This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Mark 8:27-38.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It reminds me of someone who took up a cross and followed Jesus just a little later, Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus the day he was crucified. This is what Mark tells us about Simon: “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” That one sentence is all we know about Simon. We don’t even know who Alexander and Rufus were – presumably they were important figures in the early church, but we just don’t know.
So I’ve invented a personality and history for Simon, and for the rest of this sermon, I’d like you to imagine that I am Simon of Cyrene, twenty years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead.
My name is Simon. I build houses. I’ve been building houses my whole life. It’s a good job. Hard work. Keeps me busy, pays well enough. I come from Cyrene, but I have been living in Jerusalem for a long time.
My two adult sons live with me, Rufus and Alexander. They’re what you’d call preachers, I guess. They believe really strongly in Jesus, and they spend all their time talking about him. They talk about how he’s the Son of God, how about twenty years ago he died for all of our sins, how through him we have eternal life, and how we’re all supposed to take care of each other until he comes back. But you know what? Lately, my two sons have been really getting on my nerves. I go to their church services every now and then. Sunday’s not a day off in my world, so it’s not as easy to get there, but I do from time to time. And last week, my boy Alexander was talking about how Jesus said that we are all supposed to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. And then my boy Rufus said, that means: We’re all supposed to follow him, make him the most important thing in our lives, and not worry about anything else. Well, that’s easy for them to say! It’s thanks to my hard work that they can do this! I pay for their house; I pay for their food. It’s all fine and good that they follow Jesus, but everybody follow him? Somebody’s got to pay the bills!
Well, that evening, when I got home from working, I told my boys, I’m not coming to your church anymore. They asked me why. I said, because you don’t get it. Not everybody can drop everything and follow Jesus the way you talk about. Some of us have to earn a living. Besides, do you know how much money I’ve given to help your little church?
Rufus said to me, “Oh, Dad. I’m sorry you heard it that way. We are very grateful for all you do. We know that God is providing everything we have, and right now God is doing a lot of that through you. You are following Christ, Dad. Really, you are. Following Christ isn’t about quitting your job. Although sometimes God does call people to do that. Following Christ isn’t about giving all your possessions away. Although God does call some people to do that. No, following Christ is about making every decision in your life based on your faith, the faith that God loves you, and that Christ really is lord.”
Then Alexander said, “Dad, you should know that better than most people. You literally followed him once. You know what that feels like.”
And I thought back to that day, twenty years ago, shortly after I arrived in Jerusalem. Oh, I was busy that day. I had so many jobs, so many contracts, so much to do. That day, I was in the country working on a house, and I had to head into the city to get some supplies, and I heard a commotion coming from the governor’s fortress. People shouting and carrying on. I didn’t have time to get involved in any of that. I had a deadline. But as I kept walking, I saw a crowd coming right toward me. A man flanked by soldiers was carrying a cross, and he fell down. He didn’t seem to have the strength to carry it. I felt sorry for him, and I just looked at him a minute. But it was a minute too long, because suddenly a soldier grabbed my shoulder. He said to me, “You. Carry this cross. Now.” Now I didn’t have time for this. I had deadlines. I had contracts. And those crosses are heavy! I was strong enough to carry it, but I knew carrying that thing out to wherever they were going would tire me out, and I wouldn’t be able to work the rest of the day. But the soldier had a sword. So I picked up that man’s cross, and started dragging it behind him. It was exhausting. But as I went, I realized there was something about this man I was following. Something peaceful, something holy. When they took the cross from me and laid him on it, he said, “Father, forgive them.” I stayed there on that hill for an hour or so, and then left. I just went home. I didn’t even pick up those supplies. I lost almost a whole day’s work that day, because of following Jesus, but somehow that was okay. I felt satisfied somehow. I felt like that day had meaning. And I went to work on the house again the next week, and somehow I still got everything done by the deadline. And somehow that house felt more meaningful than any other.
And maybe that’s what it means to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Christ. Maybe it doesn’t mean changing everything about my life. It means allowing God to interrupt my life, and trust that in those interruptions he’s leading me in the right way. Maybe it means doing what I do, but doing it to the glory of God. Like my son said, I am following Christ by supporting my children and my church. I am following Christ by doing my work honestly and well. And maybe I can follow Christ a little better too. I can treat my workers a little better than I do. There’s a widow in the neighborhood with a leaky roof. She’s always so grumpy and annoying, but maybe I could go fix her roof for her anyway, free of charge. I bet that’s following Christ. I’m going to keep looking for opportunities like this. I bet there’s a lot. And I know it’s worth it. That feeling of purpose and meaning I had the day Jesus died – I want that again. And following him now, maybe I can get it.
Like I heard Rufus say a few weeks ago, “Christ loves you so much he accepts you exactly as you are. But he also loves you too much to leave you that way.” Maybe he’ll make me a little better. I’m gonna follow him a little closer. Maybe you can too.