He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. -Mark 8:34
I grew up around this verse. I even sang a song about it when I was about ten. My fellow young church-goers and I marched around Ligonier Baptist Chapel following a charismatic adult dressed up as a singing songbook named Psalty, singing, “Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Je-sus; he is the way, truth-and liiiife.” It was quite the cheery, up-beat song. (No really. It was cheery and up-beat). I swear this happened.
“Bearing our crosses” has become Christianese for bearing up under unpleasant circumstances. Perhaps your poor relationship with your in-laws is your cross to carry, or smiling and being kind to an unpleasant person at work. Some people have debilitating illnesses that are just their cross to carry. Others have constant car problems.
That’s all very lovely and inspiring, but I don’t think it’s quite what Jesus had in mind. But to understand what’s going on here, we have to lay down our theology of the cross for just a moment and look really hard at scripture.
Many of us come to scripture with the understanding that Jesus died on the cross because God wanted him to. Jesus died on the cross so God could forgive our sins. The other causes were just incidental and may have involved God’s orchestration. I believed this for most of my life – before I encountered alternative atonement theologies.
One Sunday, I was chatting with an older gentleman who had spent his life in the Brethren church. I asked him why Jesus died. He said, “I always thought Jesus was killed because he wouldn’t stop doing what he was doing.” He had never heard of penal substitution, and the idea that God had Jesus killed was completely foreign to him.
And that is the understanding, I think, that will help us see what Jesus meant about taking up crosses.
Jesus loved sinners. He fed poor people. He talked about the Kingdom of God as something that would overcome the kingdom of this world. He did not have the appropriate amount of respect for the status quo. He put people ahead of laws and grace ahead of justice.
And in the end, it got him killed. He knew it would. He warned his disciples repeatedly that he was going to be killed. They were expecting a violent revolution, but Jesus rejected the way of the sword. Jesus, much like us, lived in a dog-eat-dog world of kill-or-be-killed. Jesus chose not to kill.
So when Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” this isn’t a metaphor. This is not “a call to absolute surrender,” or for women to stop wearing pants and men to grow beards.
He’s tossing out a warning to anyone who would follow where he leads: “I am on the road to the cross, and anyone who wants to follow me might as well pick up theirs.”
This is an invitation to live a life like Jesus lived – a life of radical acceptance and love for all – and to take a stand against oppressive systems of power that threaten to crush the least of these his brothers.
But be warned: sometimes when you stand in front of tanks, they drive over you. Sometimes when you protest cruelty, you find yourself in prison. Sometimes when you put people above power, you find yourself being executed. That’s what happened to Jesus, and, take his word for it, it’s the sort of thing that will happen to anyone who follows him.