A few years ago, I saw several Easter-season advertisements inviting newcomers to attend special church services celebrating the resurrection. “Come enjoy our Easter program and a non-threatening presentation of the gospel!”
Non-threatening!?! What is non-threatening about a man hanging on a cross who says, “Come, follow me!?!”
Throughout the gospels, Jesus utters that simple phrase on many occasions. He doesn’t beg or coerce. Instead, he simply and clearly invites those he encounters to become his students. It is an invitation to a journey — to go where he goes, learn what he knows and get involved in the mission he is on. “Come, follow me.” Really now, how hard could that be?
Hmmm . . . but that cross is a bit disconcerting. As much as we try to pretty it up in our day, often making the cross into a lovely accessory or a protective amulet to wear around our necks, no one in Jesus’ time would seen it this way. The cross was a horrific implement of death.
In church buildings, crosses get displayed as symbols of comfort — the ever present reminder of Christ suffering once-for-all. While this is, indeed, a comfort, those who first heard Jesus’ invitation to follow would find no comfort in either the idea or image of taking up a cross, let alone a daily one.
During Jesus’ life, there was also no language that tied the kind of normal struggles or inconveniences we all face to the imagery of the cross. No one would ever have talked about their grumpy husband, problem child, bad back or their rude boss as “the cross they have to bear.” While those things are and often impact our lives, the first disciples would not have related the severity of the cross or the call to discipleship with the kind of personal frustrations or disappointments everyone endures as a part of the human condition.
The cross is neither an inconvenience nor a sentimental reminder. It is, as one theologian put it, “What happens to those who take God seriously.” It is the cost of discipleship when one aligns with the values, priorities and purpose of the Gospel. It is the laying aside of ourselves, our ingrained cultural patterns, our status quo morality in order to be radically identified with Jesus. And when we do, the cross becomes the price we pay for our social non-conformity.
Long before Jesus ever faced his own literal cross, he likely had a clear image of what it meant to be crucified. Though the history of Jesus’ early life is vague, one story from his teen years has historical support. It is said when he was a young man, there was a Jewish rebellion near his home. For a brief moment, Jewish Zealots seized control of the territory — away from the occupying Roman forces. Before long, however, the emperor sent in his powerful troops who simply overwhelmed this little band of rebels and quickly crushed the uprising. In the aftermath, the Romans wanted to ensure these people learned a lesson they would not forget. So they crucified a Jewish male every ten meters along a 16 kilometer stretch of road. If you were never converted to the metric system; that’s over 1700 people spaced every 30 feet for ten miles. Imagine the horror…
If young Jesus looked into the agonizing eyes of those dead and dying countrymen — you know this image was forever burned into his consciousness. It could never — would never leave him. Is it any wonder Jesus used the language of the cross as often as he did, even well before he faced his own? For in that ugly moment in human history, Jesus saw just what measure of evil God’s love was up against and how much sacrifice and devotion to God it would take by himself and those who would follow, if the light was to ever overcome the darkness.
Light would not prevail, however, by people being unwillingly led to their deaths. Rather, it would come by people voluntarily laying down their lives to take up a life of obedience to the will of God, no matter the cost. When Jesus called and continues to call his followers to take up their crosses — he was/is under no illusions as to what that would mean for him or us.
This, Friends, is the gospel at its most terse and dangerous. The cross is not a magic symbol or a fashionable decoration. It’s a symbol of a risky, alternative lifestyle. It is a symbol that makes normative claims about who God is, about who we are and about the shape and direction of our life together. It is a symbol for how God and God’s people exercise redemptive love that has and will eventually transform the world.