"The Cross is other people"

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

September 16, 2018—Proper 19B

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38


          “Hell is other people,” the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote in his play, “No Exit.” This line, unsurprisingly, has often been misapplied and misunderstood. Other people, after all, can indeed be hell. But they can also provide us with our clearest and loveliest glimpses of heaven. In the play, hell lies in the way that what we need and desire from other people collides with what we get (or think we get) from them, and so other people are only hell to the extent that we torture ourselves with what they think of us.

          Other people, then, are not necessarily hell. What they are, I would argue, is the cross. Loving one another, living with one another, is the cross Jesus asks us to bear.

          You must pick up your cross, he says, and they are horrified. By following me, you are agreeing to suffer, he says, and they want to turn away. Messiah was supposed to mean redemption. Messiah was supposed to mean liberation. Messiah was supposed to mean being relieved of the suffering that had been inflicted upon their nation!

          They had hoped that it wouldn’t be hard. They had hoped it didn’t require any more sacrifice. They had hoped against hope that their past pain would be enough, and salvation could feel like easy street.

          But as they say, “Freedom isn’t free,” and salvation life requires something of us. Redeemed life requires something of us. The Kingdom is a gift that nonetheless asks us to give other kingdoms up. It is a gift that demands that we live in a particular way, and that way will COST us.

          We all have our cross to bear. Which is another phrase I think we often misinterpret. “The cross” is not just a generic term for suffering. We all suffer pain and misfortune and challenge in this life. Life is hard, and it can be hard in big, big ways, for a long, long time. Life can bring you to your ever-loving knees! Because this world is breakable. This world is made of flesh and blood and fallibility. So it can hurt you. It can dissolve and warp and turn back on itself. And you will suffer.

          But that kind of suffering is not the cross. That’s just life in an incarnate world; that’s life in a world whose terror and beauty lie on the blade of a two edged sword.

          The suffering of the cross is more focused. The cross is about the cost of following. The cross is about where the Way that Jesus lives will lead us, what it will ask of us, how it will challenge and threaten us. The cross is about the difficulties of living different.

          Now, there have been times and places that this has quite literally meant the danger of following a different religion from the people around you. Human societies, after all, have always struggled with those who differ from the tribal majority. But that’s not a cross that American Christians face. Yes, the nation has left mandatory church attendance behind, but we still face no limitation or persecution beyond the occasional strange look. 

          That doesn’t mean we don’t have a cross to bear. Following Jesus will still ask things of us that require sacrifice, that are difficult, that might lead to actual suffering.

          We will be called to struggle with our relationship to money, with questions about whether violence is ever acceptable, with whether we are doing enough for the poor and oppressed. These struggles will put us at odds with others and perhaps ourselves. But we don’t even need to go that far to find the cross. It begins with love. It begins with how insanely hard it is to love other people. Seriously. The writings of John go on and on about loving one another as Jesus loves us, and we will abide in God and God in us, and around and around. The writing of Mark is more succinct: it’s going to be hard. You’re going to beg for another way. You’re going to fail a lot of the time.

          The Cross means loving other people. And loving other people is a challenge.

          Because a lot of us are fools. And we can be mean, and selfish, and demanding. We can be filled with self-pity, and deluded by arrogance. We seem to feast on condemnation; we revel in gossip. And we are the people Jesus asks us to love: fools and jerks and slackers. We have to love each other, despite all that. Have to sit with fools long enough to learn what is wise about them. Have to sit with fools long enough to discover and admit our own foolishness. This is what Jesus asks of us. And then he tells us that this torture is our salvation.

          That’s the cross. And it will indeed save us if we let it; if we can be in relationship and stay in relationship long enough to learn how to truly love one another. If we can reject the idea that community is a commodity we can shop for. We are so used to just leaving, as a wise friend said to me recently. So used to running from any level of foolish or disagreeable or challenging. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to un-learn this habit.

          Love one another, Jesus says. Love one another even though you will hurt and disappoint each other. Love one another even though it will require you to learn both repentance and forgiveness. That is the cross he asks you to pick up. That is the cross you MUST pick up, if you are going to follow Jesus. Love one another, not because you are all wise and strong and good. You’re not. But love one another anyway, because that is the way of salvation.

          The cross is other people.

          Sometimes this call to love leads us into a more public arena. Demands that we speak out to the powerful about the needs and rights of the powerless. Asks us to fight on the side of those on the margins, pouring energy and time into the work for low pay, minimal results, and even abuse in return. That’s the cross. But to bring it back down to the personal level, your cross probably also contains an element of seeing some of those people on the margins and having that fight with yourself every single day about whether you really need to help them or not…

          They are, after all, just as likely to be fools and jerks and slackers as the rest of us. And that’s the cross too. It’s in the struggle with how we feel about other people, how we love them through and in all their ups and downs. And it’s in the struggle we have in ourselves, with how well we are following Jesus in loving the unloveable. And it’s in the struggle with acknowledging that we too need to be loved that way: that we ourselves are not purely loveable. That we too can be the cross for those around us.

          Which means that the church is the perfect place to learn how to carry the cross. The church is a place that we can discover just how much it asks of us to follow Jesus on the Way of loving others as he loves us. Because it is full of imperfectly loveable people to practice on … Because it is full of people who inexplicably love you, despite your terrible and beautiful imperfection … And it is also full of Jesus, who lives in and among and between us, allowing us to perform the miracle of loving one another, over and over and over.

          Take up your cross and follow me. Love one another, and follow me. Follow me, and it will be your salvation. May it be so, Amen.

Clare Hickman