If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, carry his cross every day and keep close behind me. Luke 9:23, JB Phillips
To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 98
There is no harder teaching of Jesus than this one: To follow him, we must lose ourselves in him and carry our cross.
Jesus carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem where he was mocked and jeered by the crowds. We carry our cross in public, too it is our commitment to live a life of faithful obedience to the Gospel of Jesus and that public faith may well bring us shame.
The cross Jesus carried was a sign that he had been declared a social outcast. We may lose our standing among friends and colleagues, perhaps lose opportunities to advance in our chosen field because of our commitment to Christ.
The cross Jesus carried was heavy, and at times he staggered and fell under its weight. We, too, may stagger under the weight of a faith that society calls irrational and unenlightened.
This is what Jesus calls us to. This is not happy-talk Christianity. This is not self-empowering Christianity. This is not the gospel of health and wealth. This is death-row Christianity, and we are the dead men walking.
Of course, the death we are walking towards may not be a literal death, though some Christians have been murdered for their faith. The death most of us will face is this business of denying ourselves, of letting go of our rights, of setting aside our personal dreams and desires. It is the death of our self-driven self-will and the birth of a life directed from above. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus. As Paul put it:
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Galatians 2:20, NLT
We stoop beneath the ox-yoke with him and strap in. He pulls beside us, helping us. He directs our footsteps so that we won't stumble. Though we carry a heavy load, he makes it bearable. (Matthew 11:28-30).
Bonhoeffer says that the suffering of the cross should never be confused with the everyday difficulties we all face as human beings. If my car breaks down or I get sick or I lose my job because of the recession, they are trials, for sure, but they are not the cross of Jesus.
The cross of Jesus is the abuse you suffer from your boss because you refused to lie to a customer. The cross of Jesus is choosing to ignore your homosexual urges and humbly asking a friend to pray with you for endurance. The cross of Jesus is telling your feminist friends that you have come to see the life of the fetus as sacred. The cross of Jesus is choosing a career of humanitarian and spiritual service in a place where there is no road, and no Internet. The cross of Jesus is staying true to your faith even when your family rejects you. The cross of Jesus is a professor unashamedly reading his Bible in the midst of the secular materialism of the university.
Put simply, when we carry our cross, we stand apart from the faceless mob. We will swim upstream against the current. We may appear foolish, even dangerous. We will be rejected by those who wish to cubbyhole Jesus as an interesting moral teacher whom history has passed by.
It will cost us something very dear. Our reputation. Our dreams. Our career. Our friends.
The cross of Christ was ugly and raw, an object of ridicule and shame. The horrible spectacle of the cross caused grown men to weep and turn away in sorrow. It killed Jesus, and in his death he was rejected by God, his own father, because he took our sin on himself. It crushed him, but God, full of mercy and grace, lifted him up and restored his life.
And so it is with us. Whatever cross you have to carry, Jesus carries it with you. He will not let it crush you. The world may reject you, but he will always stand at your side, comforting and strengthening you.
True Christianity can never be separated from the cross, and the cross, no matter how we try to pretty it up, will cost us something dear.
Art credit: Eugene Delacroix, Christ on the Cross