The Shape of the Cross

Homily, The Shape of the Cross
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2021
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many of you happen to be wearing a cross necklace this morning? I know we have some Daughters of the King here who are probably wearing their crosses. I have my cross today. I wear this one as a member of a Franciscan order. Well, good. I love cross necklaces. Not only are they beautiful, I think they hold so much symbolism when we wear them around our necks, especially on days like today when we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It is kind of strange though when you think about it isn’t it? Because originally the cross was not this beautiful thing but an instrument of death! The cross was an execution device used by the Roman Empire to crush and humiliate its opponents so that all who passed by and looked up at the poor souls hanging there would know never to question the authority of the emperor. And now we wear it around our necks. How strange?

A few years ago when I was a youth minister I was doing some shopping for cross necklaces. Our youth were preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Italy that year and to walk in the steps of St. Francis who we had been been a big inspiration our faith journey that year. So I had this idea that we could each wear a cross while we journeyed through Italy to remind us of Francis’ love of the gospel and the message of Jesus. But when I got online to search for some crosses, I was dumbfounded and a little overwhelmed at the incredible selection of crosses out there. There were Franciscan crosses and Benedictine crosses, wood cross and metal crosses, there were crosses from Jerusalem and crosses made in the USA, big and bold crosses, small subtle crosses, crosses adorned with gems and diamonds, and crosses of 24k gold. I remember one website of a jewelry company in its description of the wide of selection of crosses wrote, “While some people wear this appealing design to express their convictions, most individuals wear it to make a fashion statement.” It went on to describe the benefits of wearing a gold cross which, it wrote, “conjures up images of luxury, success, and obviously, glam and beauty.”

I wonder if that’s what Peter had in mind in our gospel passage this morning: “luxury, success, and obviously, glam and beauty.” Because when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter, in his unending zealousness, proclaimed, “You are the Messiah”, which of course was the correct answer. But it appears that Jesus’ vision of what the Messiah supposed to look like was pretty different than what Peter had in mind. You see the Messiah, according the Hebrew Scriptures, was supposed to be a king. A king that would bring back the good ole days of Kings David and Solomon when Israel was at the peak of its fame and status and wealth as opposed to where it was in Peter’s time, an insignificant people in the grand scheme of the Roman Empire, and a people who hung on crosses if they said any differently. Imagine then, what Peter had in mind when he said those words, “you are the Messiah”. Probably not very far off from “luxury, success, and obviously, glam and beauty.” And yet just after his words Jesus describes how he will undergo suffering, rejection, and death. And he even adds, “and if you want to follow me you will too.” What a shock! No wonder Peter turns and rebukes Jesus. You see Peter had the right answer to Jesus’ question, but he didn’t understand what that answer fully meant and he certainly wasn’t ready to live it. 

And here we are 2,000 years later, and I’m not so sure we always understand what Jesus meant ourselves. In a society where a cross necklace becomes a symbol of luxury and status rather than humility and suffering, I’m not so sure we know what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. So what can we learn from Peter?

I think we have to learn to expand our notions of God’s call in our lives. Like us, Peter had big dreams. But Christ’s dreams were bigger. Peter dreamed of conquering the Romans; Christ dreamed of conquering death. Peter dreamed of salvation for the Jews; Christ dreamed of salvation for the world. Peter dreamed of sitting at an earthly king’s table; Christ dreamed of inviting all to the heavenly king’s table. And so Jesus rebukes Peter, “Peter, you’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Dream bigger. In the short term it may not look so great, but in the long term this is real living we’re talking about. Real salvation. I’m not calling you to suffering, I’m calling you through suffering, to something greater.”

There are a lot of things in today’s world that we can be working towards. There are a lot of things that promise us luxury, success, glam and beauty. But our gospel this morning is challenging us to dream bigger. And to shape and order our lives not around comfort and status, but around the cross and the resurrection. Have you ever heard that phrase from the Book of Acts, “It’s more blessed to give than receive?” That’s what Jesus is talking about here. “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.” 

So the question for us is this morning is what gives shape and order to our lives? Is it giving or receiving? Do our actions, and assumptions, and words reflect a sense of entitlement or generosity? Do they reflect a sense of pride or humility? Do they reflect a sense of self-conservation or self-offering?

I mentioned earlier my cross necklace. I wear it as a member of a Franciscan religious order. And on it is the shape of a person. No face, no personal features, just the shape. You can actually put your finger in the groove and feel the shape of the person which has been formed around the shape of the cross. And while I know the person is meant to represent Jesus, I sometimes I imagine that it’s me. I look at it and I ask myself those questions. What gives shape to my life? Is it the cross or is it something else? Because if we are shaped by the cross, we will find so much more than “luxury, success, glam, and beauty.” We will find more than we can ask or imagine. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Amen.