Some of you may have been in my office and seen the little row of crosses hanging on my wall. These are all the crosses I wear in worship. Several of them have sentimental importance to me: a crucifix the Pattersons brought to me from the Vatican, a simple wooden cross some other parishioners brought to me from Germany, a carved Celtic cross Josh Johnson got for me in Wales, a cross made of nails and a heavy bronze cross, both of which came from people at my internship congregation. I have beaded crosses, chainmail crosses, sterling and jeweled crosses. I even have a few more at home as well.
I, like so many Christians, love to wear the cross. Simple or ornate, the symbolism is beautiful and the reminder of faith is sometimes heartening, sometimes convicting and always significant. I’ve always believed it was an honor to wear a cross, the sign of our Lord who rose from the dead and of our life with him.
Some Christians do not believe we should wear crosses as jewelry, fearing that it becomes a kind of arrogance or idolatry. Or perhaps they are concerned that the symbol will become too watered down to still be meaningful.
Regardless of whether or not we wear them around our necks, we do wear them on our foreheads. In our baptism we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. In our baptismal service we actually mark the newly baptized in oil with a cross, but even without this gesture, we are surely sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Recently, I was shopping on line and came across a line of jewelry that featured sets of bracelets stacked together, all designed to make a fashion statement of some sort. Most of them had anchors or stars or other kinds of symbols. Scanning through I found one with a crystal studded cross stacked together with other equally blingy bangles. I was horrified at the description: “wear one to create envy.”
I do not think this is at all what Jesus meant when he said “take up your cross and follow me.” Whether the cross is seen as a burden, a torture, or a blessing given by God’s gracious love, it is most assuredly never meant to be envied.
But what did Jesus mean? What does it mean to take up our cross? It seems to be something rather important to Jesus, based on the way he talks about it here in this text for today.
What would the disciples have thought when they heard this phrase? “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus says this in the middle of his earthly ministry. This isn’t something the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples because he has not yet been crucified, so this idea is probably pretty strange to them. They do not yet know that Jesus will be resurrected, or for that matter, that he will even be crucified.
The cross was used as a death penalty by the Romans for the worst criminals. Political crimes, violent and terrible crimes were punishable by crucifixion. It was an abysmal way to be put to death as well. Public execution that was slow, agonizing and humiliating. Most persons put to death on the cross were not allowed to be buried and, instead, their bodies were fed to wild dogs.
Some have said that wearing a cross is making an instrument of capital punishment into jewelry, like wearing a replica of the electric chairs that are used to put criminals to death in some places today. However, it is more than that. The death penalty in our country arguably tries to find a way to carry out this sentence with the least amount of torture, but the Roman government of Jesus’ day sought to make the most public and painful death imaginable. And they pretty much succeeded. Most likely, it would be the worst way imaginable to end up.
So Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross, the symbol of all of that nightmarish torture, and follow him.
Over the past week I’ve done a very unscientific and informal poll asking people what they think it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Many said that they thought it had to do with suffering. Take up and embrace whatever suffering they had been given in life and follow Jesus. Some said it had to do with responsibility; being responsible for acting out your faith, responsible for your actions, behaving responsibly in life. Some said commitment. Taking up the cross is committing to Jesus and committing no matter what the consequences.
The truth is that the meaning of the cross, what the threat of crucifixion meant at that time, what it meant for Jesus to be crucified, what it has meant for generations of Christians till today, is complex to say the least.
For many living in our country today, wearing a cross, blingy or not, is seen as common place, perhaps even a fashion statement or a sign that you are part of the “in crowd”. A cross is sometimes used in political campaigns to symbolize a devotion to faith but also certain political positions. Business owners use crosses along with the Christian fish in their advertisements to show their faith and sometimes to persuade customers to use them over others.
To many people who were part of cultures which were forcibly converted to Christianity and who witnessed terrible violence from those bearing crosses might have a completely different concept of what it means to take up a cross.
To those who live today in places where being a Christian means being ostracized by their community and practice of their faith is punishable by death, likely have a different concept as well.
When Jesus took up his cross, he did so for many reasons. Jesus bore the cross in obedience to God, remaining faithful to God’s purpose and not turning away when it was difficult or painful, trusting in God to make all things right. He was crucified because of the evil of others, because of powerful and corrupt people, both religious and not. He was nailed to the cross because in his suffering death, he entered into all human suffering of all kinds in all places with all peoples so that he can join us there and redeem it. He died on the cross because on the tree of the cross Jesus gave salvation to all so that where death began, life might be restored. He was crucified because in order to defeat death, he had to die. All that rises must first die.
There are many more, these are just a few.
For me personally, the idea of taking up the cross is following Jesus no matter what. Following Jesus and having a commitment to him that is of greater significance than anything else in life. However, that is certainly not all it means. If the cross and Jesus’ bearing his own, dying on the cross and being resurrected from the death of the cross has so many interconnected meanings, surely Jesus’ words about our taking up the cross can have many meanings, too.
So, what does it mean to you? What does that mean in your life? What speaks to you in the cross of Christ, resonates in your own life, and what are you able to do with, for and because of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection to new life?
Earlier in this passage, Jesus speaks about not needing to fear death. He speaks about not needing to fear one who can kill the body and that we are precious to God. Even the hairs of our head are numbered. Of all the meanings of the cross, this may be the central one. Death has been defeated and with Christ we need no longer fear it. We can take up our crosses, if that means commitment and obedience to God, suffering or struggles we have, responsibilities we take on, or fears we must face, because Jesus took up THE cross. We can do all things through the cross of Christ.