Many years ago, as a teenager, we were visiting my aunt and uncle, who happen to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but my aunt asked me why I was wearing a cross? At least I think that’s what she asked me, before asking me if I would wear an electric chair around my neck? Now, there’s a long and involved story about how Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the cross, but my aunt did raise a good question. Since crosses are a popular form of jewelry even among non-Christians, what meaning does the cross have for us as Christians? What does it mean for us to have as the symbol of our faith an implement of execution?
Not long after Peter made the Good Confession, received a new name, and the keys to God’s realm, Jesus brought up his future plans. He told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die at the hands of the religious and cultural authorities. That message didn’t sit well with Peter. If Jesus is the messiah and the son of the living God, then dying in Jerusalem makes no sense. In Peter’s mind, the kingdom of God had to be glorious, so what did Jesus mean when he spoke of being killed and then raised on the third day? So Peter rose up and sternly rebuked Jesus: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” Speaking for the rest of his colleagues, he told Jesus that they would protect him. While I’m sure Jesus appreciated the gesture, he let Peter know he was standing on the wrong side of history.
One rebuke deserves another, and so Jesus rebuked Peter, declaring in the strongest of terms: “Get, behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble.” I like the way that the Common English Bible renders this response, because it pairs Peter’s name—the rock on which Jesus will build the church—with the word stone, upon which Jesus might stumble. When Jesus speaks of Satan, he’s not suggesting that Peter is the devil-incarnate. Instead, Jesus is telling him that in making this suggestion, he was opposing Jesus’ sense of mission. Peter’s problem was that he was still thinking in terms of Jesus being a warrior-messiah who would come and rule like David. Dying on a cross isn’t the proper path to glory.
If Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, as we proclaim him to be, what role does the cross play in our lives? Is it merely the means by which payment is made for our crimes and misdemeanors, so we can go on with life as usual? Is it merely a piece of jewelry that is fashionable to wear around our necks? Or is it an instrument of death that Jesus invites us to pick up and carry ourselves? Is it necessary for us to die in order to live?
Years ago, when I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, the message I took from that book was: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The more recent translation has cleaned up the masculine language, but the message I took from that book was that if you’re a disciple of Jesus you have to die to yourself. Over the years, I’ve discovered that this isn’t easy to do. In the earliest days of the church, being a Christian was dangerous, because Christianity wasn’t a legal religion. That was due in large part to their refusal to honor the divinity of the emperor. That is, while they would pay their taxes, they wouldn’t pledge allegiance to Caesar. When Constantine embraced Christianity, things changed. Since the emperor was a Christian, it made sense to join his new religion. If being Christian has cultural and social benefits, then the cross loses its meaning. It simply becomes a decoration.
Now, there were Christians who took Jesus’ message quite seriously. Some of them went out in the desert and lived as hermits or simply joined a monastery, where they could devote their lives to God. Some of them embraced severe forms of asceticism, like wearing hair-shirts and whipping their backs until they bled in imitation of Jesus’ own suffering. Since I’m not given to asceticism or self-flagellation, what does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
As we ponder these questions, I need to say that I don’t think Jesus wants us to zealously seek out suffering or death. This isn’t a call for martyrdom. I know that texts like this have been used to encourage women, the poor, and other marginalized people to accept their suffering on behalf of Christ. I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind. After all, Jesus spent much of his ministry alleviating suffering.
While I don’t believe Jesus wants us to court suffering, we may find that if we follow the way of Jesus we won’t be as popular with friends and family. But, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, the suffering of the cross stems from “being rejected for the sake of Jesus Christ, not for the sake of any other attitude or confession” [Discipleship, 4:86]. In other words, simply being obnoxious in the name of Christ isn’t what Bonhoeffer or Jesus had in mind.
It’s good to remember that Bonhoeffer’s concerns emerged out of his experiences living under Nazi rule. He watched as many Christians embraced a form of Christianity that gave support to Hitler’s nationalistic vision. To Bonhoeffer, writing in 1936, as a thirty-year-old theology teacher, this was “a Christianity that no longer took discipleship seriously” and “remade the gospel into only the solace of cheap grace” [Discipleship 4:86]. In other words, nationalism replaced the Gospel at the heart of the church.
Jesus understood his mission to include the cross, but he also pointed the way to the resurrection. Remember that he told Peter that the “gates of Hades” wouldn’t prevail against the church. I know we worry about the state of the church. We worry about the decline of the church’s influence in our society. We worry about the declining membership and attendance in our churches. But, Jesus promises that death will not have the final say, but, Jesus also says that the path leading to the realm of God involves taking up the cross.
So, what does taking up the cross involve? There is a term that might help us answer this question. That word is “cruciform.” There are a growing number of people who speak of the gospel and the church as being cruciform. I believe that what they have in mind is moving beyond simply seeing the cross as payment for human sin. Instead, as Bonhoeffer wrote, we are disciples of Jesus as we participate in the crucifixion. “Discipleship as allegiance to the person of Jesus Christ places the follower under the law of Christ, that is under the cross” [Discipleship, 4:85]. Giving allegiance to Jesus means letting go of our lives, so that God can guide us forward into the future. To be cruciform is to take on a new identity in Christ.
Even before I arrived at Central Woodward, this congregation was talking about being missional. When I asked the search committee why they would even discuss bringing me from California to Michigan, someone said that the church wanted a pastor who would help them become missional and be engaged in ministry to the community, and they thought I might help this congregation move forward in this calling. This is where being cruciform comes into play.
We don’t talk much about spiritual warfare in mainstream Protestant churches. It’s something that reasonable Christians stay away from. Yet, this is what it means to be a community of wholeness in a fragmented world. Richard Beck defines spiritual warfare in terms of “self-giving, self-donating, and sacrificial love.” He writes that “spiritual warfare is the constant battle to maintain this cruciform shape in a world pushing a very different pattern upon us, a world trying to squeeze us into a very different sort of mold” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 92]. Engaging in spiritual warfare as a cruciform community involves a commitment to love and kindness in a “world that is cold, lonely, and mean.” To put it more succinctly, “love is scarce, so be true to love.” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 93].
Right now, as I look out at our communities, our nation, our world, it does seem cold, lonely, and mean. Yes, we’re seeing people reach out to help the people caught up in the flooding and hurricane damages in southeast Texas, but how long will this last before we get back to that cold, lonely, and mean world that seems so ever present? I believe that if we’re willing to allow Jesus to form us in the shape of the cross, then we can be that movement of wholeness in a fragment world. If we choose to pick up this cross of Jesus, then we can be expressions of God’s loving presence in what often appears to be a cold, lonely, and mean world.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 2, 2017