Snapshots of Life

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Take Up the Cross and Follow Me

Tania and I were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting on Easter.  As always I have a difficult time paring things down when I'm preparing.  We were the only speakers but there ended up being a surprise confirmation and then the primary sang 3 verses of 3 songs.  I ended up cutting out about 1/4 - 1/2 of this.  I figured I'd post it here to at least give the appearance that I am current on my blog!  

Happy Easter, Brothers and Sisters!  On this holy day I am grateful for the opportunity to witness of Jesus Christ.  I am afraid that sometimes as Latter-day Saints we do not put enough emphasis in our individual and family practice on Easter.  In preparing these remarks I have sincerely sought the direction of Heaven.  Let there be no confusion that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially on this day, “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, and we prophesy of Christ.” (2 Ne. 25:26).  I humbly invite the Spirit to attend us that we may be edified together. 

We have gathered together to worship today as followers of Jesus Christ.  We are all at different points along that pathway of discipleship.  There are varying degrees of commitment, but by virtue of our being here today we have accepted the invitation to follow Him.  The Church is not a museum of perfected saints, it is a laboratory of imperfect souls striving to become saints through the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is not a display case of finished products, but the workshop of the Refiner.  We therefore need not be dismayed or distressed when we see around us sin and struggle, “for we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).  That is why we have Christ and His church.  Our weakness, our sin, and our struggle point to the beauty and miracle of the Church, not to any deficits.

My message today is for every soul that finds himself or herself along that path of discipleship, whether we have just begun or whether we are an experienced traveler.  I am particularly mindful of those who are struggling.  There are those with us today that have unseen wounds – wounds from sin, wounds caused by others, or wounds from painful circumstance.  You have come seeking hope and healing.  There are likewise others who are questioning their testimony and grappling with their faith.  You have come seeking reassurance.  Still, there are others weighed down by grief or suffering with illness.  To each and to all, I humbly invite you as a fellow traveler, to join me in recalling the doctrine of Christ.     

Jesus knew of His death and by what manner it would come long before it occurred.  During His final journey toward Jerusalem, where He would ultimately face the fate of the cross, a young man came running to Him.  He besought Jesus to tell him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus reminded him of the 10 great commandments.  The young man responded, “Master, all these have I observed from my youth.  What lack I yet?” (Mark 10:17-20; Matt 19:16-21).  The record continues:

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (Mark 10:21).

Brothers and sisters, we are each that young man.  Note that Jesus looked on him with love.  Often when we talk about this verse we focus on Jesus’ invitation for the rich young man to “sell whatsoever [he] has and give to the poor”.  So, how on earth do those of us who are not rich apply this invitation?  I do not think the Savior’s instruction to this young man was as much about giving up his riches as it was about the invitation that immediately followed.  Giving up riches was merely preparatory to what came next:  “come, take up the cross, and follow me.”  Ultimately, the call was to take up the cross and follow the Son of God.  For this young man, and to some extent for all of us, that involves a financial sacrifice, but without exception for all of us it involves the willingness to give “whatsoever we have” in terms of our heart, might, mind, and strength.  That call – that invitation – is for everyone! 

What does it really mean to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus?  Joseph Smith gives us insight in his translation of the phrase, saying, “And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments” (JST Matt 16:26).  We learn here that to take up the cross involves giving up the things of the world and of the flesh, and being obedient to God’s will.  Is this not what Jesus did as He took up His cross?  He says, “follow me,” as if to say, “let me show you the way, for, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ that leads to happiness, wholeness, and eternal life (John 14:7).”  On this Easter Sabbath as we worship together let us follow Him then, in our mind’s eye and in our hearts, as we review together His final days and moments.  Let us observe so that we might learn what it really means to take up the cross and follow after Jesus Christ.

It is commonly thought that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  Thursday, just the day before His climactic death, became a solemn and sacred day.  Jesus ate His last supper with his beloved disciples, which was likely a Passover meal.  The ritual of the meal is rich with symbolism regarding God’s dealings with His people, especially the freedom from bondage of death and sin.  Jesus used the profound symbolism in the ceremonial meal to introduce the new covenant and to institute the sacrament.  He broke bread to represent His bruised body and broken heart.  He blessed wine to represent His blood that would soon be shed.   Partaking of the sacrament today connects us back 2 millennia to that sacred night.  He is still calling us to remember Him and to take upon ourselves His name. 

Following sacred interactions and teachings in that intimate setting, then the singing of an hymn, Jesus and His disciples retired to a familiar garden.  The spot is called Gethsemane, which in Hebrew means the “place of the olive press”.  Here was likely an olive press in which harvested olives are placed between two huge circular stones.  An operator manually turns the top stone like a wheel causing the olives to be crushed under the pressure and grind of the heavy, moving rock.  The olive skin ruptures and oil flows out to be collected.  It is Mark who tells us that Jesus went into the garden and began to be “sore amazed” or “astonished” (Mark 14:33-34).  It seems that though He knew what He had to do, even He was awestruck at what Elder Maxwell called “the awful arithmetic of the atonement”.  He fell to the ground and cried out, “Abba (which in Hebrew means, “Papa” or “Dad”), Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36).  Luke, a physician, informs us that under the crushing weight of all the sins and sorrows of every soul, blood came from every pore (Luke 22:44).  No wonder pure olive oil is used to anoint in sacred ordinances, for it represents the healing blood of the Son of God, shed at the place of the olive press, even Gethsemane. 

Interestingly, in the law of Moses before the sacrificial lamb was slaughtered on the altar, the worshipper placed their hands upon the lamb and confessed their sins.  So in that sacred garden it was as though we all collectively placed our hands on the Lamb of God, our sins being transferred to Him who became sin for us, though He knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

We know from modern revelation that the burden Jesus carried in the garden and in the horrific events to follow was far more than just the sins of the world.  From Alma we learn:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.  And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-12).
What marvelous meekness did Jesus exhibit in the midst of His own wrenching!  He, even the mighty Jehovah, cried that the bitter cup might be removed, but then submitted Himself in magnificent vulnerability to all of the will of the Father.  He gave all that His divine soul could give, and most importantly He gave His will!  He did not shrink!  Glory be to the Father!  Jesus partook and finished His preparations unto the children of men (See D&C 19:18-20). 
As the narrative of the Savior’s final hours continues the scene intensifies in horror.  He is betrayed with a kiss by one whom He loved from His inner circle.  At the mere sound of His voice He could have called legions of angels to His defense, but still He does not shrink from the cross that lies ahead.  In fact, He heals one of the aggressors.   His disciples for the most part scatter.  In tragic irony He is brought before the High Priest and the governing body of the Jews, who mock and deride Him, then convict Him of blasphemy for only speaking truth.  How pained must have been His sensitive soul to be rejected by those who professed to worship Jehovah. In their pride and conviction they failed to see their Salvation standing before them.  Amazingly, the innocent flesh they slapped and spit upon had just hours before issued blood for them too.  Nevertheless, He “set His face like a flint” (Isa 50:7) to the path ahead.
Having been condemned by the Jews He was passed to the Romans on Friday morning.  He was accused of treason and insurrection before the governor, Pilate, on the charge of claiming to be the King of the Jews.  Pilate eventually saw Him as an innocent man but that did not stop the Roman soldiers from their taunting abuse.  At the time of the Passover it was customary for a prisoner to be pardoned and released from prison.  In another twist of irony Pilate asks the multitude of Jews gathered if they would like him to release Barabbas (who was likely a real insurrectionist and murderer) or Jesus.  They chose Barabbas, who’s name in Hebrew means ‘son of the father’.  Jesus, the literal Son of the Father, begotten in the flesh, was thus condemned to be crucified at the mandate of a shouting mob. Pilate washed his hands of it, but as Elder Maxwell has said, those hands were never more dirty.  Jesus was dressed in a scarlet robe with a crown of thorns placed on His head.  Cruel mockery and whipping followed.  The scene is almost too gruesome to bear.  But we must look, Brothers and Sisters, we must look to that majestic figure who did not shrink!

From Isaiah we read:   He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:3-6).

Without question Jesus must have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, but it was not yet finished.  He was forced to carry His cross to the place of the skull, that hill called Calvary.  We know that crucifixion was a cruel way to die. It was also a shameful way to die. Jewish tradition said, “cursed is the man who hangs from a tree”.  Crucifixion was a death for rebels and vile criminals as a warning to everyone else.  Imagine, the God of Heaven, He who was without shame, carrying a cross of shame upon which He would die!  Even still, it is in His hour of torturous pain that He is thoughtful of others and even forgives.  His clothes were ripped from His body, spikes driven through His hands and feet, He is taunted on every side to “come down and save himself”, and when He asks for but a little water He is given nothing but bitter drink.  

So, as Paul says, Jesus was fully “obedient to the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8), having descended below all things.  If the symbolism is perfect it was likely around 3:00 p.m. on Friday when the Lamb of God spoke His last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.  It is finished” (Luke 23:46; Jn 19:30).  It would have been the very hour when the sacrificial lamb of the Passover was being slain on the altar of the temple.  Surely, He was the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

Happily, the majestic story does not end with the crucified Christ.  Following His death His loving disciples carefully placed His body in a sealed and guarded tomb prior to the Jewish Sabbath.  Oh, but wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, on the morning of the 3rd day that stone was rolled away!  The angel of God proclaimed to those marveling disciples, “He is not here: for He is risen!” (Matt 28:6).  There is no message more important or more joyous in all of God’s creation.  “Oh how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of…death and hell.” (2 Ne 9:10).

The scriptures are clear that through the Savior the resurrection of the physical body is a free gift to all who will ever live upon the earth.  “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22).  We therefore gratefully rejoice, “Oh death where is thy sting?  Oh grave where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55).

If that were the only consequence of the atonement and resurrection it would still be the most glorious news ever contemplated in the heart of man.  Yet, there is more!  There is so much more!  Through His atonement and subsequent resurrection He promises mercy, grace, and succor to forgive, to empower, and to comfort us in all of life’s difficulties.  He promises not only immortality of the physical body but eternal exaltation as heirs of God and joint-heirs with Him.  To whom are these promises extended?  From Nephi comes the word: 

For he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.  Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price…Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay… (2 Ne. 25:24-28).

“Any” and “all” truly mean any and all.  There is no one for whom this statement does not apply.  When we ask how we receive forgiveness, healing, or strength; when we wonder how we inherit eternal life, the invitation is that same invitation the Savior made to the rich young man:  “Come, take up the cross, and follow me”.  

Of course, it would be inappropriate to compare our experiences to those of Jesus.  Only He took upon Himself the sin, and pains, and sicknesses of all men and women.  Only He overcame death so that all might live.  Therefore there is nothing that we can teach Jesus about any kind of pain or struggle.  Yet, though His suffering surpasses our individual trials by far, there is still so much we can emulate from Jesus as we face our own gethsemanes, whether those trials are brought upon us by ourselves, imposed by others, or created by mortal circumstance.  The prophet Joseph said, “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through.  And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God…God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings…” (Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses 24:197).  

So at His invitation to take up the cross and follow Him, what do we learn from watching Him go through that process?  It seems to me that by inviting us to take up our cross, He is inviting us to take up our shame, our sin, our pain, our worldly inclinations – no matter what they are or how we came to possess them – and to follow Him to Gethsemane and Golgotha. In those holy places of discipleship we are required to give our all, just as He gave His.  Mercifully and beautifully His not shrinking becomes the source of comfort and power for us in those mortal experiences from which we want to shrink.  Indeed, when we humbly submit to, rather than resist His will, His grace is sufficient to give us strength in weakness (see Ether 12:27 & 2 Cor 12:5-10).    When we “crucify the old man” and “yield ourselves unto God” we are born again and “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-13). 
Taking up the cross then, is loving as He loved and serving as He served, it is keeping the commandments, it is being patient and meek in suffering, it is forgiving, it is being bold in defense of truth, it is all of those attributes and actions that we witnessed in Jesus in our review today of His last moments.  But, above all, it is bowing the knees of our hearts to God.  It is freely, lovingly, submissively offering our will to Him, for that is all we really have to give to Him who has given us everything! 
The beautiful words of the hymnist, Isaac Watts, illustrate this well:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my heart, my all.

So, my Brothers and Sisters, the theology of Christ is not a passive theology.  It does demand our all, and in return we gain all, even all that the Father hath!  Let us go forward from this chapel on this Easter Sabbath asking the same question posed by the rich young man, “What lack I yet?”  If we are holding on to our favorite sins, let us repent.  If we need baptism, let us be baptized.  If we have wondered, let us return.  If we hold malice in our heart, let us forgive.  If we have wronged another, let us make amends.  May we take any and every step necessary to take up the cross and follow Him. 

I testify of God our Father, that His love is perfect.  He is a Father of miracles.  I express gratitude for His plan of happiness and redemption!  I am a witness of Jesus Christ.  I bear testimony that His grace is fully sufficient to make us strong in our weakness.  I have knelt before His throne of grace in the midst of torturous trial and acknowledge before you that I have received abundantly, not of myself but of Him who is so good!

I close with the words of Nephi:    

But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever. (2 Ne. 9:13).

In the name of Him who took up the cross for us, even Jesus Christ, amen.