If it wasn’t already, Lent gets really serious today. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That is as succinct a statement of the gravity of Christian discipleship as there is. Daniel Berrigan, one of the more notable prophets of faithfulness during the Vietnam War, said it another way: “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”
Taking up the cross of Jesus is the cost of discipleship and it is supposed to cost us something, yes? The image of the cross in Mark’s day was neither a religious icon nor a metaphor for personal anguish or humility, as in “your cross to bear.” It had only one meaning: that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters. Executed protestors on crosses was a common sight by the roadside in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark’s time.
In this recruiting call, the follower of Jesus is invited to wrestle with the consequences of facing the dominance of imperial Rome and dare to challenge those who want most to keep it so. It means that “taking up one’s cross” can be dangerous, it is full of risk, it may cost you your life. No, not may, it will cost you your life! Remember? “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” We are baptized into Jesus’ death in order to be raised with him.
So full stop here. If one of the calls of a Christian is to respond to the needs of the world by bearing one another’s burdens, and by taking action to make God’s Kingdom present among us now, especially on behalf of the least of God’s people, are we not called to lead the charge? I remember some years ago when one of my children reminded me of this truth in a rather poignant way. There was a young man who showed up at our parish one Sunday. He was homeless. He had been living in the woods for a week or so and came to us for some food and to warm up. I recall speaking to my wife, Bonnie, about this young man and feeling bad about turning him away even after stocking him up on some groceries. I had all the reasons why it would not be convenient to have him in our home: we had small children; we didn’t know him well; what of safety issues and on and on. What I didn’t realize was that my then 12 year-old oldest son had overheard the conversation and said, “Dad, he could come and live with us for a while. We have an extra room and besides, you told us that people like that are Jesus.” How inconvenient to be reminded of my own words!
In this challenging invitation of Jesus, the cost of discipleship means embracing that cross – we better look good on wood. That’s why baptism is so dangerous if we are paying attention, for in that water we are marked by the sign of Jesus – the cross. St. Paul tells us that the way of the cross looks like foolishness to the world, but that really it is the power of God.
So I struggle with the cost of discipleship as expressed by Jesus, remembering that it has been said that, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried” (G.K. Chesterton). Bear with me a moment as I offer some challenges to you and yes, me, with some intentionally provocative statements:
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say, it is easier to play sports on Sunday than to participate in a faith community.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say, it is easier to give God what we can spare rather than engage in sacrificial giving.
Jesus says take up your cross. We say, rather than live more simply we want to acquire more.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say, it is easier to engage war than love our enemies and become peacemakers.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say it easier to hold a grudge than to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say, I’ll give a can of soup to the pantry, but I don’t want to have to challenge the systems that keep people hungry while the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We who are white say, we’d rather keep our societal privilege than deal with all the manifestations of racism in our culture.
Jesus says, take up your cross. We say, we would rather keep drilling the earth for more fossil fuel than develop new technologies and healing the creation of which God asks us to be good stewards.
To be honest in the way that the discipline of Lent calls us to be, we must admit that we too often resist the foolishness of the cross. There are days I would rather look good in a mirror than look good on wood. Do we want our faithfulness to cost us as little discomfort as possible, rather than live the risky life of faith to which Jesus calls us? “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It will not be capable of anything great. We ought to be worried when our faith sounds reasonable” (Soren Kierkegaard).
A part of the good news is that we have a God who says that he desires to enter the pain of the world with us, to bring healing and hope to everything that would keep God’s people in captivity. This comes with the assurance that grace and mercy is offered even when we stumble and do not get it right. It has been said that, “In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a complete fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion” (Frederick Buechner).
Do you want to be a student of Jesus? Take up your cross and follow him.