So... how’s life? Everything cruising along just fine? Nothing troubling or difficult come up lately?
I’m going to guess that's not the case. I’m going to guess that you've got at least one something, probably many somethings that are giving you grief and potentially causing some lost sleep, robbing you of some peace of mind, and just overall taking up your time and energy that you’d rather be spending elsewhere. How are you handling that? Are you trying to face it, confront it, and put it to bed? It’ll be hard but at least you’ll have won and probably come out the other side with something good to show for it. Or are you trying to just figure out some way to get the issue rid of, forget about it, take it out of your life and move on? No victory there but at least there’s no cost to you in fighting it.
It can be a tough call when we face a challenge to balance that risk/reward relationship, to decide if the fight is worth it. There’s a branch of the path that costs us something but we benefit at the end… or we choose not to fight and there’s no immediate cost.
But there is one of those choices in our lives that’s kind of a no-brainer. The difficult side is full of hardship that you wouldn't deal with if you chose the other branch of the path. It's full of self-sacrifice, pain, and ridicule. And the reward you earn for walking it is: absolutely nothing. Plenty of pain, no gain. All you can see is that one side is going to cost you, the other side doesn’t.
When I talk here about a difficult path versus an easy one, I'm speaking of course about the difference between being a disciple of Jesus, following him, or not. Now, I’m speaking about this like it's a one-time choice but it's not. It's really a fork in the road that we face a dozen or more times every single day. We usually don't think about it in such conscious terms, but this is really what we're facing.
The moment approaches when we have a decision to make. On the one side is the path that God calls us to follow as his disciple. To think, act, or speak as he’s taught us. It’s the path that costs us something. If you go down that road, you’ll have to give up… something. You’ll have to give up some of your time or your treasures or your pride or your peace. You’ll have to endure some kind of emotional or physical pain. And at the end of that branch you will have received nothing you do not already have. No benefit. The other branch is a straight line, level ground, no trouble and it looks like it ends at the same place, but there’s no cost. So really, no-brainer.
You’re at work and overhear a conversation where a co-worker is bashing the church. He can’t stand how they’re deluding people constantly. And for what? They’re only after your money and they’re all filled with hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach. The easy path is to stay quiet. Maybe pass a little silent judgment on the person, be sure to treat them a little differently from now on. Mark that person in your mind as a fool. God’s path instead says to look at that person with compassion. To give up pride of thinking yourself better because that could just as easily be you. And to give up the safety of staying silent but rather in love inviting the coworker to come and see that they might be mistaken in their assumptions of the church. Isn’t just easier to stay quiet?
It’s payday. In fact, it’s a special payday because this paycheck has a bonus and a raise attached. The easy path is to think of all the things you can do for yourself or your family now. Pay off some debt? Take a vacation? Remodel a bit like you always wanted? Maybe just rework the budget to have more spending money each month. After all, you’ve earned it. God’s path tells you that you did not earn it. That he gave that to you. And he asks you to set aside some of the things you want to show him thanks first. To give to him in proportion to how much he’s given you. And that means giving up some of those dreams of things you want. Wouldn’t be easier just to keep it for yourself?
Someone close to you is rude. Heartless. Hurts you through indifference. And it keeps happening. The easy path is to be angry. To hurt them back. To badmouth them to others. To carry a grudge and hold a bad opinion of them. God says love even those who hurt you. God says leave justice and judgment and vengeance to him. God says to speak well of everyone, to hold your tongue even when the bad stuff is true. But God’s path means giving up your hurt pride, it means letting go of the pain and anger. It means abandoning the idea that this person is “bad”. But isn’t it easier to just stay angry at the bad people?
We face moments like these constantly, and when you look at it like that the decision seems obvious. One path costs, the other path is free. Even for the Christian, there does not appear to be a tangible reward for choosing the path that costs. You do not come out the end “more saved” than you already were. You are already forgiven, right? God already loves you, he already died for you, so... you don’t get anything more for making yourself miserable by paying the cost of his path right?
It’s a compelling argument. I hope I didn’t make it too compelling for you. It is what is whispered in our ear. It is what the devil would love for us to listen to. And it's very tempting. Don’t go that way, it’s not worth it. But it is short-sighted, in the moment, and ignores the larger picture of our salvation. Being a disciple of Jesus means carrying this cross, this cost of following him. It is a necessary part of the experience.
Jesus says as much in our Gospel that we just read. He tells us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
So just in case it isn’t already clear, let’s start with the obvious question: What is our cross? Sometimes we like to think that it is just everything unpleasant that we endure in this life, but that’s not exactly accurate. Not that God doesn’t have something to say about those things, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. When Jesus calls for you to take up your cross and follow him, he’s talking about the cost of being his disciple. He’s talking about what you endure, what you suffer, what you give up as a result of choosing the path that he’s on instead of the world’s.
Your cross can be as overt as the ridicule you endure from family or coworkers over the fact that you believe in some magical God who created the world in seven days. It can be as difficult as giving up your time or your money because God asks it. It can be as subtle as just giving up your right to feel like you’re justified in your anger and judgment of another person. Whatever it costs you to follow the path of the disciple, that’s your cross.
So, what makes it so necessary? After all, we say that God’s forgiveness is full and free right? Freely given, without cost or demand. And all this before we even come to know him. If the forgiveness is given first, what makes taking up the cross such a vital part of being Jesus’ disciple?
I could go into the scriptural definition and explanation, about how faith is a living gift from God and faith by its definition shows itself in actions that love God more than yourself and making those choices for God is just a natural result of having faith. But let’s maybe approach it a little more simply, in a terms that are easier to grasp with the theme we’ve been using: Disciple.
So here is the plain question: what kind of disciple are you if you refuse to follow the instructions of your teacher? What if you were learning a trade under a master and every direction he gave, you ignored it and did things the way you thought would work better instead? Not only would that make you foolish for not listening to the one who had the experience, who actually knew better, but it wouldn't make you much of a disciple either. In fact, if you kept up that behavior you probably wouldn't be retained as a disciple for very long.
That might be a little less than encouraging if you're anything like me. After all, I know how I make my choices. Sure, sometimes I listen to Jesus and accept the cross that comes with his path. But more often than I want to admit, I take the road that looks easier and costs me less. And if that’s the kind of disciple I am, one that says “no thanks” to the cross when it looks uncomfortable, then what hope do I have?
The best kind, actually. Take a look at what the Apostle Paul has to say in our reading today:
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
In a very real sense, it’s encouraging when you can’t do the work in front of you. Why? Because that's the point of Jesus. You are not the treasure, you are the jar of clay. Unimpressive, worthless, ugly. That’s okay. Because you are filled with the treasure. The treasure is Jesus.
Jesus took up his literal cross for you. He carried it to Calvary. He let himself be hung on it. And there he took up your cross. He took the real cost on himself. The payment you owed for every failure to be his disciple. Every time you took the selfish path created a debt to God. Jesus took the debt and paid it in blood. As he endured the pain of Hell itself he paid your price, he carried your cross for you.
Jesus’ death and resurrection means that in the eyes of the Father you have always carried your cross perfectly. You are filled with the treasure that he has won for you, and that treasure can never be spent out. There is always more there than you will ever need, it is an eternity of God’s treasure filling you up. The outside is attacked, there is cost demanded, but the treasure never runs out. The final part of our reading for today points out some vital truths as we prepare to shoulder our cross in the world:
13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Truth number one: we believe, therefore we speak. Faith speaks, faith shows itself. Being a disciple of Jesus means that you follow his teachings and that means even when there's a cost. Because he paid your cost. For the believer it is as natural as the sun rising and the flowers blooming.
Truth number two: outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. Here is a far more important fact about the costs of being a disciple. You are not the one paying them. Because everything God asks of you, every cost to every cross you must carry, it's all paid out of what God has given you. All you have, and all you are you have only because he's given it to you. All your time, all your treasures, all your strength within and without come from him. And so whatever the cost of following him is, he's given you enough to pay that price. However difficult that cross may look to carry, he's standing right there with you ready to shoulder the burden. It's not really on you.
And truth number three: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. Being a disciple of Jesus is listening to him and putting what he says into action. Even if there’s a cost. Because the fact is that in his discipline, he is the master. He knows the best ways. He knows what will actually spare you the most pain and bring you the most blessing. You just might not be able to see it.
So instead of looking at what the paths might look like to you, we trust his judgment. We fix our eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen. Jesus has shouldered your cross. He continues to give you everything you need to bear it. And his path leads to eternal glory in heaven. Don’t trust what you see, trust the one who saved you. So what now? You’re a disciple of Jesus. Pick up your cross, go out there, and follow him. Amen.