Nobody ever said it would be easy.
Last Sunday, you’ll remember, Jesus told his disciples to expect to be hated and even persecuted for being one of his followers.
This week, the news isn’t any better. Take up your cross, he says. Whoever finds his life will lose it.
Anyone seeking a dose of “feel good” Christianity won’t find it in the readings this week. And it’s not just because the Gospel is tinged with difficulty and, even, death.
It’s because what he is asking us to do here is so hard.
He is asking us to not only follow him, but to imitate him. To take up his cross.
But what exactly does that mean? What is Jesus asking us to do?
It begins, I think, by each of us asking ourselves: what is my cross?
Every one of us may have a different answer: an illness, a financial hardship, a circumstance in life that is hard to bear. It can also be another person. Maybe it’s an addiction.
But there is another cross, one we may not think about.
I was struck by this particular passage: “Whoever receives you receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” He calls on his disciples, on all of us, to be his representatives in the world. By extension, that means Christ can be found not only in us, but in those around us.
How do we receive them?
There’s been a lot of news this week about statues being torn down. Someone has even questioned images of Jesus, because they may not represent what he really looked like.
And my response to that was very simple: we cannot know what Jesus looked like 2,000 years ago — the color of his hair, his skin, his eyes. But we can see him today. That is what truly matters.
Are we looking for him? Look in unexpected places.
I see Jesus in Vivian, the owner of the Chinese restaurant behind my apartment building, who was baptized into the church a few years ago and always knows my order before I ask.
I see him in a man named Michael, who begs on the stairs of the Continental Avenue subway station and accepts every offering, even if it’s a quarter or a few pennies, with a grateful “God bless you.” Is he a saint? I don’t know. But I know he makes me try harder to be one.
The world may also see Jesus in the haunted faces of the COVID-19 patients we see on the news, and in the nurses working multiple shifts to try and save them, and in priests like Father Matt O’Donnell, who was profiled recently in the Chicago Tribune. Every day he puts on a jumpsuit and goggles to administer last rites to COVID patients in Chicago.
“Whoever receives you, receives me…”
The question for us becomes not only do people see Jesus in us…but do we see Jesus in others? Do we receive him that way?
It can be hard.
“Take up your cross.” If you want to talk about what it means to carry your cross, that can be one of the most difficult ones to bear. To seek Jesus not just in the good and the saintly, but to seek him, too, in the angry or the helpless or the poor. To seek him in the ones who may be difficult to love. We all know them. Some of us live with them. They may be in our families. Do we love them the way Jesus would? Do we see Jesus in them?
There’s a cross for you. For me. For all of us who call ourselves “Christian.”
Dorothy Day once said: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
St. John Chrysostom put it another way: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door,” he said, “you will not find him in the chalice.”
Where do we find Christ? Who are the beggars in our world, in our lives, in our families, in our workplaces and communities? They may not be ragged people living on the street. They may wear a suit and tie and sit at a desk. But they may be poor in other ways.
Are we willing to search for Jesus in them? Are we open to receiving him in them?
These days of lockdown have been a cross for a lot of us. They have separated us from the sacraments and from this church, but they have given us opportunities to seek Jesus elsewhere. Maybe that is part of God’s challenging plan during this challenging time — to ask us to discover Christ in places we may not always look. Around the dinner table. In our neighbors. Through distant connections we make through a computer screen.
And it is challenging us to not only seek Christ in unlikely people and places, but to reveal him to others every day, in ways large and small. To be Christ’s representatives in the world. To imitate him.
In the great spiritual classic, “The Imitation of Christ,” Thomas a Kempis offered this prescription that strikes me as especially timely:
“We must support one another, console one another, mutually help, counsel, and advise,” he wrote, “for the measure of every man’s virtue is best revealed in time of adversity — adversity that does not weaken a man but rather shows what he is.”
By God’s grace, may we earnestly seek to show others that Christ lives in us — and may we discover, as well, how he lives in those around us. May we be open to receiving him that way.
As I said at the beginning: nobody said it would be easy. It’s why the ultimate symbol of our faith is a cross.
But the hope of salvation, our love for the Lord, and our faith in all that Jesus promised is why we take up that cross…and follow.