Passages like this one make the life of discipleship sound pretty unappealing. “Follow Jesus and you will suffer so horribly that the only image that can capture it is of carrying an instrument of torture to your inevitable execution” is, to be frank, a difficult sell. Why on earth would anyone want to do anything of the sort? Perhaps in some more or less mythical “olden days” when the alternative was hell it might have seemed like a better option – but now?
The question can’t help but occur to me: wouldn’t it be better to kind of de-emphasize all this suffering stuff? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” is much more what people want to hear.
There is, however, deep wisdom here, if we choose to hear it.
There’s a lot to be said for our civilisation. It’s astonishing that we could shut practically the whole Victorian economy down for weeks on end and still pay our mortgages and not starve to death. The productive capacity of our society is staggering, and has completely re-shaped how we live compared to our grandparents.
My favourite story about my Grandmother is that she was once asked what had been the most impressive advance she had seen during her lifetime. She was born a couple of years before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, and lived to see Qantas buy its first 747 and destroy the tyranny of distance. She lived through two world wars, the widespread adoption of motor vehicles, heart transplants, and a million other things which we don’t even think of as being inventions any more. So, it was thought, she would have something suitably impressive and epoch defining to say.
We live in a world where the consumer revolution of the post-war world has rendered material abundance as a given in the West. It’s hard to imagine living without indoor plumbing, unless you were deliberately living off-grid somewhere to make some sort of ecological point. But for many, many people in Australia, it was a great, life-changing innovation.
We are rich and secure beyond the imaginings of even quite recent ancestors, with safety and comfort beyond even the very rich until just yesterday.
In fact, we’re so rich and powerful, and hence able to shape the world to suit us, that we think we can escape suffering altogether.
One of the most powerful ways in which we see this in our culture is the idea of Wellness. It encodes a distinct picture of human flourishing, involving nurturing experiences and practices which can help you reach your full potential. One might, for instance, engage in a yoga retreat in a resort in Bali (or at least one might have done if it wasn’t for the lockdown which forbids us to venture more than five kilometres from our homes. But I digress.)
Imagine a tree growing in a field. Your aim is to allow that tree to grow as large and free as possible – you hope that it will flourish into a huge and impressive thing. You make sure the soil is correct, you water and fertilise it carefully. You might even consider some judicious pruning. With diligence and care, and time, you will get your beautiful tree.
It goes deeper than just the pleasure of having nice experiences. It has become a sort of morality of its own. Writer Tara Isabella Burton puts it like this: “to be my best self is to be a good person, and that my goal is to maximise who I am.”
It’s all about control. Have good, nurturing, carefully curated experiences, and I will flourish like a tree planted by a river. The good life, the admirable, desirable life, is the golden life untouched by suffering.
The problem is, however, that life just doesn’t work that way. They say that, on average, you are no more than five years away from something terrible happening to you or to someone you love. As we are so vividly discovering in Melbourne: it turns out that there are some things you just can’t control in life.
And the question which hits with the devastating effect of a firefront slamming into a farm shed, is this: now what?
When our yoga retreats and self-care routines are wiped away by tragedy: Then what? How do we live?
To take up your cross is to follow Jesus.
To understand taking up your cross of suffering is to make yourself open to the transformative possibilities of suffering. We’re jogging along in life, everything seems, well if not exactly perfect, but we’re coping – and then we are completely overwhelmed. Suffering forces us to find a new way of living, a new way of understanding your life.
To be a Christian is to open ourselves to the possibility of suffering. It is to be part of a community, which means that the number of people we care about is expanded, and hence our opportunities for suffering are also expanded.
But deeper than that, it opens us to a fundamental question, a basic tension of life. Is the world trustworthy?
One answer to the question is, essentially, no, it isn’t. So we pull back, retreat into ourselves and our little circle. We can become what Luther called “humanity curved in on itself.” We control everything we can. We major on self-protection and self-concern, because we are so desperately afraid of the terrible things life can throw at us.
It’s the highway to the sin of despair – of giving up fundamental trust in God.
The other answer is to open ourselves up to the world. Like Jesus, we accept that terrible things can, and will, happen. But, also like Jesus, we open ourselves in trust that, whatever the terrible things, God is faithful. It is, in spite of all appearances, worth it.
As a philosopher once said: the one who has a “why” can bear any “how.”
The fundamental thing here, it seems to me, is to develop actual trust in God. It’s easy enough to say we “believe” in God. But that’s just the start, a framework in which trust can develop.
It is the journey of a lifetime to become someone who trusts God like Jesus does. But he shows us the way, He shows us that engaging the world with the courage to embrace failure and suffering as much as success and pleasure is the right way to live. The way to live that connects us to the God who really does love us.
And that brings us back to our starting point. I asked the question: Why would anyone want to take up their cross? It turns out that was the wrong question: there is no escape from having a cross.
The real question is: what then? Do we trust God to use our cross to transform us to people open to one another and the world, people ever more in touch with God, plugged into the power source at the heart of all things?
Or do we pull back, close down, turn in on ourselves?
We are cast into the midst of life. We can’t “solve” suffering. All we can do is respond to it. Do we close in on ourselves, focus on wellness, look after me and mine, and try to minimise our own suffering? Or do we follow Jesus into transformation and resurrection?
A sermon preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on Matthew 16:21-28 on the 26th of August 2020 for the Thirteenth Week after Pentecost Year A, Proper 17(22)
 Matthew 16:21-28
 My father disputes this account, but it is how it was told to me.
 Yes, there is still poverty (and will be more so after COVID19 has run its course) but it isn’t the norm for people in the West like it was. We pretty well all have indoor plumbing.
 Homo incurvatus in se
 Nietzsche, but I’m wary of quoting too many philosophers in a sermon
 If you’ve followed this footnote, you should definitely read Suffering by Dorothy Soelle.