The cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. Crosses are placed on top of steeples, adorn altars and are often worn by those who want to be identified as followers of Jesus. Even those churches that shun the display of stained glass windows and icons, will usually have a cross on display in their sanctuaries.
Yet sometimes I wonder if the cross has become too familiar to us.
Has our prominent display of the cross caused us to forget that Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him? Do we see the cross and think only of Christ’s death and resurrection? While I do not want to discourage meditations on the cross or giving thanks for the offering of Jesus on the cross, we cannot stop there. Jesus calls us to let the cross shape our living.
In Matthew 10.38-39 Jesus says, “Whoever does not pick up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” I confess that the paradox of the last line often overwhelms me and causes me to forget the call to pick up the cross. Thinking about how finding our life leads to losing it while losing it for Jesus causes us to find life makes my head hurt. Rather than trying to understand that, much less live it, I move on to things that seem easier to understand like loving God and my neighbor. And in the process, I often leave the cross there too.
Yet trying to love God and neighbor without the cross leads to trying to find life on my own. I find my limits for love growing shorter and shorter. I love when I feel like it, on my terms. When I am feeling good and have some extra time available, I will gladly offer it to God. When I meet someone who brings joy and comfort to my life, I will love them. But when someone disagrees with me or acts in ways that I interpret as mean or ugly, I withhold love. If there are too many demands on my time, I feel paying attention to God is an intrusion on my day; maybe I will feel more like loving God tomorrow. Before I know it, this life of love I have set out to live has gone fleeting away.
The cross calls me to love when I do not feel like it, when the person I am asked to love may not meet my conditions. The cross calls me to abandon my terms, my requirements that have to be met before love will be offered. More importantly, the cross calls me to enter into pain and brokenness in the world, especially when it is not my pain and suffering. To follow Jesus in taking up the cross means to take on the brokenness of others. And by losing “my life” through the cross, I gain the life Jesus offers to his followers.
The cross calls us to enter suffering and pain with the love God offers the world. As Parker Palmer writes in The Promise of Paradox, the cross is not the creation of pain and suffering; it is the willingness to enter the pain and suffering that already exist in the world: “The way of the cross is often misunderstood as masochistic, especially in an age so desperately in search of pleasure. But the suffering of which Jesus spoke is not the suffering that unwell people create for themselves. Instead, it is the suffering already present in the world, which we can either identify with or ignore” (pp.32-3, Josey-Bass, 2008). One way leads to life and one way will cause us to lose it.