A message not calculated to win friends, but one that Christians must heed.
The passing of time has a way of smoothing out rough and jagged edges of all sorts in life, often in very beneficial ways. Stones in a stream get jostled about and become beautifully smooth. Painful experiences in life diminish in our memory, allowing us to move beyond them. The inexperience and brashness of youth becomes tempered with age and wisdom.
Still, there are times when smoothing “rough edges” can be a harmful mistake, especially when it’s done to something that was never intended to be smooth. One of those instances can be seen in today’s Gospel.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) Do we really stop to think about how clear, how radical, and how shockingly jagged that statement must have been to the disciples? These men and women wanted to follow Christ, and He is telling them they must take up a cross to do so!
Here is where time and familiarity have not served us well. We think of a cross as a pious symbol, one that shows us what love and salvation look like. That is perfectly correct, but it is only half of the story (the most important half, but half nonetheless). What this image often excludes, at least in our imagination, are the demands the cross.
Remember that, for the disciples hearing this, the cross was a symbol of absolute suffering, shame, pain and despair. To be put upon the cross was the worse kind of death, reserved for the most terrible crimes. This conversation happened before the Lord’s passion and resurrection, so the disciples could not yet have fully grasped the salvific nature of it. It must have been unsettling, and it should have been.
Imagine, in our experience today, our Lord telling us that the price of following Him is taking up our electric chair, or our gruesome beheading. This is not at all the comfortable smoothed-edged Good News we are used to hearing, yet this is exactly what our Lord is telling us to do, and he’s not being vague about it. The image is meant to get your attention.
The only way to Him is through the cross … and to follow Him means to take it up. We live in a consumer culture that feels most comfortable with a multitude of options to meet our every whim. Here, facing the most important decision of our life, we have a “take it or leave it” proposition. If this all seems unsettling to us, it should be.
The verb used here, to take up, is a challenge to us. We often think of the perks of faith and not of the costs. We also tend to think that “accepting” the crosses (sufferings) in our life means bearing them patiently and offering them up to Him. While there is nothing wrong with that, Christ’s command was not merely one of passive acceptance of the cross, but of personal action motivated by it.
Following Christ is not a passive endeavor. We have to be active to be authentic about it, and being active in our faith will, quite frankly, cost us. This doesn’t mean that we seek out suffering, that is masochistic and to be condemned, but it does mean that if we want to follow Christ, then we must be prepared to nail ourselves up there.
Christ was naked on that cross, and so must we be if we want to join Him there. But in order to do that, to take up our cross, we need to strip away all those things we cloak ourselves with. We need to strip away selfish desires, rip off arrogance and pride, scrape off stubbornness, and excoriate the cowardice that prevents us from proclaiming the gospel to the world that hates it.
Each of those things hurt like hell to give up, and the enemy know this. Every day he whispers in our ear trying to convince us to ignore what the future may bring, and to accept the joys and comforts of the present. He desires us to coast comfortably through life never asking ourselves the question which our Lord asked the disciples: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matt 16:26)
The enemy wants us to focus on the pain and sacrifice of the cross and to decide it’s not worth it, or to not make a decision at all. In either case, we lose if we believe that lie.
Our Lord chose the cross as the means of our salvation precisely because of the great cost it meant for Him and for us, so that in recognizing that cost, we can appreciate the magnitude of the joy and peace we find in His victory, making the cost seem as nothing in comparison.
So be not afraid. Take up the cross and follow him … it is worth it!