“If anyone wishes to follow me,” Jesus says according to the Gospel writers, “he must deny himself, shoulder his cross, and follow.” We have sanitized the Cross. We’ve created gold ones that we hang around our necks and symbols of sentimentality. We have artists draw ornamented ones using needles on our skin. We have made the Cross a representation of the beauty of art, rather than the ugliness of death. We’ve tamed the Cross. To us it now represents a set of beliefs, a gift people give to each other, a weekend worship service. It represents an idea, a philosophy, a way of thinking, an association, a community, a society.
“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27
“That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of men is false to the Bible and cruel to the souls of its hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world, it intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our old life up onto a higher plane; we leave it at the cross. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die. We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.” A. W. Tozer
None of these things are what Jesus had in mind when he demanded those who would follow him be prepared to carry their own. And neither did the Cross represent the little frustrations or inconveniences we often label as ‘the crosses we must bear.’ A baby is born with an ailment. That’s my ‘cross to bear,’ I’ve heard someone say. A co-worker is a nuisance at the office… that’s my ‘cross to bear.’ This isn’t what Jesus had in mind either.
The heart behind the call to carry one’s cross is very simply a call to die. To the ancient audience, the Cross only meant one thing: a brutal death that was reserved for rebels, foreigners, and criminals. It meant public humiliation and ridicule. It meant blood, ripped tissue, and torn flesh. It meant broken legs and suffocation. It meant hanging naked for the world to see, body parts and all. It meant abandonment by friends and family. It meant being cursed in the sight of God. Its savagery was undeniable, unparalleled, and unquestioned.
The Cross represents violent death. It represents ends, not beginnings. Those who pick up their cross know full well that they are marching to the death. It is the great leveler of human souls. It is an abandonment of all personal desires, dreams, plans, and initiatives. It always deals a brutally violent blow to the one who carries it. Any pride they possessed before is nailed to it. Its splinters dig deeply into the backs and the consciences of its carriers.
But to those who accept the invitation to die find that in dying, they truly live. Those that submit to the slavery of the cross of Jesus find that in denying themselves, they are set free. Those who surrender to the defeat which it represents emerge from is brutality in unconquerable victory. Those who carry its rugged wood through their lives, dying publicly exposed in weakness, are raised back to life in the strength, power, and glory. It is God’s great paradox. It is the mark of a disciple of Christ. It is God’s great Trojan Horse, in the words of Mark Buchanan, the gift the devil gleefully received that subversively would become his undoing.
So, echoing the words of the late A. W. Tozer, do not seek to tame the cross. Do not try and gild it with gold, or wear it around like a trinket or a good luck charm. See the cross for what it is: the same savage implementation of death that it always has been. Receive it unto yourself as the end of yourself. Embrace it with complete self-denial. Let it end you. Let your life be crucified upon it.
Let it slay you utterly …