When Jesus said, “Follow me”, the disciples gave it a good “college-try” but, by and large, they hadn’t a clue as to what He meant, or “how to” go about it. Yet, they were compelled to go, because Jesus is compelling. And follow Him they did, because Jesus is faithful. His call to us is not optional, or some additional ala carte item we can pick and choose from a list of amenities. It may sound blunt to put it this way, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that much of our modern Christian philosophy hinges on the “if”. When Jesus calls us, “If anyone would come after me, He must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), many Christians respond with, “No thank you”, as if Jesus offered dessert after their meal or something.
But I don’t think the “if” is the point of His word at all. Jesus was teaching us the way of the Cross. If Jesus did one thing extremely well, it was to prepare His followers for the realities they would face in following after Him (just to be clear, Jesus did all things well). He did not mix words, or dress it up. He plainly told the disciples (and us) what to expect. That’s the part where our own discomfort has caused many to conveniently redefine His words as an “add on” for the super-duper-deluxe model Christian. Right? This take up your Cross stuff seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it? I am not sure Jesus meant that radical of a lifestyle for me. Surely Jesus didn’t mean I have to do this? Jesus wouldn’t want me to suffer, or be unhappy, would He?
The words of Joni Eareckson Tada – a quadriplegic who has suffered severe physical pain and been confined to a wheelchair for the past 48 years – come to mind, “I need Warrior Jesus, not the Jesus pictured so often – the One surrounded by little children and bluebirds”. And thank God: Jesus is a Warrior. He is omnipotent, not impotent. Jesus went before us carrying the Cross, fights for us daily as our High Priest, and is overwhelmingly Victorious, Faithful, and True as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Joni got to know Jesus better as she wheeled her cross-chair forward in life. Taking up our crosses is the only way we can know Jesus as He really is, instead of the Jesus we’ve concocted to fit our mental mold. We cannot redefine Jesus any more than we can change the position of the sun because it’s too hot and bright for our liking. Jesus is an all-consuming fire. His words are not a display window model we can rearrange and accessorize with the changing season. Suddenly, the song “Oh no, you never let go” has a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? Following Jesus is not optional. It is what makes us Christians. Did you happen to notice another word, just a few more into His call, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself…?” Jesus compels us forward in the way of the Cross, even despite our own limitations in understanding, our personal discomfort, and our flat-out stubborn insubordination. He faithfully steers us toward greater understanding of who He is as we discover the Way is less and less of what we thought, wanted, or expected it to be.
I distinctly remember talking with a mother-friend who was struggling with her adult children’s choices. She cried emphatically, “This is NOT what I signed up for!” At the time, I was still green. I had not yet personally experienced the painful disillusionment of the Cross-life, or the nail marks of betrayal. I (ignorantly) tried to cheer her with my sing-song, and mostly empty, theology. I’ve heard countless suffering people complain of the insult added to injury from others plying them with platitudes in their pain. I, unfortunately, now seen that I fit in this category in this instance. I regretfully confess that I have been the person offering the “no- help-help” to a hurting friend. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.
God has since, mercifully and faithfully, led me to this greater understanding. I assure you it has come, and can only come, by means of taking up my cross daily and following Jesus. As I have now felt the personal pain of betrayal, and struggled to bear up under the weight of it, Jesus has given me a new thought – the Cross is for the betrayers too. We are so inclined to take a one-sided view of the Cross – our side, our understanding, our right from wrong. We don’t know what to do with the “other side” – the “they” side – the ones who wound, hurt, betray, and leave us for dead. It was in this place that I heard another word from my Warrior Jesus. He said, “Brother will betray brother to death” (Matthew 10:21). Suddenly, I understood: the Cross is for both the wounded and the wounders. Taking up mine includes continuing to love and pray for those who’ve hurt me deeply.
I thought of all this yesterday as I sat under the shadow of the Cross hanging on the gym wall where we gather for church. There is nothing fancy about our building, the ceiling is peeling, browned from water damage. I raised my eyes to that ceiling, as I raised my voice in worship, praising God for giving me eyes to see beyond the veil – to a greater understanding of the crucified life. To know how wide it is from east to west, how far Warrior Jesus has removed our transgressions from us. And then I pictured the two criminals hanging on their crosses on either side of Jesus. What an illustration of this lesson He is teaching me: the one who knew He needed a Savior, and the other who didn’t- a wounding scoffer. To the repentant one, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)”.
Paradise is for the one who doesn’t try to evade or avoid the Cross; who recognizes his absolute need and dependence upon it. For the who believes and knows he can enter in by no other means than through it. To him has been given the words of life, the keys to the kingdom, the glorious riches of Christ.
And to this you also were called, dear friends. Take up your cross today and follow Him.