We are obsessed with dying and yet, we want to live forever. This tension, between the awareness of our mortality and the desire to live, is tearing us apart. We’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive, as long as we don’t have to stop doing the things which kill us. Case in point: the debate which is currently polarizing American life.
More than ever before, we are aware of the many diseases and illnesses which can end our lives. So are the pharmaceutical companies. Death is big business. The idea of keeping us alive makes some people rich. We take pill after pill and treatment after treatment to prolong our lives and fix our problems. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it’s not enough. We still die.
If we’re in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, crossing the intersection a second to late or simply not paying attention; our lives can change forever. That’s how death works. Death never keeps our schedule. Our main premise is ignorance. We don’t know when or where we’re going to die. Choice is not an option. We live until something alters the course of our well ordered lives. Would it surprise you to know that, in one way, Jesus challenges this notion?
Jesus makes the radical claim that death is an option we should all willingly choose to accept. However, he’s not talking about walking gracefully into old age or succumbing to the randomness of cancer. Jesus is saying to anyone and everyone who will listen: you must be willing to lose your life (before the appointed time) because of him and because of the Good News. In this instance, I’m convinced the gospel writers want Jesus to be taken literally. At best, this is Jesus’ most audacious claim. At worst, in the wake of ancient Roman attacks on early Christians or modern massacres like the ones at Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook, some may see his words as offensive and hurtful. Why should the true mark of faithful discipleship be a willingness to embrace death? Can’t you hear a parent of a young disciple who was later crucified asking that question? Wasn’t there another way?
Those who choose Jesus, also accept his manner of death, the cross. Jesus is asking the impossible. He’s setting an unreachable goal. Jesus knows that his words will alienate, dishearten, anger, and disturb most of the crowd who’ve gather to hear him preach. This is his goal. He’s not out to win a popularity context. Again, Jesus is asking the impossible. He wants to see who remains. Who believes in the impossible?
We’re not big on contradictions and irony. When it comes to religion, we like it cut and dry, black and white, and straight and narrow. We want to be told if you do this, you’ll get into heaven. It’s what I call the 72 virgins theory of Christianity. No one wants to martyr themselves (like an Islamic terrorist), but some Christians would like it to be as simple as being told if you do “x” on Earth you’ll receive “y” in Heaven. That’s us. We don’t want to think about what we’re doing and God knows we don’t want to suffer or stand up for too long. Since that’s the case, Jesus asking us to die on a cross might present a problem.
Yes, Jesus is different. Unlike everything that drives the modern news cycle, Jesus is counterintuitive. Jesus is a master at asking us to consider the possibilities of life between two contrasting positions like life and death. We see this in his parables. God’s love is like the tiny mustard seed; small but as expansive as the universe. In this instance, to lose one’s life is to gain life. Salvation is found in loss, not acquisition. Salvation is not so much a “ticket to heaven” we acquire (in modern parlance) but a life to be sacrificed for others. That may make sense in principal or theory. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be taking this idea one step further. He wants it applied in real life. Who wants to talk? Who is ready to walk?
“Take up your cross and follow me.” That’s what he said. It’s hard to make a metaphor out those seven words. Not that we don’t do it. We (modern Christians) make metaphors, images, and allusions from “take up your cross” and redefining the “cross” all the time. It wasn’t that way with Jesus or his early followers. When they said “cross” they meant an actual “cross”; the device on which persons were executed. A “cross” wasn’t a euphemism for a personal problem, a nagging pain, an illness, or anything else you felt you had to bear. A cross was a cross, one of the cruelest devices for human torture and execution ever devised by man. We need to be clear, when they say cross they mean cross. When we water down our cross language, we’re not only losing the meaning of what Jesus is saying but we’re devaluing the lives of all those people who actually died on crosses. Do we really have crosses to bear? I’m not sure we do.
Jesus is asking those who want to follow him to be prepared to accept that they’ll bear their own crosses. This brings me back to the beginning. When you choose to bear your own cross, you’re taking the randomness out of death. You know that cross bearing will lead you on a collision course with dying. The people who control the government may control the time and the place of the crucifixion but the outcome is never in question. Jesus wants his people to understand the certainty of the outcome. The powers at be will not let Jesus or those closest to him live. What they’re saying, doing, and urging ordinary people to in response to his teaching is too dangerous. The Romans will kill him. It will be on a cross.
Jesus’ request is left lingering in the wind. How do you respond to a man whose best pitch to hang on till the end is, “we’ll all get to die together”? I know there are modern day martyrs who bear contemporary, literal crosses. The history of the church is replete with the stories of those who have followed Christ to the bitter end. Once, in Armenia, I met a man who had been captured by Azerbaijani forces during the civil war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990’s. This Armenian Christian was crucified by his Azeri captors. His body still bore the scars and wounds of this torture. I didn’t know how to respond. What does one say to a crucified man, when you meet one in person? I have no idea. No words could convey my emotions. I said nothing.
Jesus asks us to do the impossible. Cross bearing and dying are impossible tasks, especially for comfortable middle class people like us. Jesus knows this. Unless Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu is nearby, I’m not sure anyone of us is up to task. What Jesus asks is impossible for us to do. No one wants to die in bed, even at the end of a full life. We don’t want our children murdered in school hallways. The idea of accepting a painful execution as the key to saving our lives and showing we’re not ashamed of Jesus seems out of reach it appears impossible. No, it is impossible. I have a hard time recruiting help to teach VBS and fold bulletins. Volunteers to be crucified are out of the question.
We can’t bear a cross in the same way Jesus or the earlier disciples did. Our time is not his time. Their pressures are not ours. Despite what conspiracy theorists tell you, the greatest threat to religion in America isn’t the government or liberals. It is apathy. People are finding better things to do with their time. Whether your minister wears a chasuble or an untucked shirt and stands beside a glass podium, the public has caught on to our predictability. No one is going to ask you to anything stressful. We want you to comeback. Death talk bums people out.
Jesus’ impossible cross bearing standard can’t be met because no one is asking us to die or needs us to die to keep the church alive. There is too much death in our world as is. Instead of dying on metaphorical or literal crosses, Jesus is demanding a new kind of impossible: we make ourselves heard. We speak out on issues and act together on those matters that are preventing the kingdom of God from being realized in the present day.
Consider the impossibility of praying the “Lord’s Prayer”. As much a manifesto as it is prayer, these words serve as an outline for the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven. The prayer addresses the core economic and social issues of our time: inequality and hunger. How are churches addressing hunger and poverty in our pews, communities, nation, and around the world? These issues are life and death for people within walking distance of our church communities. Someone is bearing hunger because they can’t afford to buy medicine, pay rent, or meet other basic needs. The Lord’s Prayer highlights the impossible possibility of making Earth look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
We’re called to be kingdom bearers instead of cross bearers. The impossibility of bringing the kingdom into being is now our responsibility. Will we save a version of the church in an attempt to save ourselves? Or, will we consider the impossibility of praying the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, so that the words of the prayer apply beyond the narrow realm of our own lives but on all the “Earth, as it is in Heaven?” When you slow down and think about the words, it sounds impossible. That’s where the possibility begins.
Take up the Kingdom of God and follow Jesus. Jesus went to the cross so we didn’t have to.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Richard Lowell Bryant