In the season of Lent, we follow Jesus from his temptation in the wilderness to his death on the cross in Jerusalem. For us, as Christians, we find meaning in the death of Jesus whom we proclaim died for us and for our salvation.
In Lent, we encounter the charge of Jesus to those who would follow him that they take up their cross and follow him. When we do so, we have no idea where we might be led. Jesus told Simon Peter, as much when he said to him:
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this, he said to him, “Follow me”” (John 21:18–19).
When we take up our cross to follow Jesus, we have no idea where that journey will take us. We like to think that we have ultimate control over our own lives, but when we take up our cross and promise to follow Jesus wherever he leads, he may take us to places we never could have imagined.
That is certainly true of my life. In June 1972, I was one of between 100,000 and 200,000 persons who attended the weeklong Christian festival, Explo ’72, in Dallas, Texas. At the time I was an Episcopalian active in my church youth group. A college student from Dallas active in my church, a year older than I was, asked me if I would be willing to attend the event with him. I went without really knowing what I was getting into.
During the day we were instructed in Christian evangelism; at night, a full stadium of between 50,000 – 60,000, gathered in the Cotton Bowl. It was on those nights that I first came into contact with the Christian evangelist, Billy Graham. He took the stage and began one of the evangelistic sermons for which he was so justly renowned. I don’t remember anything he said except for one thing that I have never forgotten. In the middle of his sermon, he issued a challenge to young people like me. He said, “If you are willing to go wherever God sends you, I want you to stand up in your seats.” In the heat of the moment, full of zeal, I stood up. Years later I found myself living in a small town serving two small parishes in Eastern Oklahoma — a place I never in my wildest dreams expected to be! — and I felt I knew the reason why.
I have often wondered about the consequences of my standing up in response to a call to follow Jesus wherever it led. Throughout my life, I have been continually surprised. When we promise to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we never know where that journey will take us. Jesus is clear about this. He does not ask us simply to take up our cross. He first says, deny yourself, then take up your cross and follow me. The words are clear: deny, take up, and follow. When we promise to follow Jesus, we give up the ultimate control of our own lives — we are not in charge. That is what it means, after all, to follow.
While this runs counter to the narrative that we are our own sovereign, the way of the cross is also the way of a full and genuine life. This idea is reflected in the collect for Monday in Holy Week:
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Paradoxically, the way of the cross, the way of denying ourselves and taking up our cross, is the way of life and peace. When we commit our lives to Jesus we begin a journey with an uncertain future but a journey nonetheless that rewards us with a full, abundant life, stretching into eternity.