As mainline denominations continue to decline, losing relevance in a society identifying as having “no [religious] affiliation,” the literature on Church self-help continues to fill the shelves. Focus on the salvation of membership, the books claim, to accelerate padding the roles. Preach a Gospel of comfort, about a Jesus who welcomes us all into his kingdom of ease. But above all else, get rid of the cross. Unchain it from your necks, eliminate it from your logos and unhang it from your sanctuaries.
Still, the book we gather our lives around, the Bible, says the opposite and so does a third of Mark’s gospel. Why then can’t we avoid carrying the cross of Christ?
Mark 8:31-38 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The cross gives us a chance to participate in a cause greater than ourselves.
If the cross is ultimately about self-giving, then we stop living out of our selfishness.
The cross takes us to places of suffering we would never go on our own.
Tom Long recounts an article in the Wall Street Journal about a California congregation that went to the local zoning commission with plans for a new church building, only to be shocked to find in the meeting dozens of their neighbors protesting against the church’s plans. As one of them said, “A new church building will just generate traffic and noise.” Another said, “I don’t want to get up in the morning and look out of my window and see a church. I want to see the mountains, not a cross.” So they reached a compromise. The congregation redesigned their church so that it looked like a split-level house, like all the other houses on the street. And they placed a tiny cross discreetly over the doorway so that no one would ever be bothered by the church.
This would be so much more civilized if we could just warm ourselves in the glory of a Jesus who plays with the kids and protects the sheep, who does a good deed and tells an entertaining tale, and requires absolutely nothing of his disciples.
Why can’t we avoid carrying the cross?
Because Christianity should always be a bother, and following Jesus a burden. The cross is God’s great revelation, a holy locator of where foreheads are being pierced and hands are being nailed and bodies are being bloodied.
X marks the spot of cruciform living:
I will lose my life so that others can find theirs.
I will stand against the empires of hatred, violence and sin.
I will live in the shadow of Calvary until the dawn of his return.
I believe the exemplar of our discipleship is a criminal who dragged a tree to his grave.
No one in Mark’s gospel ever did pick up the cross. Perhaps that’s because the writer intended us to.