In my younger days, I would take youth groups out on cross-country trips to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. On the night before we left, we would always gather with families for a short worship service. And at that worship, we would give every young person who was going a small cross, on a leather lanyard.
It became a tradition that we’d give these crosses. They were made with four carpenter’s nails that had been welded together to form the cross, which, we thought, pretty appropriate for the work we were going to do.
Our group wore these crosses throughout the trip as a reminder of our identity in Christ, and of the mission to serve that we shared.
One day, in some city…somewhere…I don’t remember where…I was in the grocery store to pick up some things we would need for dinner that night. Hot, sweaty, t-shirt, baseball cap, work shorts, boots and this cross…I’m quickly trying to find the things that we needed.
A stranger was coming towards me with his cart. I really wasn’t paying attention. Before he passed me, he just stopped. This kind of startled me. We made eye contact. He smiled, and then he pointed at the cross I was wearing. He said “Is that just for decoration, or does it mean something?”
“Your cross,” he said again. Are you wearing it as jewelry, or does it have meaning.
I think I said something like: “Well yeah…it has meaning…” and then I mumbled my way through some words that included “church,” “mission trip,” “group” and “Habitat.”
He said “I’m asking if you’re really Christian.”
“Yes. I am.”
“Ok…good…God bless you!” and then he went on his way.
What? What was that? That was weird.
I told the story when our group met for devotions that night. We are not used to being confronted with faith questions, especially by strangers, and I shared how this man had caught me a bit by surprise.
It was one of our adult volunteers who said “well, for lots of people, the cross is just another piece of jewelry.”
She was right. I mean, lots of people wear crosses, right? We see them all over the place. I’ve seen crosses on necklaces, on earrings, on lapel pins, on rings, on belt buckles, on t-shirts, on the back of pick-up trucks, on billboards, on statues, on bumper stickers, you name it.
So, here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week: What does it mean to “take up,” or to “carry” a cross?
The cross, the primary symbol of our faith, is both a sign of Jesus’ suffering, and of Jesus’ glory. So what does it mean when Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Well first, context matters. If we understand where Jesus was when he said this, they “why” might make more sense. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was in a region that had been dominated first by Greek thought, philosophy and religion, and then by the Romans. It was a town that was full of marble statues and temples dedicated to the God Pan, and the Roman emperors, as well as other deities.
Caesarea Philippi, and the area that surrounds it, would have been completely foreign turf to a Jewish rabbi and his disciples, and they might not have received a warm welcome there.
And so, it is here, in this place, that Jesus says, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
In other words, there is one way to go…and these temples, monuments and statues that you see around you? They aren’t it. Jesus was teaching that to be a disciple is to focus…and to focus on one thing only: the cross. And suddenly, the disciples understood: the cross was a symbol of death and suffering.
I think this is why we most often connect the phrase “take up your cross” with suffering. In fact, we hear it regularly. Someone will be dealing with a difficult situation, and they will say “well, it’s my cross to bear.” And they mean “I guess I’ll just have to suffer.”
But I’m not convinced that this is what Jesus is talking about when he says that to be a disciple is to deny oneself and take up your cross.
Think for a minute about what Jesus was up to. He had a mission, a mission so important that he would literally go to hell and back to make it happen. His mission, and that of his disciples, is to give life. Abundant life. Eternal life. Grace-filled life. Life that overflows with goodness and mercy. Jesus mission was to give life…and he did so, knowing that earthly powers would violently oppose him. He did so, knowing that it would lead him to the cross.
Dr. Ira Brent Driggers, of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, writes that “Jesus’ mission is not to die, but his faithfulness to God’s life-giving mission will inevitably result in his death…Jesus “must” die because his commitment to human healing will not falter.”
Jesus came to bring life. To bring life he had to speak the truth and to be honest about the brokenness of the world, and about the systems that persecuted people. Dr. Driggers goes on to write that: “Jesus died because powerful humans opposed both His healing mission and more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order.” Those who opposed Jesus, the religious and political leaders, just thought they were shutting up another annoying rabble-rouser. They had no idea that they were opposing the kingdom of God.
Jesus died because he picked up his cross…he told the truth. And the empire didn’t like the truth.
So, in chapter 8, when he starts talking about this publicly…in unfriendly territory, Peter pulls Jesus aside, the scriptures tell us, to rebuke Jesus.
“Umm…yeah, Jesus, you might want to back off on all of the death and resurrection talk…it’s kind of a bummer…and it’s going to get us into trouble”
“Get behind me Satan!” replied Jesus. Get behind me Satan? Wow. That’s pretty harsh.
But Jesus is trying to help the disciples learn what it is to pick up a cross.
To pick up a cross is to tell the truth. When Jesus tells them, and us, to deny ourselves and pick up our cross, he is saying that we should follow his example, even when there is risk involved. He is saying that:
- We should not back away from what is right
- We should not back away from truth
- We should not back away from confronting oppression
In fact, to take up our cross goes beyond simply telling the truth. It is to name the falsehoods, the injustices, and the evil that robs life instead of gives life.
And Jesus’ words to his disciples that day, are his words to us. Jesus asks us to pick up our cross, to focus on God’s mission, and to tell the truth.
Ok…before I start rolling too far ahead of myself, let me just pause to acknowledge that this isn’t easy. It is hard to tell the truth when the truth is hard for someone to hear. It is scary. It can be risky. When Jesus says to take up your cross, his intent is not that we suffer or that we struggle. His intent is that we tell the truth…that we be witnesses to the truth. And sometimes that causes struggle, and occasionally, even suffering.
My favorite book of fiction is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This story, which I first read as a young person in school, changed my life. There is one scene in particular that both haunts and delights me. Tom Robinson, who is African American, has been arrested for a crime he did not commit. He is in the jail. Atticus Finch, his attorney, is sitting outside the jail, and the sheriff is up in a window, both are there to protect Tom. An angry mob of men approach the jail, intent on hanging Tom Robinson. It was a tense moment…scary, even. The mob is confronting Atticus, when suddenly, Atticus’ children, Jem and Scout and their friend Dill, step out of the shadows. This was no place for children. But then something amazing happens. The little girl, Scout, recognizes one of the men, and calls him out. “Hey Mr. Cunningham!” She asks about his son, Walter with whom she goes to school. She asks about his health, and she asks him to say “hey” to Walter.
Now little Scout may not have intended it, but she did something profound in that moment. In the midst of a mob, she recognized this man’s humanity. She called it out of him. She reminded him that they were all in community with each other. She reminded him that we are all the same…and that maybe Tom Robinson is too. And maybe she unintentionally shamed him just a bit as well.
Because it was Mr. Cunningham, who then bent down to her and said “I’ll tell my Walter that you said ‘hey,’ little lady.” And then he turned to the other men in the mob, and said “Let’s clear out…let’s get goin’ boys.” And they left. In peace.
Scout was the truth-teller, without even realizing it. Scout picked up her cross. Scout’s words, and her compassion brought just a moment of light, and life, to a terrible and risky moment.
It is to this that we are called.
Jesus calls us to carry our cross. Jesus calls us to focus on his mission, and to occasionally take risks.
Discipleship, according to our gospel story, is not simply a comfortable affiliation with a church. No. To pick up your cross is a life-changing, and occasionally risky, commitment to Jesus.
It means to do what Jesus does. It means to speak words of truth, even when it’s hard. And it means to step outside of our comfort zone.
It means to participate fully, in Jesus’ ministry.
So, this season of Lent…today…let us pick up our crosses, let’s be truth tellers, let’s be willing to take the occasional risk, and lets follow, wherever Jesus leads us.
Thanks be to God!