“Who am I?” asks Moses. It’s a question that, on his lips, makes a lot of sense. After all, his upbringing is split between his Hebrew birth family and the Egyptian court. He is rejected by his fellow Hebrews and wanted by the Egyptian authorities for murder. He’s gone from adopted prince to herding his father-in-law’s sheep. With such a chequered history, it would be no wonder if he wondered who he was.
“Who am I?” is a question we all ask ourselves. We ask it consciously and unconsciously as we grow through childhood into adult life. We ask it when a crisis — perhaps in our relationships, in our health, in our careers, in our faith — throws our previous self-understanding into question and reopens our thinking about our identities.
“Who am I?” is the question Jesus asked his disciples in last week’s Gospel. It’s a question that opens up their thinking not only about how they understand him but about how they understand themselves in relation to him. And, in the light of that, how they understand the mission that they are fulfilling alongside him. In this week’s reading, they learn to their great surprise that this mission involves suffering, death and resurrection, that it takes them to the Cross and beyond.
Peter, who last week was identified as the rock on which the church would be constructed, shows himself to be a gey shoogly stane. To be fair, he’s probably just articulating what all the rest are thinking, but he’s always the one to blurt it out, isn’t he. This leads to his moniker of the week: stumbling block. That’s a bit of a come-down, but Jesus isn’t interested in boosting Peter’s ego. The order of the day is to be not self-realisation but self-denial:
‘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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ (Mt 16:24–26)
That was and is a hard word for us to hear and unpack. Who wants to hear about self-denial, especially in an era replete with paths that claim they lead to self-fulfilment? Yet Jesus tells us self-denial is a requirement for those who follow him. He doesn’t give us any wriggle room.
Jesus connects self-denial with taking up our cross. What does this mean? The image has become commonplace to us but it should make us deeply uncomfortable. The aim of crucifixion was not simply to kill the victim, not even simply to kill the victim in the most brutal and humiliating manner; it was to extinguish them, to blot out all trace of them. Who would willingly choose such extinction? But Jesus tells us in typically paradoxical style that avoiding self-denial and refusing to take up our cross is the route to extinction while embracing it is the route to finding our true life, our resurrection life.
How can we make any sense of this? What is Jesus calling us to in these verses? It is certainly not a random, reckless abandon to martyrdom at any cost. Yes, there is a call here to be prepared to die for the sake of the Kingdom. As much as martyrdom might have been a literal threat for Matthew’s first audience, it’s highly unlikely that it will be demanded of any of us in 21st century Scotland. So, if this passage says anything to our context, losing our lives for Christ’s sake must mean something in addition to literal martyrdom.
Nonetheless, we can’t dodge round the fact that Jesus focuses self-denial through the Cross. But that, I think, is the key to understanding what it means for us. What drove him to take up his Cross was love — love for broken, sinful humanity; love for us. Looking at the passage in that light, we can see what taking up our cross means: a conscious self-giving out of love.
Love of that kind is at the centre of our reading from Romans today. Paul tells us to
‘love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour’ (12:10).
What is that if not self-giving love? To ‘outdo one another in showing honour’ is a laying down of our lives. It is part of the renewing of our minds of which we read last week. As such, it’s also the opposite of how the world around us works and has always worked. It’s the opposite of a system that says that black lives don’t matter, that the impact of our choices on our global neighbours and on the planet can be disregarded, that we should look out for ourselves, our reputations and our own honour first. Sadly, outdoing one another in showing honour is often also the opposite of how the church works. And I could list many instances when it was the opposite of how I behaved. But it shouldn’t be. It should be at the heart of how we, as God’s people, treat one another.
The honour we give one another must be more than words. It needs to be active and attitudinal. It means living out of generosity, consciously thinking the best of others, treating them generously. It extends beyond the membership of the church to the hospitality we are to offer strangers and to the way we are to engage with enemies, whom we are not only to bless but to feed — whom we are to treat with love.
Right at the start of our Romans reading, Paul says, ‘Let love be genuine’ (v9). One translation [The Message] puts it this way: ‘Love from the centre of who you are’. That brings us back to the question we began with: who am I?
How we answer this question will determine much of how we act. We like to put many things at the centre of our identity: our academic or career achievements; our nationality, race, politics or gender, for instance. These things set us up as different from others. They push us together with some people and away from others. Perhaps they set us up as better than others, more powerful than others. Or perhaps they set us up as inferior. But what does God say is at the centre of our identity, the centre of who we are?
‘Who am I?’ asks Moses. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ (Ex 3:11). God’s response is unexpected: ‘I will be with you’ (Ex 3:12). It is in the going and obeying the call that Moses discovers who he is. It is in the taking up of their cross that disciples of Jesus find out who they are. At the centre of who we are, as far as God is concerned, is this fact that we are called. And we are called because we are loved. God, who is self-giving love, is with us as God was with Moses. Even more so, as God is with us in Christ. We are loved no matter what and called to live out of that love. Called to be a joyful, loving presence, rejoicing in hope, patient in suffering and persevering in prayer (Rom 12:12).
Questions for reflection/discussion:
- How do you react to the image of taking up your cross?
- In what ways have you found self-giving to be life giving?
- Living out of generosity is a vulnerable stance. Are there or should there be any limits to this generosity? If not, why not? If so, what should they be?
- What is at the centre of your identity? Do you agree that our calledness and belovedness is at the centre of who we are?