11.17.2009

A Difficult Statement


Every once in a while, I get to a passage in the Bible that, upon reading it, I close the book as fast as I can. Earlier this week was one of those moments, as I came across this verse:

"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." (Luke 9:23)

"Taking up your cross" has been effectively sanitized in a society that is predominantly Christian in its stated belief and in which wearing a shiny gold or silver cross is not at all unusual. If you actually take the time to think about it a little more, you may arrive at some somewhat noble platitude about self-sacrifice and endurance.

But, transported back to Jesus' day, your ears would hear these words and cringe. The Romans did not invent the cross as a form of execution, but they made it into a torturous, humiliating, and graphic sentence. The condemned were further demeaned by being made to carry the T-shaped pieces of wood on their backs to the place where they would be nailed to it and left to die a gruesome and public death.

Though Jesus, immediately before this statement, announces in no uncertain terms that he too will suffer and die, there is likely no thought in his listeners' heads that it will be by crucifixion. Even those well-read in the Law and the Prophets would not necessarily see any obvious foreshadowing of the Messiah dying in this way.

In other words, we have the luxury of knowing that when Jesus says, "take up your cross and follow Me," He is inviting us to participate in the same road and consequence that He did. But Jesus' contemporary listeners had no such perspective. To them, He may as well have said, "To follow Me means that every day you will experience the worst form of pain, suffering, abasement, and death that is available today."

Not the sort of response a religious figure expects to be met with lots of hands going up saying, "Oh yes, sign me up for that!" And, later on in the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story that is intended to challenge those who sought to follow Him to "count the cost," and again He references that brutal Roman torture device: "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27). (I wonder if any PR professionals back in the day ever pulled Jesus aside to instruct Him that such statements weren't going to help Him win the "most followers" award any time soon.)

So you can understand why I wanted to close my Bible as soon as I could. We who have the perspective of the entire narrative neatly printed in one book cannot claim that there is uncertainty about the journey set before us. If in fact we want to be followers of Jesus, it is akin to lugging all the equipment for capital punishment on our backs, strapping ourselves in, and facing death - on a daily basis, and in a public way.

At least here in America, this is not the sort of lifestyle that is often seen in modern Christians. Can anyone differentiate us, or are we no different in seeking our own comfort, our own glory, our own happiness? Have we reined in our impulses for self-preservation and instant gratification because of our greater desire to live lives consistent with what we believe? Or have we instead figured out how to fit Christian tenets upon a foundation that is uncomfortable with things like denial and sacrifice and death?

Don't get me wrong: there is nothing spiritual about dourness and ascetism. Christianity of all religions can be argued to be the earthiest and most physical and material. God became flesh. Song of Songs in the Old Testament would give most of today's erotic literature a run for its money. In Deuteronomy 14, the Law commands God's people that if you live too far away to give your harvest contribution to the temple, you should instead convert it into silver and then buy whatever you want with it to have a raging party.

As with all things in our faith, we do well to look at Jesus. His first miracle was to quietly make more alcohol when a bride and groom faced embarrassment at their banquet when they ran out of wine (John 2). And yet His last act was to remain silent and stoic as He was rammed through an unjust legal process, condemned as a criminal, spat on and mocked, and left to hang and die on a cross. And, tellingly, the writer of Hebrews tells us that it was for joy that He endured it all (Hebrews 12:2).

What about us? Are we so into our temporary pleasures and our own self-determination and self-satisfaction that we are disqualifying ourselves from a far greater pleasure, exaltation, and comfort? Do we live lives that respond properly to Jesus' statement that only those who die daily can truly follow Him, or have we built our lives upon some other foundation and tried to figure out after the fact how to stick our favorite Christian principles on top of that? Do we present a sanitized, watered-down version of the Christian story because we think it will be more palatable to modern ears, or do we offer a more accurate description of what it means to be a Christian, no matter how dissonant and unpopular it might sound?

I would rather not have to answer those questions for myself, although without much thought I think I know the answers; and I am not happy with them. Which is why I closed the book so quickly earlier this week. And which is why I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since then.

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