March 1, 2015
So what does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus? We know that the cross is important. At baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross. The cross is at the center of our place of worship. We know that somehow through the cross Jesus claims us, and through the cross we are raised to new life. But the cross is about what Jesus does. He dies on the cross for us. And we are saved by grace through faith and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one can boast. So if the cross is all about what Jesus does for us, what does it mean for us, who are Jesus’ followers, to take up our cross and follow him?
I think it’s important to understand what the cross meant for the people at Jesus’ time. While we think about the cross as the sign of salvation and eternal hope in Christ, for the people who heard Jesus tell them to take of their cross and follow him, the image it suggested was political prisoners carrying their crosses to the place of their execution. The cross was the Roman instrument of torture and execution for those convicted of crimes against the Empire. Crosses lined the roads leading from Rome with the 6000 slaves who had joined Spartacus in his revolt a hundred years before Jesus was also hung on one outside Jerusalem. Jews who had rebelled a few years after Jesus’ birth were nailed to crosses that lined roads from Galilee to Jerusalem. The cross was not used to execute common criminals – those convicted of robbery or murder. The cross was reserved for crimes of tyranny against the empire. It was used as a demonstration of Roman power against any who would challenge the Empire and its way of ruling the world. So when Jesus talks about carrying a cross, he’s talking about doing something that could get you nailed to one of those Roman crosses – some kind of opposition to Rome’s way of ruling the world. In the gospel of John, chapter 7, Jesus goes to Galilee to avoid those who are seeking to kill him. When he explains why they seek to kill him he says, “[the world] hates me for exposing the wickedness of its ways.” (John 7:7 NEB)
The Way of Jesus, the Way of the Lord, the Way of God is a way opposed to the way of the world. In the book of Acts, the early followers of Jesus referred to the church as the Way. The first confession of the church was simply, “Jesus is Lord.” It seems that those who were brought into the early church radically changed something about how they lived their lives. They looked to Jesus as their Lord and they sought to live in the way that Jesus taught them to live. And something about that put them at risk of crucifixion.
The ways of the world encourage us to get what we can for ourselves, to get the best deal we can, and to use whatever power we have to make things work for our advantage. That’s what Rome did when it conquered and appropriated land for its own benefit. It didn’t matter that peasants were left landless or that condition of poverty multiplied in the lands Rome conquered. The occupying Roman legions ensured the Peace of Rome, and when people resisted or rebelled, crosses served as a reminder of Roman power. But the Christians refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Instead, they proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord,” and they gathered so that they could grow in living the Way that Jesus taught. And what Jesus taught went against the ways the world. Jesus’ way is not about getting what you can for yourself, with the best deal possible, and it is definitely not about using whatever power you have to make things work for your advantage. The way of Jesus is perhaps best described in Philippians, Chapter 2:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
We are saved by grace through faith – and it is a gift of God, but we are also created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. I believe that when Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he is calling us to take hold of that new life for which he has claimed us through his death and resurrection. He invites us to die to the ways of this world and he draws us out of the death creating ways of this world to live as children of the light. The ways of the world teach us to look to our own interests, but the way of Jesus turns us to care for others. It is when we loose ourselves in following the way of Jesus that we become the children of God we were created to be. It is when we live out care and compassion for others that we truly reflect God’s image in our lives.
And while there may not be crosses of execution waiting for those who seek to follow Jesus, we should expect a certain amount of difficulty when we seek to go against the ways of the world. Following Jesus turns us away from our own interest so that we can see the needs of others and tend to them, and even change the way we live so that there is less suffering in the world. When we open our lives to see and respond to the hurts and hopes of the world, we take up our cross and loose our life for the sake of God’s way. And that is how God gives life, to us when we are caught in the ways of the world, and to the world by transforming us into channels of God’s love for the world. AMEN