Friday, May 6, 2011

"Take up your Cross and Follow Me"

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”                                             (Matthew 16:24 ESV)
Our speech is prone to exaggeration. We often speak of things being awesome, miraculous, and amazing even though they are not. We tell people that we are doing great, marvelous, and wonderful, when we are not. Generally we understand these to be overstatements and do not take them too seriously. When we experience situations where the literal meaning of those terms is appropriate we may need to clarify that we actually do mean that something was awesome or amazing. In addition to this English is filled with all sorts of idiomatic phrases that employ other kinds of overstatements. For example, someone may say that there were 100 people in line at the store, or that they had to walk five miles to their parking spot etc.

Most of these phrases are useful expressions that help us to communicate in vivid ways. Sometimes, however, these phrases can be trivializing with regard to their metaphorical reference. For example, the idiomatic phrase “we all have our crosses to bear” uses a very serious event to express something that is many orders of magnitude inferior to it in scope and scale. Christ bore the sins of the world and it was a burden that only he could bear. Today we speak of difficult circumstances, onerous responsibilities, and other burdens as “crosses that we must bear”. Of course we all do willingly bear various types of burdens and sufferings but it is perhaps even blasphemous for us to apply the imagery of Christ’s willing suffering for sin to any burden we bear in the flesh.

It is true that Christ used this Cross imagery with His disciples on more than one occasion. In the verse above He instructs His followers that they must take up their crosses and follow Him. We must be careful, however, to understand what He is saying. At the time this statement was made there was not the long sweep of history between His sacrifice and his hearers. Indeed, He Himself was not yet crucified. This would have been a terribly jarring statement to make at the time He said it. The Roman crucifixion was a shameful execution reserved for the worst criminals and rebels. It was a torturous symbol of oppression and of the power of Rome over those against whom it was used. In America today we really do not have anything analogous to it. Our executions are expressions of the power of the state but they are not designed to publicly humiliate and torture the prisoners. Crucifixion was not only a matter of carrying out a sentence it was a social and political expression. Perhaps the prisons at Andersonville and Camp Douglas where Civil War prisoners were exploited, starved, and worked to death might have had something approaching the same level of hideousness and reputation in their time.

Christ is not instructing His followers to merely endure setbacks and burdens. He is literally telling them to take upon themselves a death sentence. He is telling them to set aside their self-pride and self-dignity and take up shame, scorn, and condemnation in the eyes of the world. He is not instructing them that the Christian life is inconvenient or distracting. Rather He is telling them that the Christian life is in fact death. It is a death to self, death to the world, a forsaking of all that is dear to them in exchange for the promise of heaven. We need not fear shame and death because we have all we need in Christ and it is impossible to follow Him and hang onto any sense of worldly dignity because the two are mutually exclusive. Those who save their lives by denying Him will lose their lives and those who give up their lives for Him will gain eternal life.

I pray today that the Lord would grant to us all the grace and faith to forsake all the world has and to take up our crosses and follow Him. We may not be faced with physical death as so many of our brothers and sisters around the world now and in the past but we must be dead to the world with all hope in Christ. I pray that you and I never have to face physical death for our faith but I also pray that the gospel would be of such value to us that we would not hesitate should our lives be required for it. For us bearing a cross is no burden, it is an honor that we praise God for knowing that because of The Cross we have life though we die.

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