Called to Be Cross-Bearers, Mark 8.34-38: A "Holy" Week Meditation
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit a them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (NRSV).
SETTING IT ALL UP
Jesus’ remarkable, indeed shocking, demand that his followers be Cross-Bearers has often been blunted by his church. A friend of mine once argued violently that Jesus was not talking about a “real” cross because he used a different Greek word than for a normal cross. I asked him were he got that notion from? Another preacher. I had to get out my Greek New Testament and show him that the word is stauron, the same word that is always translated as cross. Indeed the very term used for Christ’s place of torture.
My friend's reaction is understandable though. Jesus’ demand is, seemingly, too heavy to bear. But it is not to be whitewashed, by my friend, his former minister, by me, or by the church. Following Jesus, being a disciple, a Christian, means to deny myself and take up HIS cross and follow him. It means being a Cross-Bearer.
To the Twelve this could only have sounded like nonsense flowing from one who might have lost his marbles! Only an insane person would talk in such a way and indeed some did make the charge that Jesus was a lunatic. Even his own brothers thought something was awry.
We, living in our civilized and modern times, have never once seen a crucifixion. They had, many times. We hide our electric chairs and gas chambers in the deep recesses of maximum security prisons. We don’t smell the burnt flesh or watch the people jerk violently as the voltage kills them. Crucifixions, however, were brutally public affairs. It was a barbaric, subhuman form of torture. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, described the death of a victim on a cross in these unpleasant terms,
“Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring all at once? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree? Long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn out agony? He would have many excuses for dying before mounting the cross.” (Quoted in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, pp. 30f).
Men, we are told, would beg to be killed rather than be hung on a cross. To be hung naked before the world, to have your flesh eaten away by birds, the humiliation of it all . . . it was an extremely grizzly public affair these crucifixions were.
One of my greatest complaints about paintings of the crucifixion of Jesus is he is covered up. The Gospels clearly state that the soldiers gambled for his tunic which was his undergarment (Jn. 19.24). It was a naked and humiliated man that was crucified by Pilate on the tree. Christians tend to react to this information quite negatively. Is it because we are ashamed of the depth of our Lord’s degradation? The Jewish leaders certainly were. No Messiah of theirs would endure such shame. To the Greeks it was the ultimate foolishness. But Paul, the rabbi proclaimer of the Cross, said he was proud of it. Indeed, he would boast in nothing else, “May I never boast except in the CROSS of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Gal. 6.14).
These followers had no romantic pictures of the cross in their heads. They had seen men literally rot on a cross. Now our Master, Jesus, says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I can only imagine the astonishment of the crowd for two thousand years later we are still in shock.
Jesus is telling us that discipleship is more than “going to church” on Sunday morning or even making it to Wednesday nite. No, being a follower, a disciple, being a Christian means I must take up the cross and follow him. Where ever he goes, we will go. I cannot be his friend without embracing his cross. I cannot be a worshiper if I do not hold onto the cross for life. This is very heavy and challenging.
I do not mean to sound . . . well “mean!!!” I don't want to be offensive. But I can't find a way to take the bite out of what Jesus said. But that bite is precisely why “we” have sought so diligently in the past to soften these words of the Lord. To make them less harsh and offensive … more to our liking.
MAKING HEADWAY IN TAKING UP THE CROSS
Taking up the cross means that I literally turn “ownership” of my life over to another. I allow my life to be crucified. I let myself be killed. It means I follow him to the waters of baptism and there am nailed to the Cross with him. Paul said “I am crucified with Christ” This clearly takes place in baptism according to Romans 6.3-4. But being a “Cross-Bearer” only begins at baptism. Everyday I return to the waters of baptism in repentance and take up the cross “daily and follow him.” John Calvin, the great reformer, wrote insightfully “baptism takes only a moment to do, yet takes a life time to live.”
But Cross-Bearing is not the same as stubbing your toe, getting sun-burnt, or living with a cantankerous spouse. Taking up the cross has to do with a decision that I make, as a Christian, that might have negative consequences. If people make fun of me because I act in a disreputable manner, this is not cross-bearing. But if I get fired from my job because I refuse to go along with an unethical practice because I am a Christian, now that is Cross-Bearing. Standing up in a small town
Taking up the cross daily is the hardest and most challenging enterprise a human being can ever engage in. I am far, far, far, very far from a success story in the Cross-Bearing department. I am an utter failure at denying myself! Church going is easy. Cross-Bearing is oh so difficult. However, my failure does not change what Jesus has demanded of us. I thank the Gracious Father of Jesus for giving us the Spirit to dwell in us . . . to enable us to live as he wants. I thank Jesus that he was faithful in his cross-bearing and thus made atonement for my failure to follow him perfectly and precisely. But we are still called to follow him ...
Jesus commands us to take up the Cross, this is not an option for any who wish to follow him. But in his extremely amazing grace he had poured out the Spirit so that we CAN take up the cross. Amazing, Jesus died on the cross for us, he asks us to follow him as Cross-Bearers, he knows we can never do it so he gives us the greatest source of power in the universe, the Spirit of God, to enable us to follow the Way of the Cross. What a great Savior.
Remember Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives IN ME. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2.20). He also tells us we are lead by the Spirit and it is the Spirit who crucifies the sinful nature. Jesus knew we would fail at Cross-Bearing and in his love he even took care of that.
Even though we have the Spirit to enable us to bear the cross many are still satisfied with mediocrity. Thomas a’Kempis wrote so profoundly 600 years ago,
“Jesus has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He has many desirous of comfort, but few of tribulation . . . Many follow Jesus to the breaking of the bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many reverence his miracles, few follow the ignominy of the cross . . . But they who love Jesus for the SAKE of Jesus, and not for some special comfort of their own, bless him in all tribulation and anguish of heart, as well as in the highest of comforts” (The Imitation of Christ, Book 2.11.1f).
Christians, Cross-Bearers glory in the cross for Christ’s sake. The cross is the glory of Christ! We glory in it for he is worthy. We gladly bear the Cross because as a’Kempis says,
“In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from our enemies, in the cross is heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is the height of virtue, in the cross is perfection of sanctity. There is no salvation of the soul, nor hope of everlasting life, but in the cross.” (Imitation of Christ, 2.12.20)
This is why we take up the cross. This is why we glory in the cross.
As we go through the remainder of "Holy" Week we should examine our cross bearing. Are we living a life worthy of the Lord Jesus Christ? Don’t run from the cross, where else can we go? Jesus suffered all the horrible and unspeakable torture of the Roman cross not to make you and I feel guilty but to rescue us and make all things new. He did it because he loves you and me. He did it to set us free from legalism, sin, death, hatred and any form of bondage to Self coming between you, me and our Abba.
During the remainder of “Holy” Week let us recommit our lives to being not simply church goers but Cross-Bearers.
The artwork is by a Kenyan artist and is called "Simon Helps Carry Jesus' Cross."