What does the cross mean to you? A sermon on Luke 14

13041435_1159982794033037_1825211134944730220_oSermon on Luke 14:25-33

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

What does the cross mean to you?

I ask this question honestly, and it is not a rhetorical question.

The cross means different things to different people.

Which is not only perfectly, okay, but frankly, natural.

The cross means different things in each of the four gospels, so it is only natural that the meaning of the cross is open to interpretation.

The cross has meant different things to Christians across the generations.

It might surprise you to know that the earliest Christians didn’t even refer to the cross as a religious symbol.

The reason for this, of course, was that the cross was still being used as an instrument of torture and death by the Roman empire.

So, no way were the earliest Christians using the cross in their art, their religious imagery or their jewelry.

It would be like the modern day equivalent of wearing a little electric chair around your neck, or hanging a giant lethal injection syringe in your sanctuary.

No, the cross didn’t emerge as a symbol of the Christian faith until generations after Christians were no longer persecuted,

and Christianity was the default religion of the political establishment.

The meaning of the cross has changed over time, and it changes for individual people over their own lifetimes.

The meaning of the cross changes for different theologians and biblical scholars, for different authors of the gospels,

the cross means different things in different cultures, countries, and contexts.

All of which begs the question, what does the cross mean to you?

Because we need to have thought about  this question in order to better understand what Jesus means when he says to us today,

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

As Christians in Western society, the vast majority of hymns, popular culture, films, Christian rhetoric, even our liturgical language,

all suggest that there is only one correct, doctrinal answer for what the cross means:

This most persistent of interpretations is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to atone for our sins.

Let me be clear, this is only one of many ways of understanding what the cross means.

So, if you have ever struggled with the notion that the cross seems to mean only sacrifice and death, cost, and punishment…

…rather than life, resurrection, or hope…

Or if you have ever struggled with what the cross says about a God who would condemn God’s son to death for the sake of making us pay for our sins, the cost of God’s forgiveness…

Or if you find the whole notion of the cross to be antiquated, difficult to understand, or perpetuating the myth of redemptive violence…

Don’t feel bad.

Such struggles and thoughts are not wrong, or unfaithful.

We are simply engaging with one of the other many, many different interpretations of what the cross means.

This isn’t to say that Jesus’ death is unimportant, or that it doesn’t matter,

just that there is more than one way to understand what the cross itself means to us as people of faith.

And to participate in deeper engagement of what Jesus death means and why it matters.

In Luke’s gospel, for example, at the moment of today’s gospel story, the cross as Jesus’ death hasn’t even happened yet.

So, while we are tempted to interpret Jesus’ words to “carry the cross and follow him” in light of our own theological nuances, and the fact that we know the end of the story…

within the context of today’s gospel, the cross at this point, doesn’t mean death.

The cross in this context doesn’t even serve as an instrument of our own salvation.

Within the context of today’s gospel, Jesus, and his disciples, haven’t gotten there yet.

No, instead, the cross in Luke’s gospel might serve as a way of shouldering other people’s burdens, as being an instrument of salvation not for ourselves, but for others.

After all, that is what Jesus has been doing in Luke’s gospel up to this point.

He has been teaching people, calling people, healing people, forgiving people,

and calling people’s attention to the marginalized, the oppressed, those whom their society overlooks or discounts.

In light of everything Jesus has done and taught in Luke’s gospel up to this point in the story, the cross is about caring for others.

I struggle sometimes with the notion of the cross as a burden.

After all, that kind of imagery makes us think about the cost of discipleship rather than the life that it brings.

After all, as Deuteronomy 30 says, “Choose life” rather than death.

Sure, discipleship, making the decision to follow Jesus means that we commit ourselves to an entirely different, new way of life.

That we commit ourselves to thinking and living and acting in certain ways as a result of following Jesus Christ.

There is a cost in that, in terms of the commitment of faith, the prioritizing of following God in our way of life.

Which, in case you were wondering, is really what Jesus is talking about when he says in today’s gospel,

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

The semantic range of ancient Greek is different than our English translation allows.

The Greek words are actually about degrees of love, not hate.

So, while it makes for dramatic imagery in English, it is not as if one is actually called to hate others,

as if there is only so much room for love and it all has to be dedicated to Jesus.

Jesus actually says, in Greek, something more akin to “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t prioritize their love for me cannot be my disciple.”

As disciples, we promise to love God first, and it is our love of God that informs and shapes our love of other people, as God’s beloved people.

Which is why the cross shouldn’t be a burden.

Faith is a commitment, but it is a commitment to transformation in love.

There is a cost to loving others, of course, but love, if it is healthy love, isn’t burdensome.

It is life giving.

It makes life better, warmer, more meaningful.

It makes other people’s lives better too, not just our own.

Which is, in today’s gospel, really what the cross is about.

The thing about thinking about the cross differently, is that it can change our perception of where the cross is located in our lives.

Many of us, if we are stuck in only one way of thinking about the cross, if the cross means only Jesus’ atonement for our sins…

…then the meaning of the cross is primarily future oriented.

It is about our own redemption, Jesus’ own resurrection, all of which takes place, after Jesus’ death on the cross.

When we think about what the cross means to us, we often think about it as something that God is doing, “out there,” in the future, or in ways that we can’t yet fully see…

But if we think about the cross, for example, as today’s gospel of Luke does, as loving acts for the sake of God’s beloved people…

Then the cross can become something that is meaningful to us and to other people right now, in the present moment, in our current world, in this life, rather than only in the next.

The cross is something we live and do, right now…not just something we abstractly believe or hope for.

And the nice thing about thinking about the cross differently is that we don’t have to feel 100% certain all of the time about what the cross means, what it is and what it does.

The cross has multiple meanings and the meaning changes depending on who we are and what we are being called to as Jesus’ disciples.

We can even question and wonder about what the cross means to us; after all, questioning is, in itself, a form of engagement.

And we cannot discern where God is calling us, if we do not also ask questions of ourselves and of God.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

According to Jesus, the cross means something important. I truly believe that the cross should mean life and not just death, hope and not just fear, engagement and not withdrawal.

What does the cross mean to you?