Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

Loved Sinners (Romans 5:1-11)

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How do you show someone that you love them?

There are probably more ways to show people that we love them than I can count. Some of these ways might be romantic gestures such as giving flowers, a card, chocolates or jewellery. We can show love to the people around us in very ordinary ways such as taking out the rubbish, doing the dishes after a meal, or cleaning the toilet. We can also show love in a deep commitment to other people, sticking with them in difficult times and supporting them when they really need it.

However you might show love to others, can you imagine showing that same kind of love to someone who doesn’t deserve it or who has hurt you in some way? It can be hard enough loving people you get along with, but have you ever tried loving someone who has wronged you, or has wounded you, or doesn’t deserve your love for any reason.

If we can imagine how difficult it would be to love someone who has wronged or hurt us, then we begin to get a glimpse of what Paul was thinking when he wrote Romans 5:6-8. It can be easy for us to talk about how God loves all people. However, Paul doesn’t just settle for a nice platitude when he talks to the early Christians in Rome about the love of God that he encountered in Jesus. Paul’s message was that God doesn’t love people because we do good, or we are nice, or even if we are in church on Sunday. Paul sees the love of God as so great because God loves people who are hard to love, who don’t deserve to be loved, but who need his love.

God showed how massive his love is in the death of Jesus for all of us who have wronged God.

No matter how nice or good we think we might be, we all do wrong. Jesus left us with just one command: to love (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34). We have all failed to love God and love other people in the way God wants us to. Our natural tendency is to think more about ourselves than God or others. We prioritise ourselves and our wants more than the needs of the people around us. We all have the desire to be at the centre of our own little universe, expecting others and even God to revolve around us. Humanism likes to tell us how good we are, but in the end we all carry flaws, failures and the brokenness that comes with being human.

I don’t say this to make people feel bad about ourselves. Instead, in order to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love for us in Jesus, we need to recognize and acknowledge our limitations and our inability to love in the way Jesus taught us. Loving someone who is easy to love is no big deal. However, loving someone who is difficult to love, who doesn’t deserve it, or who has done wrong, is something very special.

I don’t believe that Paul wrote Romans 5:6-8 to make his readers feel bad about themselves either. Paul knew what it was like to do wrong. What changed his life, however, was the love of a gracious God who knew Paul’s wrongs but still loved him. Paul found that love in the cross of Jesus. His words in Romans 5 are focused on pointing people to that same love so we can know and trust in Jesus’ life-changing love. I understand that we can see evidence of God’s love in nature, in the trees and sunshine and rainbows, and in the nice or beautiful things of this world. Nature has a dark side, however, so we need to also recognise that it is hard to see God’s love in storms, earthquakes, pandemics and other natural disasters. Paul points us to the way that God showed us his love by giving the most precious thing he had for us – the life of his own Son.

We can also see God’s love most clearly in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just give us flowers or chocolate or jewellery to show us he loves us. Jesus doesn’t just take out our rubbish, wash our dishes or clean our toilets, although he does wash feet (see John 13:1-5). The way Jesus shows his love for us is by giving us his all. In dying for us in the cross Jesus gave everything he has for us and to us. Jesus held nothing back when he went to the cross and sacrificed everything out of love for us so that we can know what it is like to receive infinite and perfect love. Jesus knows all our flaws and failures, all our weaknesses and brokenness, and he still gives his all for us and to us because that’s how epic and crazy his love is for us.

Knowing and trusting in the love of Jesus can make a big difference in our lives. I learned that in my teenage years when discovering the love of Jesus gave me a new sense of who I am and what I’m worth. Decades later, I’m still working out how this love is shaping me and my relationships. That’s what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus – to be continually learning how Gods’ love for us in Jesus can shape our identity and our relationships, our belonging and our purpose. I’ve also seen how the love of God in Jesus can make a huge difference in other people’s lives. When the Holy Spirit pours the miracle of God’s love into us, it can give us a whole new perspective on who we are, where we fit and what we’re here for. For example, as Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, knowing and trusting this love can produce endurance in us when we are suffering, character from endurance, and hope from this character which does not disappoint us. All this is from God’s love for us in Jesus which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts through the good news of Jesus.

How do you show someone that you love them? Would you be able to do that for someone who has wronged you? If your answer is no, don’t feel bad – that’s our shared human condition. But it also shows us something about God’s love. God loves us in a way that we can’t. But when we know and trust his love for us in Jesus, the love that gives everything to the people who deserve it the least but need it the most, then we can live in the reality of a love that can change our lives. Then, by God’s grace, this same love which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts can and will overflow from us into the lives of the people around us (see John 4:13-14).

Our Easter Journey

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This year I asked the people of our congregation who gathered for worship over the Easter weekend to imagine themselves going on a three-day journey, following Jesus along the path of his last supper, suffering, death and resurrection.

The journey began on Thursday evening as we followed Jesus to the table. We were welcomed by people who offered to wash our feet in the same way that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at his last supper with them. The washing of feet shows us that Jesus comes to us as a servant, taking on the role of the lowest household slave, doing the scummiest job in the house for us. In doing this, Jesus gives us an example to follow (John 13:15), and teaches us that his followers will adopt the same posture in relationship to others.

Then, Jesus gives us a new command – to love each other in the same way he loves us (John 13:34). We can only know how to love others in Jesus’ way after we have experienced the love Jesus has for us. That means allowing him to wash our feet, and maybe even to allow others to wash our feet on his behalf. That’s not easy. We often like to think discipleship is more about what we do that what Jesus does for us, but it leads us into the rest of this weekend’s journey, as we encounter Jesus’ love so we can then show that same love to others.

In a lot of ways, that’s discipleship: learning to love like Jesus by being loved by Jesus.

Jesus continues to show us his grace-filled love on the Thursday evening as he then adopts the role of the host of the meal. He serves us again as our host, physically giving himself to us through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. This simple meal is Jesus’ self-giving act of love to us. We can hold back parts of ourselves in our relationships with others, but not Jesus. He gives all of himself to us and fills us with his goodness by making us members of his living, breathing body in the world.

We then followed Jesus to the cross on Friday morning. As we again heard the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering, death and burial, we followed him in faith to witness his sacrifice for us all.

crucifixion 05Everything in the gospels leads us to the cross so that we can experience the grace of God. As we follow Jesus to the cross we can find grace that frees us from guilt, regret and shame. We can find grace that heals our wounded and broken hearts and souls as the Son of God enters into our brokenness, is wounded for us, and gives us healing with his love. We can find grace that gives us hope in dark times, as the Son of God experiences being abandoned by his Father, finds us when we feel abandoned by God, and is the presence of God with us in even the darkest of times. We can find grace that gives life as Jesus takes our death on himself, because if he takes our death on the cross, then all that is left behind for us is life.

I believe this is the ultimate goal of discipleship: to follow Jesus to the cross to encounter his life-giving and life-changing grace.

We saw how strong his love and life is, then, when we followed Jesus to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning.
We can think of Jesus’ resurrection as an historical event, or as the promise that one day Jesus will return to raise our bodies from our graves to eternal life. However, we can also understand the empty tomb the way Paul describes the resurrection in Colossians 3:1 where he writes:

empty tomb 02Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand. (NLT)

Here, and in other places (such as Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:4-6), Paul talks about the resurrection as a present reality for those who are in Christ Jesus through faith. That means that Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection!

To be a follower of Jesus means following him to the empty tomb to see that we have been given a new life as God’s resurrected people through faith in Jesus. That is where one journey ends, and another begins. Our Easter journey concluded as we saw that the life of Christ is stronger than anything in this world, and so, whatever we are experiencing in this life, God’s final word to us is life! But a new journey starts for us as Jesus’ followers as we begin to discover what this resurrection life looks like in the day-to-day realities of this world. This is a life that is lived by faith, trusting that Jesus’ life is stronger than anything we might encounter along the way, and then living like this is true. Paul describes the resurrected life of Christ as consisting in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love (like 1 Corinthians 13 describes), peace and thankfulness (Colossians 3:12-15). Discipleship in the light of the empty tomb means learning to live this kind of life as God’s resurrected people in this world.

Over the three days of Easter we followed Jesus to the table where he served us with his love, to the cross where we encounter his grace, and to the empty tomb where we see that we have been raised to a new kind of life in him. Our discipleship journey will continue, always in the light of the table, the cross and the empty tomb, as Jesus goes ahead of us into whatever the future holds, and as we follow him in his love, grace, and life.

More to think about:

  • People are often reluctant to let us wash their feet on Maundy Thursday. Why is it hard for us to allow others to serve us? Why is it vital for Jesus’ followers to learn what it is to be loved by Jesus before we can love others?
  • I have described discipleship as basically learning to love like Jesus. What do you like or dislike about this definition? How might your life be different if it was all about learning to love like Jesus?
  • When Jesus called people to follow him, ultimately he led them to his cross so they can find grace. How can the experience of God’s grace to us in Jesus give us what we need to show that same grace to others?
  • Do you tend to think of Jesus’ resurrection as something that is more about the past, present or future? How might today look different to you if you approached it as a person who is risen to new life with Jesus?
  • What do you like or dislike about the idea of discipleship as learning to live every day as a person who has been raised to new life with Jesus? How might your life be different if you lived like Jesus’ resurrection was real for you now?