Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
That passage of Scripture is from Matthew 16:24.
What does it mean to take up your cross?
Maybe we should start with what the cross means. What do you think of when I say the word “cross”? Here’s what some people think: grace, redemption, love, forgiveness, jewelry, Christianity, God and country, and some even think of a song – “Lift High the Cross.” It’s all very clean and neat and orderly sounding isn’t it?
Many people equate carrying their cross with a burden they carry in their lives. Maybe a strained relationship, a thankless job, a physical illness.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was telling people. That’s more like Jesus saying “pick up you heavy bag of groceries, stop complaining and follow me.”
Here’s a little context of what the cross meant in Jesus’ own time. It was an instrument of the Roman empire used for a tortuous death. It meant to tell a clear message to all around that opposing Rome would result in a cruel and humiliating defeat. That’s quite a bit harder than talking about strained relationship.
Rome was everything and all powerful, in human terms. Rome went beyond other empires in the sense that it saw itself as god-like.
Convicted criminals and those who challenged Rome would have to literally carry their own cross – the thing that would kill them and carry it through the streets, often naked, and suffer ridicule and derision from the masses watching along the way. They also had the pleasure of knowing what the end result was the entire time.
When Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, he means be willing to die to self, literally. Absolute surrender to Jesus – not, “well, Jesus, how about you can have me on Sundays, but not on Saturdays, that’s my day off. And I have to leave you are home when I go to work too – my boss owns my time there. Or when I go to school, I have to study and get good grades. Or when I go out to the doctor’s office – I have to keep the appointment or else I’ll never get another appointment.”
Total surrender is not an easy concept for 21st century Americans to take in. We don’t surrender. We think of ourselves as the “good guys.” Surrender goes against everything it means to be American.
I wonder, if Jesus were to come to 21st century America, how would he rephrase the Scripture to our context? Take up your _____ and follow me.
It’s not an easy question for Americans to answer. Mostly because Christians in America are not like the Christians in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Christians in 21st century America aren’t persecuted for the most part. We’re living in a a culture that is changing for sure – going from a culture that used to tell the Christian story to one that is more apathetic to the Christian message. It means we have to pick up our slack and laziness in telling the message – relearn how to tell the story as David Lose once said.
But what does it really mean to pick up our cross in 21st century America? What is the 21st century version of the cross? I’m going to leave you with these uncomfortable questions unanswered.