"Untitled." Image by Daniele Oberti via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
What does the cross mean to you? You kind of have to figure that out before you can make sense of or preach on Jesus’ statement, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
When was the last time you asked yourself that question? Has your answer changed over time? When was the last time you asked what it means for Luke? For Matthew? For Mark? For John? For Paul? The New Testament does not have a uniform answer to what the cross means -- and we should not preach a harmonized one either.
And, when was the last time you asked your parishioners -- what does the cross mean to you? Do they reply with a “churchy” response? Do they assume they should offer a confessional answer, the “correct” answer? Do they respond to the question with another question, “Aren’t we supposed to believe that it means something about suffering, something about forgiveness of sins?” Or, do we preach an invitation to conversation and dialogue about what the cross might mean, just as the New Testament represents and to which it gives witness?
For Luke, what does it mean to carry your cross? It could mean to carry the burdens of those from whom Jesus releases burdens. It could mean to carry the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized, even when that action might lead to your own oppression. If the cross is only a means for your salvation, then you’ve missed Jesus’ point, especially because in Luke 14 the cross hasn’t happened yet. Carrying the cross at this juncture has to be in the context of what has come before, not cast in the hindsight of our theology, confessions, and traditions. Carrying your cross cannot only be located in suffering and sacrifice when the biblical witness suggests otherwise.
Of course, most titles offered for this passage are “the cost of discipleship.”
But, is it really a cost? Or a choice? Thanks, Deuteronomy 30:19. When it’s all about cost, it’s all about what you give up. What you sacrifice. What you deny. When faith is cast as cost, we become rather ignorant of the fact that life itself is costly, not just faith. Life is full of choices, of counting the costs, weighing the costs. The cross is not unique but representative of what life is. To carry your cross is to carry the choices and burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment -- a commitment to a way of life that is committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus.
What a different way of being it would be if the cross were a way of choosing life and not fixated on death. In fact, if Luke is right, carrying the cross might result in life for another. This is not to say Jesus’ death doesn’t matter. It’s to push how and why it matters. How is the cross, especially for Luke, flying in the face of empire? A promise that God’s seeing us does not end in our death and burial? A certainty that release of the captives is a past, present, and future reality, but that that future depends on our choice to carry the cross of Jesus?
So, carrying your cross is a choice and ironically, it is a choice for life and not death. But here is the challenge. We tend toward saying the cross is a choice for life because it leads to resurrection. Yes. And no. Yes, this is what God has done -- undone death for the sake of life forever. But no, if that reality has no bearing on your present. Otherwise we ignore the plight of the disciples, of Jesus’ first followers. Just because we are privy to a post-resurrection perspective of the cross, does not mean we should impart it on those first believers.
Dear Working Preachers, imagine: if the cross is choosing life, how can the fullness of a life of discipleship give witness to such a decision? Believe me, if you preach this, you will change, and perhaps for the better, what the cross means for people. There will be resistance -- Jesus was escorted to a cliff, after all. The women were told their witness of the empty tomb was an “idle tale,” or in common parlance, a load of crap. There will be people who will say -- you are a heretic, you have a questionable soteriology, you have eschewed and abandoned acceptable atonement theories.
Or, you will have people say -- you have released me. You have freed me to imagine what the cross means for me now, not just for my future. You have done to me what Jesus said he would do (Luke 4). Pastor, yes, I will carry the cross.