appreciation for this congregation and our work in the city, and God has given him a special word to preach, so I’m very excited for that next week.

For this week, you’re stuck with me, so Matthew, chapter 27, as we continue through our lenten series on the stations of the cross. This week we are going to look at Jesus carrying his cross, and Simon carrying it for him. Go with me, Matthew 27, and we’re going to start in verse 32. [Matthew 27:32-44]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

I don’t know if you felt that just then, the emotional crash going from celebration to considering the cross. Its like waking up after Mardi Gras to hear “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It’s like traveling to Jerusalem, singing, drinking in the streets to celebrate God’s salvation of your people from oppression, and having—not a high school band, like we’re used to in our city shoving you back, making room through the streets, but—a band of soldiers from the nation who rules over you shove you aside, push you into the people behind you, to make room for one of your own people carrying a cross to his own death—massive, visible over the heads of the people around you like a Mardi Gras float, the cross an intentional symbol, performance art communicating a message of your own helplessness. Then, you find out the man condemned is the same man you had hoped would bring freedom again for your people. You prayed just a few days before to God, hosannah, meaning God, save us now, and here is the answer to your prayer, undone, carrying a cross.

I want you to feel what they feel, not because I’m some kind of killjoy who enjoys sadness, but sometimes we need to sit with sadness for a moment to learn beauty, like how stars are only visible at night. This kind of intentional mourning is not something we like to do, but it is something we need, like sleep and like sunset. The day is glorious, but without the night beside it, the sun would be, not beautiful, but relentless, and the earth beneath it would burn. We need to be in regular rhythms of moving from bright day to softer night, of celebrating, yes, but also of stopping and waiting, resting and remembering that we have limits. We become tired and need sleep. Another day is done, and we grow older. Another year is past, and we are dust, “eat, drink, and be merry,” “decide this day whom you will serve,” “for tomorrow we die.”

Living in constant celebration is a way of ignoring and denying the suffering of the world. We need to feel the emotional crash of the people in the streets of Jerusalem that day. We need to tell the truth of what happened that day. We need to understand the tragedy of this moment if we are really going to understand the joy of the Christian message that Christ really is able to give us hope in the midst of hopelessness. Jesus is able to take shame and make joy out of it. He’s able to reach down into death and raise us up again.

So imagine, just for today, being a part of the crucifixion without ever having believed in resurrection. Imagine what the symbol of the cross meant when it was still cruel, unredeemed, before Christ made it holy; and then imagine that symbol being carried slowly through your streets. Imagine, again, yourself in the place of that crowd, looking on, shoved against the people behind you, awkwardly. I think the closest I’ve ever been to this same feeling is when a friend dies of an overdose. It’s watching that thing which rules over them, which has ruled them for years, taken everything from them, that foreign invader which should never have been there in the first place, which doesn’t belong, which seems maliciously bent on harm, watching that thing win, take their life from them and all of their creativity and personality and everything which made you hope for them. You want to scream or cry or both because for that person whatever you could have done about the hopeless situation, it’s too late.

I think the question on everyone’s mind and lips as Jesus walked down that street, the question whispered through that crowd in tones just quiet enough not to be overheard by the soldiers, would be, who is he? What did he do? Why is this happening? Why is Jesus carrying his cross? There is a tragic, human answer to that question, and there is a joyful, miraculous, life-changing, divine answer as well.

I’m going to start with the tragic, human answer. Tragically, humanly, This cross is a symbol of death and oppression under Roman rule. Jesus was carrying the cross because the soldiers forced him to do so. It was a way of shaming him. Every one of the Roman soldiers was wearing a sword, they could have killed him in any number of ways at any time, but if you take a furious person—and I’m using the word furious in the sense in which James Agee writes, Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another.” If you take a furious person, like Jesus, one who is striving against the spirit and the way of the world.

If you take a furious person and let him continue to live and work, you’ll see a movement of renewal, which for Israel at this time, would have looked like throwing off oppressive foreign rule. If you take a furious person and kill him in secret, you create a martyr. If you, instead, brand him as an insurrectionist, strip him, beat him, mock him publicly, and then force him to carry the means of his own execution through a street crowded with everyone he ever knew, everyone who thought that maybe he was someone they might follow, someone they might emulate. And then you crucify him by the gates of the city. If you do that, your empire will last a thousand years and be a model of strength for those who come after it.

Why is Jesus carrying that cross through the streets? I called the cross a symbol earlier, performance art. What does it mean? Tragically, humanly, the cross is a symbol of our own failings. Rome was taunting the people of Israel about their inability to stop what’s happening, the limits of their power, their inability to save themselves because of their own divided brokenness, and I want the cross to remind us of those same things today. Jesus is carrying the cross through the streets because of our sin, our limits and mistakes, “the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone.” “Lord, have mercy on us.” “We are not as strong as we think we are.”

The cross has become a major symbol of Christianity. We print it on our Bibles, we wear it around our necks, we tattoo it on our arms, and we need to do that. We need to remember that because of our divided brokenness, sin rules over us, and we are unable to save ourselves from it. We’ve tried, but every time we seem to have hope, we get shoved back by the enemy to remind us he rules over us, and there’s another cross coming down the street. We need to own it. The cross is ours. It belongs to us. We are right to bear the cross on our necks and in our churches, because Jesus’s cross belongs to us.

We need to own the cross, to understand our complicity in this act. Jesus did not have to come and die; this was not some sort of cosmic necessity. This was the will of God, spoken at the fall and repeated in the garden. It was his choice to come and die, and in death, to join us in the death so common to humanity. Because we were unable to enter eternity, he chose to join us in mortality. He entered into death to be with us.

But Jesus’s choice to enter into death changes everything. Choice is the difference between oppression and submission. Choice is the difference between freedom and bondage of the will, and we have a God who “does all that he chooses.” And what he chooses is to save the world from evil, not to destroy and remake it, but to do the even costlier work of healing and redeeming it. I want you to understand just how much Jesus was able to change the meaning of the cross, the meaning of this symbol. He took a tool of torture and shame and made it into something beautiful enough to forge into silver and adorn our churches and our necks. He took a symbol of oppression and made it a symbol of freedom in this life and for eternity, both.

I said earlier there are earthy reasons why Jesus is bearing the cross, but also divine reasons. The joyful, miraculous, life-changing, divine answer to the crowd’s whispered question, why Jesus is carrying a cross through the streets of Jerusalem is that Jesus knows he’s able to do what no one else can—finally rid the world of sin and brokenness. To bring every high person low, and every low person high until the way is made straight for all of the nations. Jesus is the answer to all of our deepest longings for the world. He is the yes to all of the promises of God. He is able to make, not just this, but all sad things come untrue.

And listen, church. If Jesus is able to take a cross and make something beautiful of it that people make them out of silver and wear them to church, what is he able to do with you? Whatever it is that you represent, whatever it is people remember when they see you, how is he able to change you? He took a tool of torture and shame and made it into something beautiful enough to forge into silver and adorn our churches and our necks. He is able to make your life into something that brings abundance and life into your family and relationships. He is able to make your life into one that gives people hope for their own. Even if right now, you would consider yourself an enemy of God. The good news is that “while we were yet enemies, Christ died for us.” The good news is that it was the will of the Father, from the very beginning, to forgive us when we leave him and his way.

In the clothes given to Adam and Eve, in the ram given to Abram, in the water and manna in the desert, in every corner of creation, we see the same repeated message. As the sun rises each day, as the rains fall, as the seasons change in their rhythms, in their repetitions, it’s a word spoken again and again, a refrain, a chorus, that this world will be changed from dark to light, and the thirsty will be quenched, but this life and growth will not come from us. Tragically, humanly, Rome was right in the message they were sending—we aren’t able to save ourselves, or give ourselves hope, or pull ourselves up, to be free, to be perfect or spiritual enough to reach into heaven, but the good news is that we don’t have to, because Christ bore that weight for us, and he was able. The good news is that our God is the God who is with us.

Going back to our image of Christ carrying his cross, I’m always trying to place myself into the scenes we read in the Bible, to understand myself as one who has taken part in this story. I imagine myself in this scene as one of the crowd, because there are so many terrible things in our world we stand and watch, unsure of what to do or how to actually help, not sure if we can actually help. So what do we do? We whisper, not loud enough for the soldiers to hear, because we don’t want to be the next person to carry a cross through the streets.

But there is another option of what to do in our world; Simon’s option. We are able—not just able, but earlier in this gospel, Jesus specifically invites us—to take up our crosses and follow Christ, just like Simon. I want us to understand this invitation.

This idea of bearing a cross has been adopted into our culture, and misunderstood. We say, when we suffer, “this is my cross to bear,” and what we mean by that is, this is something I am destined to suffer through—as though God’s goal is to make his people suffer. But understanding Jesus’s call to carry a cross solely as a call to suffer is to see only the tragic, human side of carrying the cross, and we need to see the joyful, miraculous, life-changing, divine side of Christ’s call to carry our cross as well.

That cross Simon carries is the one we carry on our bibles and on our necks. His call to carry a cross was a call to carry, and in a small way to join, in the sufferings of Christ. It’s the same cross we forge into silver. Jesus’s sufferings are not an involuntary, useless suffering. It’s not suffering for suffering’s sake. Christ’s sufferings are the cost he is willing to pay to be with us, and to redeem us, to welcome us into his family. We are able with our lives, to pay that same cost and for that same reason, because Christ, as with Simon and Abraham before him, will be the sacrifice God provides in the end, at the end of this road he’s invited us to walk.

I want you to notice a few things. Notice that Simon suffers shame and likely pain as he carries this enormous cross through the streets. It would be hard work, and heavy. Notice that the work of the atonement, Christ’s real work in this, would be accomplished regardless of whether or not Simon were there. Notice that because of this brief moment of participation in Christ’s work, every generation of Christians since then has called Simon blessed.

Christ calls us, not to some fruitless, involuntary suffering. He calls us to enter into and carry, in a small way, the weight of the sin of the people around us, like Simon does, and in that way participating in the work of Christ in the world. Instead of standing and watching and asking, “why is this happening,” Christ’s call is to enter in and walk a bit of his way, his road, to the cross.

So my invitation to you this morning is Christ’s own call to take up your cross and follow him, like Simon. This requires faith; belief that Christ will be able to take any shame or suffering you experience in following him and make it into something beautiful. I would also invite you to believe that God is able to make something beautiful of you, that there is hope even in the moments which seem most hopeless, and anything you carry, anything you do, to walk in Christ’s way is a small part you play in Christ’s work. Pray with me now.