Take Up Your Cross! Alleluia!

A sermon by Jenny Howard
Preached at Central Presbyterian Church, Louisville, KY
on May 2, 2010, the 5th Sunday in Easter

This is written as a dialogue sermon, though it was preached by one person.
Boldface is used to distinguish the second speaker from the first.
Italics are used for quotations from published theologians.

Matthew 16:24-25
Matthew 10:38-39
Mark 8:34-35
Luke 9:23-24
Luke 14:27
(texts below, at the end)

Jesus died for your sins! Human sin is a crime against God, and a just God must punish crime! But, as God is infinite and eternal, so any crime against God is equally infinite and eternal. What human punishment could ever suffice to atone for that infinite crime, you poor finite mortals? That is why God sent His Son, divine yet also completely human, to take the punishment for all humanity, to be the perfect human sacrifice! Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross satisfied God’s thirst for venge— …er, I mean satisfied God’s just demand for punishment! This was an act of grace! Yes, having Jesus killed was God’s loving act of supreme grace! By this your sins are forgiven – your sins, and the sins of all humankind in eternity! In this brutal (yet infinitely just) act of human sacrifice, you should find unspeakable joy! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout—

Excuse me, I have a question?

Yes, yes, what is your question?

Well, I’ve been reading the Bible—

Good! Good! Scripture is surely the place to seek answers to all our questions.

Um, well, I can’t find the part where Jesus teaches what you just preached?

It’s in there! After all, this doctrine of substitute punishment has been the bedrock of our faith for 2000 years!

Um, actually, it was only about 1260 that Aquinas developed that particular theology of atonement. St. Anselm of Canterbury, some 150 years earlier, wrote something similar, around the year 1100. But before that, that’s not what the church taught.

What are you trying to say?

Well, as I said, I’d like to explore what Jesus himself said about the crucifixion, in the Gospels, you know? May I?

I suppose. I’m sure you’ll find this clearly explained in the Gospels.

I’d like to start with this morning’s Scripture readings. They’re from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three earliest Gospels. I hear Jesus saying over and over, if we want to be his disciples, we have to take up our cross and follow him. And then I have to ask the question—

Wait a second! You can’t question the Bible!

Oh no, I would never do that! I’m just questioning one interpretation of the Bible that I heard. Isn’t it part of the whole idea of being Presbyterian, being Reformed Protestants, that Scripture is the ultimate authority, not the church’s interpretation, or anyone else’s interpretation?


So my question is, if Jesus paid the price of sin for us, once for all, why do we have to take up our cross, just like he did? Where’s the good news in that? I’ve always thought believing in Jesus set us free – free from our sin – that Jesus set us free when he died on the cross. If I have to carry a cross, does that mean I have to be crucified too? Getting crucified doesn’t sound very free to me. And yet, this is something that Jesus said in these three Gospels, so it can’t be wrong. What did he mean?

I did a little digging, and I found out that Matthew and Luke were both written about a generation after Mark. So Mark’s Gospel is the oldest. Plus, the evidence is pretty strong that Mark was a major source for the people who wrote Matthew and Luke. So I took a closer look at Mark. It turns out that, when this earliest Gospel talks about the meaning of Jesus’ death, it never says that Jesus died as a substitute to satisfy God’s demand that humankind must be punished for their sin – our sin.

Now hold on just a minute there! What about Mark chapter 10 verse 45? “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Doesn’t that say that Jesus was killed as punishment for our sins?

Thank you, I was just going to say something about that. There is that verse, or really half a verse, that says Jesus “came…to give his life a ransom for many.” It might seem to support this vicarious punishment idea. But is that really what the word ‘ransom’ means? Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, point out that the word is also used elsewhere in the Bible, and they explain its usage quite well: “The Greek word translated as ‘ransom’ is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. [It] is a means of liberation from bondage. Thus to say that Jesus gave ‘his life a ransom for many’ means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage.”

And when I looked at this verse in context – I’m sure you agree that we have to read Scripture in context? – I saw it differently. Even within that verse, the first half says Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve.”

This sounds more like a voluntary act than it does like a passive sacrificial lamb. He made a conscious choice to give his life for us – like a soldier who gives his life for his country. Jesus chose to serve his disciples, to serve us, by showing us his new way, the way of salvation, even knowing it meant death. Borg and Crossan put it this way: “How does Mark think Jesus’ death is a ‘ransom’ for many? …. It is not by Jesus substituting for [us], but by [our] participating in Jesus. [We] must pass through death to a new life here below upon this earth, and [we] can already see what that transformed life is like in Jesus himself.” Jesus was saying this is so important that he put everybody else’s good first, and put himself last, and he called us to follow his example.

Look at it this way: Jesus faced death knowing, in complete faith, that new life waited on the other side, and knowing that the only way to attain that new life was by passing through the death of his old life. That’s what he was trying to teach his disciples. Does that make him some kind of creepy precursor to Jim Jones, only with crosses instead of poisoned grape Kool-Aid?

By no means! (I’ve always wanted to say that in a sermon.) Jesus used death on a cross as an illustration of what it meant to serve, rather than be served. As Frederick C. Grant wrote in his analysis of Mark when he was Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary, “Mark…hardly assumed that all Christians must be crucified; the language is certainly figurative.”

In almost every one of today’s readings, right after Jesus says take up your cross, the next thing he says is that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Again this is figurative: as disciples, we must make the choice to lose our old life, our old self that wants to be served, so that we can find the new life, in which we serve others. That is how we take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

We are set free by participating with Jesus in this supreme act – set free from our slavery to our wanting, set free from our own desire to be served, and set free to love and serve the world, as we have always known God wants us to do.

Make no mistake, Jesus tells us – it’s difficult and it’s dangerous, this business of putting everyone else first. It will cost us our life, if not literally, then at least in the sense of losing our old self, losing our old idea of who we are. But, oh, the reward! To participate in the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus – not as something that happened long ago and far away, but right here, right now, we can choose to participate in Jesus’ cross, and in his service. We can choose to follow Jesus – we are not captive to our own sinful ways. By taking the way of the cross, Jesus freed us from that captivity.

And that is good news indeed. That is a source of joy! That gives our lives meaning! That gives our lives holiness! That is something to celebrate! Shout Alleluia! Shou—

I’ll take it from here. Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia!
Shout Amen!


Matthew 16.24-25: Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Matthew 10.38-39: ‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Mark 8.34-35: He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Luke 9.23-24: Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’
Luke 14.27: ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’


I had a close encounter with a black bear after lunch one day when I was camping in the Smokies. I was reaching into the bed of the pickup, to move the food box and the cooler into the cab (to avoid bear problems!), when suddenly, from the other side of the truck, a bear leaped into the pickup bed, its nose a foot away from mine. Needless to say, my nose — and the rest of me — did not remain in proximity to the bear for very long at all. Moving to keep the truck between me and the bear, I called out, “Bear!” to alert my partner, Nancy, who was just down the hill a ways, near the tent. Actually, she reported later that it was more like shrieking than calling out. And that I repeated it numerous times. And with a great deal of emotion. The bear, meanwhile, was unimpressed. Astutely assessing the situation, it observed that I hadn’t yet completed my task of hiding the food box. It casually helped itself to a loaf of bread, and was on its way to the woods to eat it when Nancy arrived to see what the commotion was all about. As I was stuttering my explanation, the camp ranger from down the road arrived on the scene — apparently my volume level had been sufficient to get his attention as well. The ranger asked for a description of the bear. After I finished what I considered a perfectly adequate description — “Big! Black! With teeth! And claws!” — he gently coaxed more details out of me, then concluded that our bread had been stolen by “Round Ears”, whom he described as a small bear who frequented the camp, though usually at dusk. Small. Yeah, right. I had inspected that bear, albeit briefly, from much closer up than the ranger ever had, I was sure. But what I really found striking was that this monster had a name: Round Ears. Almost made him sound cute. Almost.