I remember the low raspy sound of a man grunting in exasperation because he couldn’t use his tongue. He resorted to communicating with a pad and pencil. I was too young to recall the sound of his voice before he got sick. But I do remember what it was like to watch a once vibrant man who threw a softball and ran around the bases go to needing the assistance of a cane to get around, and then a wheel-chair. I remember how the simplest tasks in life became impossible for him to perform. Most of all, I remember the sadness in my mother, as she watched her husband, just a 45 year-old man, lose the use of his body. Because I was a little girl at the time, I didn’t realize the cruelest part of the disease. While my father’s body was wasting away, his mind was functioning perfectly, so that he was fully aware of what his disease was doing to him. It was more than he could bear and he wanted it to end. When I was in first grade, his prayers were answered, and he died.
The letters A.L.S. have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I’ve rarely heard other people talk about it. And now, for the past few weeks, all that has changed. I’ve been hearing people talk about ALS more than I ever have in my life.
If you’re not on social media, you may not know what I’m talking about. It’s called the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. And what happens is that a person who is challenged has the option of making a contribution to the ALS Association or they can dump a bucket of ice water on their head. Most people choose to do both. And then they challenge their friends to do the same. Every day, I’ve been watching videos of celebrities and Facebook friends dumping buckets of ice-water on their heads. It may sound like a gimmick, or just something trendy to do, but apparently it’s working because contributions to the ALSA are way up. Over the course of one month, they have topped 100 million dollars. Awareness about ALS among the public is up, too. How can this not be a good thing?
Because of my personal connection, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And in many respects it reminds me of the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 16:21-28. (Yeah, preachers find that pert near EVERYTHING reminds them of Sunday’s text.)
Peter has just experienced his bright, shining moment. When he’s asked who he thinks Jesus is by none other than Jesus himself, he rises to the occasion. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Jesus is pleased and he praises Peter up and down, calling him a rock. But then Jesus starts talking about what it means for him to be the Messiah and it wasn’t what Peter had in mind at all. He’s going to be arrested and killed? “No way”, Peter says. “That’s not what I meant when I said you were the Messiah.” And just like that, Jesus comes back at him and shoots him down. In a few short verses, Peter goes from rock star to Satan.
First Peter was smokin’ hot, and then he gets cold water thrown on him. No doubt it caused some steam! (Oh, forgive me for that.)
When we talk about throwing cold water on something, the expression usually refers to a downer. We’re flying high and everything’s coming up roses and along comes someone who throws cold water on us and ruins all our fun. That’s what the expression means, and Jesus certainly threw an ice-bucket of water on Peter. But we don’t only use the metaphor of cold water to turn a moment of elation into a sobering confrontation with reality. We also use cold water to awaken people and shock some sense into them. There’s nothing like splashing a little cold water in your face to startle you from your sleep-walking so you’re ready to pay attention. And it seems that what Jesus has to say in this gospel text does that, too. His words are like cold water in both ways. To those who were waiting for him to come into his glory as a powerful hero who will defeat their enemies, the vision he lays out for his Messiah-ship is a real downer. But that’s not why he tells his disciples that he’s headed for a cross. He sees that they’re living in la-la land and he wants then to wake up to reality. He’s inviting them to see the truth that will change their lives.
“There is a cross in my future”, he tells them. “And if you want to follow me, there will be a cross in your future, too.” Of course, this applies to us, as well. If we want to follow Jesus, there is a cross involved.
What does that mean to you? I mean, what does it really mean? Not, what have you been taught it should mean because you’re a Christian? But what does it really mean to you to take up your cross and follow him?
I’ve struggled a lot with this over the years. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I can’t buy into the Jesus paid the price for my sins thing. For starters, that concept wasn’t a part of Christian thinking for the first thousand years of Christianity. What came to be known as the satisfaction theory of atonement was the creation of a man named Anselm.
Beyond knowing the history of the concept that Jesus paid the price for my sins on the cross, the whole idea doesn’t make logical sense to me. I believe in a God of unconditional love. So it makes no sense to me that God would only be able to forgive us on the condition that first he kill his son to pay the price for our sins. Really, does someone have to be killed before God can forgive? I think that’s the very thing Jesus came to refute in the way he lived. This idea that when things don’t go our way, somebody has got to pay, was what he gave his life for. He could have cursed those who crucified him, and he would have been justified in doing so. But instead, he forgave them. His followers seemed to get that, because after Jesus died, they didn’t do what the followers of great leaders normally do under such circumstances. Not one of them sought to avenge his death. They understood that this is what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
A lot of people think that taking up a cross means we all need to suffer, or that we should all try to be good little martyrs. But I’ve come to see the cross in other ways. I see the cross as evidence of the absolute humanity of Jesus. I see it as a symbol for defying the ways of power and violence that so dominate our world. I see the cross as a model for resistance of the status-quo. I see the cross as evidence of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, mercy, compassion and love. I see the cross as putting to death the ways of death that keep us from truly living so that we might be resurrected to new life.
How do you see the cross? The key to following Jesus is found in the cross. This is not a sidebar to the life of faith. It’s at the very center. “If you don’t get that,” Jesus says, “then you don’t get me.” Our lives as followers of Jesus are shaped by the cross. It’s where God’s love conquers the world of power and violence with vulnerability, mercy and grace. It’s where death leads to life.
There is a challenge in Jesus’ words: “You say you want to follow me? Well, this is how it is. There is no following me without taking up the cross.”
Every day on Facebook I see people challenging one another to dump a bucket of ice water on their head for a worthy cause. And one by one, the challenge is met with enthusiasm. What would it mean for us to rise to Jesus’ challenge -- to take up our cross and follow him?
It’s more difficult than dumping a bucket of water on your head. It’s not something you can video-tape and post on the internet. When we’re baptized, water is poured on our heads and we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. When we die, the sign of the cross is made over our bodies. And in between those crosses that mark us and set us apart as Christ’s people, there is the challenge of the cross that meets us every day of our lives.
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.”