(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on April 15, 2016)
“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’” (Luke 9:23-25, NRSV).
Have you even heard the expression, “the cross I bear?” When it is used, it seems always to be used to say that someone has an unpleasant but necessary burden to carry. Imagine a person working a very difficult job for little pay and not much appreciation. She might say, “Well, I guess this is just the cross I bear.” A parent has a child that is on and off of drugs, is moving in and out of the basement, in and out of jail. The exasperated father says, “It’s difficult, but I suppose this is just my cross to bear.”
The cross that people claim to be lugging around, of course, reminds us of the cross that Jesus carried, the one that he was nailed to. We are often told that the custom of the ancient world was for a condemned man to carry his own wooden cross (or at least the horizontal cross beam) on the way to his execution. It was adding insult to injury to have someone like Jesus, who was condemned to capital punishment by Pontius Pilate, to carry the very instrument of his torture and death up to a hill called Calvary where he would be crucified in excruciating pain (the word “excruciating” actually comes from the word “crucify”). The cross, as we know, was a very heavy piece of wood. To drag it up a hill after being whipped and abused would have been an extremely unpleasant experience. And so it is no wonder that when someone uses the expression “bearing my cross” to describe an painful life situation that is being endured, we all think of Jesus bleeding and sweating on the way to his death and nod, knowing what she or he is saying.
And so when we read in Luke 9 that Jesus informs his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must pick up their own cross daily, we sigh in resignation and count the unpleasant chores of life as the cost of being a Christian. But I would like you to think about something for a moment. What exactly is the cross?
Christians far and wide love to hang the cross around their necks. Walk into almost any church building and you will see at least one cross, often times several. People even tattoo them on their bodies. We love the cross. Why do we love the cross? What is it? What does it mean? Is not the cross a symbol of liberation? Did not God use it to change the world? Does not the cross represent the forgiveness of sin, the grace of God? Was the cross not the location for God’s greatest gift to the world? Well, if it is, then why do we only think about it as a heavy hunk of wood that we are burdened to drag behind us whenever Jesus tells us about picking up ours?
If the cross the symbol for God’s greatest gift, for the grace that saves humanity, then I refuse to think of only the hardships of life as the cross I am called to bear. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. You see, there is something that God has called you to do. There is something for which you are not only especially qualified to offer the world, but brings you immeasurable joy. There is something so meaningful to you and valuable to the world that you would pay to do it if you had to. That you are prepared to suffer for it. That you would do it even if it cost you your life, because you can’t not do it. That is your cross. And if you don’t know what your cross is, then perhaps it’s because you are too occupied lugging around the hardships of an unfulfilling job, or suffering unnecessarily in an unfair situation, because you have been convinced that’s what it takes to live a good life full of stuff. And what Jesus is calling us to do in Luke 9 is give up those lesser idols of comfort, success and privilege, to surrender that “life,” so that you can start living a real life.
Of course, living the real life to which Christ calls us is to pattern our lives after him. We are made to love as he loved and to serve the poor as he did. We are called to spread the good news that no one can take away your dignity as a human being because you were made by God and God doesn’t make junk. We are called to speak up for the voiceless, protect the vulnerable, and stand up to systems of injustice and oppression, just as Jesus did. And yes, you might get in trouble for that. There are people who aren’t going to want to hear that people who we’ve been treating as second-class citizens deserve full participation in the human family regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, criminal record, orientation, or religion. But remember always that God is faithful, and just as She resurrected Jesus after being killed on the cross he carried, She will do the same for you.