This sermon is in part about the disbelieving world's misunderstanding of the cross of Jesus Christ and believers' underestimation of what the cross of Jesus requires of them, okay? It's about what the world thinks of the cross and, it's about what believers don't understand about the cross.
For example, one Christmas, a department store in Tokyo, Japan tried to mix all the elements of Christianity and Christmas into one of their window displays. And, this is what they came up with. Santa Claus nailed to a cross. Talk about misunderstanding of the significance of the cross. Their ignorance led them to blasphemy. You want to see blasphemy in a photograph? There's blasphemy in a photograph.
Then, there's the rejection and disbelief of the world captured in a cartoon. And, I have to set this one up. Montreal, my home town in French Canada is an island and in the middle of the city, there's Mount Royal. At the top of that mountain, there is a 103 feet high, 10 story cross. If you go up there to the lookout place you can see all across the city of Montreal. It's very beautiful. The cross is lit up at night and can be seen from miles around as you are approaching the city. It is meant to highlight and to honor Montreal's Catholic heritage.
The picture above on the far right is a cartoon that appeared in the Montreal Gazette newspaper, whose point was that Montreal's true religion was hockey, not Christianity. Believe it or not, that's pretty close to the truth. This was an example of the world knowing the meaning of the cross, but rejecting that meaning in order to make fun of Catholics and their weak faith and hypocrisy when it came to religion. In other words, Aislin, who created the cartoon was saying, "you people talk a lot about your religion, but your true religion is hockey, not Christ."
The blasphemy was worse than Santa in Tokyo, because the artist, Aislin, who drew the cartoon, he knew exactly what he was doing and he went ahead and did it anyways.
When it comes to Jesus's death on the cross or His resurrection from the grave, which are the essential elements of the gospel, there seems to be no end to the misdirection and misinformation about these simple facts. The cross has been used as a symbol for war or the subject of ridicule. The resurrection is not proclaimed for what it is, which is the turning point of human history, but instead, has been reduced to a holiday signifying spring and new beginnings celebrated with Easter bunnies, and candies, and picnics, and new Easter clothing.
I've entitled my sermon, The Chocolate Cross, because it seems to me that it's the only thing that marketers haven't done to commercialize and thus deny and disempower the basic element of the gospel. The only thing they haven't done is made chocolate crosses for fun. They've done pretty much everything else. We have Santa commercializing the birth of Christ. We have Easter eggs and bunnies replacing the significance of the resurrection. Why not chocolate crosses to turn the sacrifice of Jesus into a tasty treat? Why not? I wouldn't put it past them.
Carrying the Cross
Of course, this is what the disbelieving world does or can do. As Christians, we neither use the cross as a symbol for aggression, or a holiday, or turn it into candy. As Christians, we carry the cross just as Jesus carried the cross. However, it appears that even among believers, with the best of intention, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what this carrying of the cross actually means. What does it mean when Jesus says to all of you and me that if we want to follow Him, we've got to carry our cross?
I suppose the first mention of the cross is to the 12 apostles, when Jesus sends them out on their first solo mission, without Him, to preach and to teach in the local villages. Included in the instructions is what to do, where to stay, what to bring and what to expect as far as rejection and division within their own homes, because of Him.
And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.
- Matthew 20:38
Basically, "You can call me your leader, your Lord, but if you're not carrying your cross, yeah, it's not worth anything. You're not worth anything to me." Later on after Peter the apostle openly confesses that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God, Jesus begins to tell the apostles how he would suffer, and die and then resurrect. Peter foolishly tries to reprimand Jesus for suggesting such a dark and improbable future.
Peter is saying, "oh no Lord, we have a good thing going here. You're doing the miracles. People are following you. We're on our way. We've got momentum. Surely, you're not going to go. They're not going to hurt you. You're not going to die. Let's not let that happen." And, so Jesus answers to not only Peter but all of the apostles by repeating what he had said to them when he previously sent them out to minister. This time with more precision.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
- Matthew 16:24
Then Luke recounts that Jesus uses these same words, this time, not only to warn the apostles about the requirements of following Him, but the demands placed on anybody, that's including all of you and me, anybody desiring to be his disciple.
25Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26"If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.
- Luke 14:25-26
People are excited. He's done a miracle. They're following Him thinking He's a winner. And then he stops them and says to them. Where are you going? Are you following Me? No, if you want to follow Me, you have to pick up your cross first then you can follow Me. Just following along, that's not enough. That's not good enough. It seems that Jesus described the experience of being His disciple by using this metaphor of carrying a cross. Who is a disciple? Well, he's the one that carries the cross.
We know it was a metaphor (a symbol) because the early apostles did not carry around a wooden cross as a mark of their discipleship. It was a phrase that referred to some kind of common experience that all disciples in every age had as a proof of their genuineness, a genuine disciple in the first century, the eighth century, the 19th century, the 28th century, a true disciple carries a cross. That's how you know them. After all, Jesus said, you couldn't be His disciple unless you did this carrying of the cross thing. Too many people think: "I got wet (in baptism) I'm good."
The text gives us a pretty good clue as to what this cross carrying is all about. In Matthew 10, the sending out of the 12 in this passage Jesus mentioned several things that they will encounter as they go out.
9Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, 10or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.
- Matthew 10:9-10
Carrying the cross means your dependence is completely on God, as a Christian. You depend on God. That's the first sign.
Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.
- Matthew 10:14
Shaking the dust of those who won't listen. In other words, they would suffer rejection, ridiculed. You ever been ridiculed? You ever been embarrassed for being a Christian?
I remember one time, as a young man, when I was just starting out as a minister, there was a young woman who visited the church, and we were just talking, and I was trying to talk to her about Jesus, and so on, and so forth. And, she looked at me and she says, "oh, you don't really believe in that, do you?" You poor little guy? Yeah, that's rejection. It's not just people throwing stuff at you. It's people making you feel small, because you believe.
"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
- Matthew 10:16
They would experience aggression, injustice, opposition.
"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.
- Matthew 10:21
Family division, strife, betrayal.
When my wife and I became Christians, that was the end of our relationship with our families. I don't mean we didn't talk to each other anymore. Of course, we talked to each other, they came, we visited, there were birthday parties, Christmas, stuff like that, with my mother, and her parents, and her sisters, and all that. It was all there except one thing, there was like this invisible wall that appeared after we became Christians. We could never talk about religion. We could never talk about the Bible. We could never talk about spiritual things. We weren't included in certain things. You know it when people are kind of keeping a divide from you. On her deathbed, my mother would not allow me to pray for her. I'm her only son. You better be ready for rejection.
He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
- Matthew 10:39
A complete abandonment of this world for the pursual of the world that is to come. That's what cross carrying is all about.
In Matthew 16:24, Jesus, when he rebukes Peter, in this instance, Jesus says that his disciples need to deny themselves, and take up the cross, and follow him. And, so here we're getting at the heart of the matter, to act of self denial is part and parcel of carrying one's cross.
In another account of Peter's confession of faith, but Luke leaves out Jesus' rebuke.
And He was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.
- Luke 9:23
In this scene, Jesus adds the idea of constancy and perseverance. The carrying of the cross is a daily ongoing experience. It's part of a lifestyle. It's not just a, "I go to church on Sunday." That's not carrying your cross. What suffering are we experiencing here gathering together as believers to take communion? We're not suffering. This is the good part. This is the easy part.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
- Luke 14:27
He's addressing a large crowd of people. Notice how he phrases the idea of cross carrying. Jesus is saying that without this experience, a person can't be his disciple. "But, Lord, I sing the songs, and I don't use a piano, but Lord, I ate the wafer on Sunday, and I drink the juice. Well, Lord, I got baptized once, isn't that enough?" Well, you were only stepping in to become my disciple, but if you don't carry your cross, you can't be counted as a disciple.
So what can we say that cross carrying is essentially? Well, first of all, it's not a simple belief or a doctrine. It's something that you experience as a follower of Jesus. Disbelievers cannot relate to cross carrying. You can't explain it to somebody who's not a believer. It's like when you're talking to them and trying to explain this cross carrying thing, it's as if you're going, well, let me explain to you this cross carrying and they hear "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." It's like you're talking nonsense to them. They don't understand. They can't get it.
And then according to the Lord, all followers or disciples experience it, and those who don't or refuse to experience it, can't be the disciple. They can call themselves disciples, but He doesn't recognize them. There's a big difference between you calling yourself a disciple of Jesus and Him calling you a disciple. That's not the same thing.
And then, as the metaphor suggests, this cross carrying is not pleasant, but it does yield great results. And then finally, Jesus insists that it's a daily ongoing experience, not just a one time feeling. It's a way of life.
Have we figured it out yet? Let's go back to Matthew 16:24 and read it again, just in case.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
- Matthew 16:24
Picking up the cross, according to Jesus, is the same as denying one's self. Denial of self is the experience. Denial of self is the feeling, the reality of cross carrying, because cross carrying is a metaphor or its imagery for suffering. Picking up your cross is a reference to the suffering that a disciple will experience caused by the practice of denial of self in order to follow Jesus. Denial of self to follow Jesus.
As a Christian, a disciple, a follower of Jesus existing in a sinful body that lives in a sinful world, you will have to experience the denial of self every single day. And, that will cause you to suffer. Why? Because, you say to your flesh, "I'm going to deny what you want right now." And your flesh says to you "over my dead body you're going to deny what I want." This tug of war continues back and forth every day. It never ends. This is the reality of carrying your cross. Your flesh wants to say and do things that your cross carrying spirit will not allow.
Now, don't be confused. Cross carrying is not just about suffering. A lot of non-believers suffer terrible things, but their pain is not on account of Jesus. So, it's not related to the cross. And denial of self is not the same as self denial or self-control, where one regulates their consumption of food or even unhealthy practices in order to live a healthier or more moral life. This may help an individual become a better person, but it doesn't qualify as cross carrying. If you stop eating donuts every morning, because you want to lose weight, that's not cross carrying. Now, it's hard to give up donuts every morning, you drive by the donut place, and you want to go in, and you deny yourself, but somebody else at work has brought in a dozen donuts and you deny yourself. So, that's hard, but that's not cross carrying. That's just, you want to be thinner.
Denying self in the context of cross carrying means the removal of self at the center of one's life and desire, and replacing self with the will and the person of Christ. Because, most of us have us as the center of our universe. It's about me. It's always about me. Denial of self is I remove me and I put Jesus at the center of me and it becomes all about Jesus, not about me. Oh, there's, of course, some self control aspect that comes into play here as we deny ourselves the pleasures of the world when we become Christians, but denial of self goes far deeper than the giving up of bad habits like smoking, cursing or whatever. These things are usually the witness that self is being denied and not the essence of self denial. I would add that people who can't or won't deal with these superficial things, simply witness the fact that self is absolutely in charge and the cross hasn't yet been carried in their lives.
Let me ask you this, have you ever wondered why Jesus makes this deep demand of those who would become his disciples? Why wouldn't He make it easier? Why can't He just let us do what we want to do? Well, the denial of self is necessary, because those who follow Jesus will follow Him to the cross. Where do you think we're heading with this Christianity business? We're heading towards the cross. As He carried a literal cross, that was ultimately used to put Him to death, we through the denial of self, carry our cross that will ultimately result in the death of self as well.
What do you think Jesus means when He says the following, "whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25)? Well, He's saying that without self denial, your Christianity is just another religion and it's not a faith that saves you. We're so focused on baptizing people, important and biblical I realize that, but we're so focused on that, that we forget that baptism is simply a sign of the fact that we have become disciples. We argue that it must be in water, no sprinkling, no pouring. Some even debate if somebody should be re-baptized if their finger was sticking up or if the right words were used. Was it in Jesus' name or in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit? People have royal battles over those type of things, but we miss one of the key reasons why Jesus gave us baptism as a gateway into Christianity. Baptism is a witness of our death, the death of self that every Christian will begin to experience as he or she begins to follow Jesus. Brothers and sisters, you pick up your cross at baptism. That's what's happening.
The only way to follow Jesus is by carrying your cross, because He carried His, and the only way to carry the cross is through denial of self, because Jesus said, "not my will, but Thy will be done" in the supreme act of self denial. This is what Paul refers to in Philippians, when he says that Jesus "emptied Himself." That's what we have to do. We have to empty ourselves. Of what? Of self. "I want this, I feel that, It would be better for me, me, me, me" all the time.
The genuine experience of cross carrying through the denial of self is suffering, because Jesus suffered and died on a cross. Life brings us all kinds of suffering sooner or later. There's no question of this. In the same way, discipleship leads us to suffering, because the denial of self or cross carrying inevitably causes us pain in some way. It's very simple. If there's no denial of self, there's no suffering. If there's no suffering, there's no cross carrying. If there's no cross carrying, there's no discipleship. If there's no discipleship, there's no resurrection. That's how it works. That's the theory. That's the teaching.
Let me give you an example of this principle of cross carrying at work in a person's real life. The man in the picture above is Guy Hammond. I know him. I've met him several times. Guy Hammond is a preacher for a church in Halifax, Canada. His father was a minister and an elder for a church. Guy says that he attended his first church service at the age of two weeks. He was a lifer. Guy is married. He has four children. And, I forgot to mention, he lived as a homosexual until he was 24 years old. He lived the complete life of a homosexual until he was 24 years old.
His is a long and involved story, but, basically, after growing up, living as a gay man secretly, and then finally he came out as a gay man, and lived the life, gay clubs, gay parades, gay marches, gay sex, whatever, the whole thing, he realized at one point that, no matter how he felt, what he was doing was wrong according to the Bible.
In his biography, he says that after he was baptized, he continued to feel what he described as same sex attraction, the same feelings that he had experienced from his youth. The difference now, he writes, is that he was consciously denying these core feelings and attractions, the things that had defined who he was all of his life. And, he denied them, why? In order to follow Christ. That was the cross that he picked up. That was the denial of self that he had to deal with.
At one point, he was invited to speak about his experiences at the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey. He was going to talk about his life, his gay experience and his ministry to gays called Strength in Weakness. At Rutgers, there were several hundreds of students in the audience, including representatives of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. They were ready to shout him down. They were ready to humiliate him, but they didn't. They didn't, because he did not deny the fact that there are people in this world who, for whatever social or psychological reasons, are clearly attracted to the same sex. They didn't shout him down. They didn't heckle him, because he admitted that he was one of them. He said, I know how you feel, because that's the way I feel. He doesn't say it's the way I felt, and then I was baptized, and I started living as a Christian, and I didn't feel like that anymore. No, he said, I still feel that way, but, in addition to this fact about his life, Guy also said that, as a Christian, he chose to deny these feelings, so that he could follow Christ, a journey that he had now been on for 23 years. Much of the young liberal non-Christian crowd did not agree with him, but they didn't shout him down, because, you see, it's hard to ridicule a man who is publicly carrying his cross.
Guy said that his choice was not between homosexuality and heterosexuality. His choice was between homosexuality, what he felt, and holiness, what God wanted of him. So, he picked up his cross and he followed Jesus. He chose holiness. He chose to deny the feeling and choose the will of God for his life. He says every once in a while, like an alcoholic, I get these feelings that I have to deal with, and deal away with, and pray about.
We've covered a lot of territory in this sermon from a chocolate cross to homosexuality. That's a stretch. It's hard to imagine that this is supposed to be a gospel sermon, but here's the connection, without the cross, there'd be no resurrection, without the resurrection, none of us would be here today, nor would we have a hope of eternal life in heaven. And, here's the point for each of us. If there's no cross carrying in this life, there won't be any resurrecting to the next life with God, plain and simple.
I'm happy to note and remember the resurrection of Christ every Sunday, as I share in the Lord's supper, which is what we will do, because God commanded it. I recognize that His resurrection makes my resurrection possible. However, as I contemplate all of this, I am also reminded of the equally important fact that, like Jesus, I must also be prepared to pick up and carry my cross in order to follow Him into that glory.
Brothers and sisters, let me tell you, I have a cross. I have a cross that you don't know about, but I know it. And, you have a cross that no one knows, but you know about it. And, what has to be decided is, will I carry it or not? That's the decision.
So, here's the Lord's invitation to you this Sunday morning, will you pick up your cross today? Now, you might say, Lord, I'm a violent person and he will reply, deny yourself. And, you might say, well, Lord, I'm an unforgiving person. And, the Lord will answer, deny yourself. And, you may say, Lord, I have same sex attractions. I have cravings for drugs, and alcohol, and pornography, or money, or power, or success. And, the Lord will simply say, deny yourself. And, you may say, but Lord, this is who I am, this is how I am, how I've been raised, what I've become, or any other argument to justify or maintain the status quo in your life. And, He will answer:
24Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
- Matthew 16:24-25
Who desires to take up the cross today? If you wish to begin the journey or need the strength to carry on, then we have brothers here and sisters that are ready to pray for you. If you haven't been baptized and you want to do that, I'm sure we can arrange to have you baptized, because, remember what I said, you pick up your cross at baptism. If anybody needs to make that decision, then we encourage you to do so today.