My father-in-law, a life-long devoted Christian, asked me a question I could tell he'd wrestled with for some time: "What does it mean for me to take up my cross?" Here was a phrase which he and I had both heard our entire lives as Christians, but which–when we're honest–is difficult for most of us to attach any practical meaning to in the way we live our day-to-day lives. I gave my best stumbling attempt to answer him, though I didn't feel like my attempt to do so was very helpful. It was a great question and is worth wrestling with.
The large majority of people who will ever read this face no immediate danger to their lives as a result of calling themselves followers of Jesus. There are millions of Christians around the world for whom that is not the case and to whom this statement of Jesus has a much more straightforward meaning: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it."
But what about the rest of us? How, really, are North American Christians in the 21st century supposed to take up our crosses and follow an ancient Jewish rabbi?
The things we commonly identify as our "cross to bear" are almost comical when held up next to what Jesus' statement would have meant to its original audience. Jesus meant he was going toward his death and anyone who wanted to follow him would likely be facing theirs as well; we mean things like someone in our office annoys us or that we don't get our way about something. The Free Dictionary (though perhaps not the most authoritative source in the world) defines the phrase, "cross to bear/cross to carry" as, "an unpleasant situation or responsibility that you must accept because you cannot change it." That's a huge reduction from the journey that Jesus intentionally took toward his death in Jerusalem. The gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus was trying to use stronger language than saying, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, they might have to accept something that's unpleasant."
But if that isn't the meaning of the phrase for us today, what is?
Perhaps there are two levels on which we can think about this:
First, one closest to the meaning which the disciples would have understood when they were with him on that night: Regardless of our time and culture, truly following Jesus involves risk. The call to take up our cross and follow the crucified and risen Messiah is more risky than dealing with an unpleasant situation or making a few minor adjustments to our ordinary lives. No, this is an invitation to a risky life in God's kingdom, which–until Jesus' reign is the only one left–will always have its points of costly conflict with the powers and ways of the world. As one of my modern-day heroes, Gary Haugen (president and CEO of International Justice Mission), says,
"Here is one choice that our Father wants us to understand as Christians–and I believe this is the choice of our age: Do we want to be brave or be safe? Gently, lovingly, our heavenly Father wants us to know that we simply can't be both."**
If we are in any way to let the original meaning of Jesus' statement shape its meaning for us today, we have to recognize that "Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk."*** Perhaps your risk includes becoming involved with work like that of International Justice Mission. Perhaps it means standing up against wrongdoing in your own community. Or perhaps you already have another idea of how your own following of Jesus could lead you into things that are not always safe and comfortable, but still important extensions of his kingdom on earth.
The second level is a bit more metaphorical, but still consistent with the message of the scriptures. As in Jesus' crucifixion, Paul describes sin being condemned in Jesus' flesh, when we follow him to our own crosses, sin will be dealt with in our bodies as well. This is a big subject, and an essential one for us to understand if we are to make sense of how the things we do each and every day relate to our participation in Christ's kingdom right now, but we must begin with the understanding that everything we do in our spiritual lives is done in our bodies, and that any habits–whether holy or sinful–are always embodied habits. Therefore, in the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday, when Jesus says, "When you give... When you pray... When you fast...," these are all things we do in our bodies in order to replace (actually the Bible says, to kill off) sinful habits by putting in place those more conducive to God's life in us. When we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him, we resubmit any part of us that is unlike Jesus to be killed off so that his grace can continue its life-giving work in us.
A Prayer for the Day:
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer **See Haugen's book, Just Courage ***NT Wright, Mark for Everyone
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]