It hasn't been overlooked...
In fact, it might be one of the most quoted things Jesus ever said:
I'm bringing this famous passage up for a specific reason, of course.
But it's impossible to not do a quick, general overview of it first - especially since it lays the groundwork for why I'm writing this. So before anything else, we orient the discussion:
For those who want to be with Jesus... to be close to him... to live and move and have their being within the scope of his nature, character, will and purpose... and to walk the path he's walking, as he establishes the parameters of the kingdom of God... the invitation he leaves us here is threefold:
1 ) D E N Y
All revolutions begin with what we might call "a great letting go." This requires the loss of something we believed to be normal - the laying aside of what we think we want (or even need). To deny ourselves, we disown a false self - the image of conformity handed to us by the broken systems which surround us. All of the insecurities that society, culture and religion have told us we have to embody, and all of the lies which have been whispered over us for as long as we can remember... we say "no" to them. We say "no" to the abuses and subjugations that we have been told are essential. We take a contrary position to the dominant way of being. We abstain from what we've been conditioned to chase after. We disregard what we have been told to demand for ourselves... And we become free to pursue something greater. Something more.
2 ) T A K E U P
This is the gaining of something new, the accepting of something to carry that is only made possible by the previous release of former things. Unshackled and unbound by what we've denied, we now find the strength to reach for something altogether different. This true and authentic concept of "repentance" (metanoia in Greek) comes into fruition. We have "thought again" and come to see everything differently. Between the letting go and the grasping of something new, a complete alteration of perception and perspective has taken place. Everything changes. The whole world is upside-down, and it has never looked better. Jesus tells Nicodemus that this is like being "born again," a rebirth which enables someone to see the kingdom... And we begin to take up new ideas, new values, new understandings and actions. All things remade. All things new. [Fear not: I'm being very general here on purpose. We'll come back to the part that concerns taking up THE CROSS specifically below.]
3 ) F O L L O W
Finally, a pattern emerges, and life readjusts to a new rhythm. This following means continued movement within this series of changes, velocity in this new paradigm, travel down this new path to a new world. The revolution in us gains traction and ground as we seek momentum through the Way of Jesus. As we follow, we are disciples - learners of his way of life, rather than mere converts to a set of beliefs. We learn how he speaks, and how he responds. Whom he comforts, and whom he confronts. We see him champion the outcasted and the marginalized, and applaud the faith of those thought to be "outside," and we see him challenge the respected and honored, and criticize the Powers That Be... whether religious or political.
We see him standing with the voiceless, the shamed, the feared and the rejected. We see him healing the untouchables and claiming oneness with the humiliated. We see him defending the condemned from the scorn and judgment of the religious. We see him breaking with tradition and constantly drawing people back to the heart of things. We see him reducing the religious law of his people to its essence while disagreeing with aspects of it. We see him lamenting the overemphasis on scripture by a people who lack the governing dynamic of his Father's nature to truly see it by the Spirit. We see him teaching and modeling enemy love and nonviolence, and contradicting the lawful prescription of retaliation. In short, we see him say and do many things which prove just as needful for 21st century Christianity as they were for 1st century Judaism... Which is to say, we see that Jesus remains a radical. To follow Jesus, then, means we are continually witnessing and being reminded of these things, and many more... We are evolving to perceive and think and speak and act within the very character of Christ. We are learning to see the world through the lens of Jesus, and transforming to live accordingly.
So Jesus' invitation will always be relevant.
It will always remain wondrously full of depth.
It will always be worthy of our examination.
But it's also pretty strange, you know.
It is precisely in the examining of Jesus' words that we notice something odd about them. And because of our familiarity with the overall story, it's the kind of thing we might even overlook completely... despite having heard this saying of Jesus quoted a lot.
The thing is...
When Jesus said that whoever wanted to follow him must "take up his own cross," he said it more than a year before his own arrest, trial, and public execution... He said it more than a year before "the cross" as we know it was even a thing.
This means, then, that Jesus' primary intent here was not to talk about the atonement, or to point his listeners toward his "finished sacrificial work on the cross." Those hearing him simply did not think of crosses the way Christians today think of them. There was no way they could have at that point... So, as far as they knew, Jesus was speaking to them about Rome's preferred device of death for political prisoners... and that's all. Because Jesus himself had not yet been nailed to one.
The important question then becomes... "Why?" Why did Jesus mention the cross of Rome in this way?
Of course, you can answer that question like a good Sunday school kid and say, "Because Jesus knew what was going to happen to him," but if we're honest, how can that be a fully satisfying answer? I don't disagree that Jesus knew where his life would lead, but so long as the people hearing him in that place and time did not also comprehend the same thing, the problem remains. Otherwise, you have a Jesus who just says things without even trying to be understood, knowing some day they'll be written down for people they actually apply to. We'll call him "Posterity Jesus." And Posterity Jesus strikes me as pretty inept and contrived. He's unable to be fully relevant to the context he chose to actually inhabit. Posterity Jesus just travels around saying things "for the record."
Now, you might say that they weren't ready to understand at that point, and Posterity Jesus was still "putting the message out there" anyway... and that's not impossible to see as a part of what is taking place... but it still can't be the whole picture. It may add a dimension, but it simply can't be all there is to it. How do I know? BECAUSE JESUS IS NOT JUST SPEAKING GENERALLY OF "A CROSS" OR EVEN "THE CROSS." HE IS INSTRUCTING THOSE WHO FOLLOW HIM AT THAT MOMENT TO TAKE UP THEIR OWN CROSSES.
And that's important, because it means he expects them to be able to do something with those words. It means he is not just speaking for the record. He believes that what he's saying to has tangible meaning right then and there.
You might even say he expects what he says to have the potential to make all the difference in the world to any number of people physically there listening to him.
When I consider something like this, it reminds me that we seem to have a general problem with detaching and disembodying a lot of biblical texts in this way. To be clear, I don't think it's fair to read things Jesus said as though he was really talking to us, while merely letting the people around him think that what he said carried real meaning for them. We do that with a lot of what Jesus says, and it makes Jesus into an aloof and rude person. We have people being really vulnerable with him, asking him deep and heartfelt questions as though their lives depend on his answer... and we read his responses as though he was just letting them assume he cared to answer them, when really, he was winking at us the whole time! We've built some pretty serious doctrines that way, and seen some pretty serious consequences over the past forty years as a result.
...As Bible interpretation goes, this is pretty narcissistic, to say the least. And yet, as a people within a very influential subculture, many of us have been encouraged to read the Bible precisely in this way - as though it was written to us directly and not merely preserved for us. As though we were the primary audience, while the people who actually lived and died to witness everything in the pages of scripture were just tools in delivering us our "love letter from God." It's like we make ourselves the center of everything. We read a passage and try to "apply it to our lives" before even bothering to understand what it meant to the people in it - living it and writing it. So we misread a lot of scripture in attempting to draw parallels before we even know what we'd be making a parallel in our own lives to.
Simply put: It's hard to see God in scripture when you are more interested in looking for yourself in it. You end up with a very distorted and selfish view of things.
When it comes to something like the passage we're looking at here, a better approach is to maintain that, when Jesus spoke to people in the gospels, what he said was supposed to matter and apply to them greatly.
In fact, they were his primary audience. Not you, and not me.
When it comes down to it, that's something we need to realize as we read the Bible, and even the gospels. It should go without saying that no one would have followed Jesus if he was always going around making his biggest statements to people who literally weren't there. He would have been (rightly) judged to be aloof and detached, and would never have been considered a threat to the religious or political establishment were that the case.
So what's fascinating to notice is that, even apart from his own death, Jesus was already framing his empire as contrary to the empires of this world. And, in an incredibly powerful way, he was making an example of the cross long before he was put on one to be made an example of.
Jesus used the cross to make a point well before
Rome attempted to use one on him to make a point.
- The cross was the underside of the Roman Empire - a place where political prisoners were put to die in front of a crowd.
- The cross was Rome's ultimate judgment concerning what happens to those who oppose the absolute authority of Caesar.
- The cross was how Rome made an example of anyone who challenged the Imperium's status quo.
...AND AS FOR THAT EXAMPLE...
- It was designed to utterly humiliate those made to suffer on it, stripping away every last ounce of their human dignity.
- It was displayed to terrify those witnessing it - a calculated mechanism to keep them under control.
- It was intended to ensure that no one who saw its result would ever dream of defying Caesar, the "Savior of the world."
IT WAS IN THE PRACTICE OF CRUCIFIXION THAT ROME HEDGED HER OWN SECURITY.
IN CRUCIFIXION, SHE ENSURED THE COMPLETE "FAITH" OF HER PEOPLE WOULD BE MAINTAINED WITHOUT QUESTION.
So... consider this: "Jesus is Lord."
You could say this is the gospel in just three words. We understand it to be the definitive claim of the New Testament. And it is a statement that is loaded with social and political baggage. To anyone hearing it in the first century, it would be understood that, by default of saying "Jesus is Lord," you were saying Caesar is... not. But it doesn't end there. "Kingdom," "Gospel," "Son of God," and other crucial New Testament words and concepts were not invented by Jesus or the church. They were deliberately and poetically borrowed from the Roman establishment of power. This is part of why some people - Judas Iscariot, for example - misunderstood Jesus to such an epic degree, having expected an entirely different sort of politics and revolution from him. Judas followed his religious culture in the insistent belief that "Messiah" meant the violent overthrow of Rome and the restored military supremacy of the Jews. His rigid and narrowly literal view of scripture, prophecy, and the promises of God did not leave room for anything to be done outside of the way he had always assumed it would be. In the end, Judas was more interested in Solomon's kingdom than he was in the kingdom of Jesus. He wanted the absolute power and dominance back.
Just like many others who rejected Jesus, Judas didn't see a way to shatter Rome without becoming it... At least, not until it was too late, and he had already betrayed innocent blood.
Many Christians are in the same place today. However, rather than admit Jesus isn't what we expected and openly forsake him, we continue to use his name, and attempt to attach him to our tribalism and violence (among other things). Part of the reason we can do this so brazenly is because we've misunderstood Jesus in the opposite direction from the Jews. Essentially, we've misunderstood him from the other side of the cross. In neglecting to cling to the origin story of some of our most precious terms and concepts, we have allowed those same terms and concepts to become strictly religious.
Where first century Jews understood plainly that Jesus provided an alternative to Empire by the kinds of words he used and titles he took on... Modern Christians do not understand Jesus as an alternative to Empire for lack of the the very same understanding - having only a religious familiarity with those same things. And where many Jews expected Jesus to be some sort of violent revolutionary because of their misunderstanding of what they knew, many Christians today expect Jesus to be some sort of violent revolutionary because of their misunderstanding of what they do not know... That is some confusing stuff right there! (We'll make it less confusing soon - stick with me.) But it leaves us with a question:
What do we expect of Jesus? Who he is, or who we want him to be?
In asking this question, we realize all the more that the constructs and conceptions we place ourselves under are powerful things.
Our answers carry with them very real consequences.
...And we need some bigger answers.
All of this brings us back to what Jesus is talking about when he tells a group of people to "take up their own cross" to follow him a year before he has even been crucified. This is where one of those "bigger ideas" begins to take shape... For us specifically, when we view the cross entirely through the lens of its cosmic significance in something like the atonement, we forget that it should have a very real and tangible significance here and now. Our way of seeing and understanding the cross today contributes to our limiting it as we neglecting that fact. Reductively, we constrain the cross to solely what it has to say about something like eternity... and as a result diminish what it has to say currently - about empires, nations, governments, and whatever Powers That Be.
Which brings me to the bigger point: This statement of Jesus is more than a reference to his own atonement. It is more than an encouragement toward the laying down of their lives as an act of sacrifice in and of itself (which he'd already covered with "deny yourself" anyway)... Those are all important things... But it's MORE than those things. It has to be, or there's no reason for him to say it when he does, or to the people he says it to.
So, when Jesus says "take up your cross," he is telling them something very specific. He is using the "cross" of Rome to describe what it is they must carry as they follow him.
Jesus is saying that following him means
bearing the shame of Empire.
In doing so, he lays the groundwork for his own politics, because he gives us a glimpse of what life in his Way will entail in relation to the Powers. Rome is not the first, nor will it be the last. One of the most important things to understand when it comes to the entire Biblical narrative is this: "Babylon" takes a myriad of shapes throughout history (and to this day), but the essence of it remains the same. And Jesus informs those who wish to follow him of something important. Namely, that following him will mean counting the cost of the Empire's response first. And not just in a "one defining moment" sort of way, but in a "daily" way.
It's worth reminding ourselves that carrying a cross is not the mark of your private suffering for your "personal lord and savior." It's not something you can do without being noticed, because it's not something you do privately at all. When you carry a cross, you are put on display as a public example, and strategically paraded before your culture in order to demonstrate what happens to those who end up on the wrong side of the authorities... It has become hard for us to remember this because we have cultural mindsets that get in the way. There are things we say - for example, "It's just my cross to bear" - which actually run contrary to the whole meaning of crosses and the historic purpose they served. So we must remind ourselves that the cross is not our own quiet trials and suffering. The cross is more like a national billboard marking the reproach and shame we suffer for all to see. It is a rallying cry of propaganda, declaring to our peers why we are so dangerous to their way of life and all they assume to be "normal."
You see, the cross is not just an instrument of death. The cross is - to be more specific - an instrument of death at the hands of the political and social order.
That's an important distinction.
Further, the cross is not an altar in a temple where sacrifice has been required by a loving god. The cross is the altar of a power establishment where sacrifice has been demanded by hateful man... In his own death on the cross, Jesus would reveal fully what Empire and corrupt religion truly worshiped in exposing the altar of their sacrifice. He would bring to light the truth of where their real temples were, and present the true cost of their "peace." But even before all of that happened, he was telling those with him that following him would mean they too would be at odds with the Roman establishment... And yet, Jesus doesn't warn them to run from this, or even to fight it directly. He says to embrace it. To transcend it. He is telling them they have the power - not over, but under the authorities. He is telling them that what was designed to mock and shame them should be lifted and carried willingly.
All of this is important groundwork to understanding the shock that the New Testament story presented to a first century mind. But since we are prone to reminding ourselves of Jesus' Jewish context far more often than his Roman one, we are likely just as prone to missing out on half of the scandal he presented.
So there is no other honest, contextual way to frame it. Modern religion has obscured the truth:
THE CROSS ITSELF IS POLITICAL, ABSOLUTELY... And yet, because of Jesus, it is not political on Rome's terms... and Rome will not have the last word.
As we look contextually into what Jesus' original statement meant to those around him, we can begin to draw better parallels of what he might mean for us. Once we have recognized that Jesus had a primary meaning beyond our vague generalizations, we can then imply ourselves by that deeper meaning... We need only commit to not immediately trying to draw application before we've earned it.
TO ME, IT IS RESONANT THAT JESUS SAID WE SHOULD DENY OURSELVES, TAKE UP OUR OWN CROSS, AND FOLLOW HIM.
He does not say "take up MY cross" or even "take up THE cross," both of which might lead us to a more general understanding of his implication. (Actually, that seems to be the exact direction we hear people take it in when they quote it anyway.)
But take up YOUR cross? That's Jesus - brilliantly - contextualizing each of us in our own Imperial moment ahead of time. The cross was the instrument of the Roman Empire for making an example of political prisoners and misfits. "This is what happens when you defy lord Caesar." That's what a cross meant in the first century. What Jesus said ensured traction and velocity beyond concepts and ideas to all with ears to hear... To understand that "cross," we must journey to truly know the principalities and Powers-That-Be which have so framed our understanding and defined the lenses through which we perceive all else.
We must look around us for the "Rome" that we take for granted, so that we can understand which things are equivalent to "the cross" now.
Taking up your cross will always include enemy love and sacrifice. And it will always entail absorbing the worst insult the social order has to offer while refusing to retaliate or stoop to that level ourselves... But the way we engage what it means to "take up" in our own time will also offer some variance, too. History has bore witness to this, in how different voices in the wilderness have been challenged by the powers and authorities of their own contexts - even when the Imperial Power was/is Christendom. Many of our faithful brothers and sisters have bore their "crosses" and lived on as though already resurrected, becoming part of the fabric of our own consciousness and story.
...And the cross is really the tip of the iceberg. "Kingdom." "Faith." "Lord." "Savior." "Son of God." Today, all of these are safe, religious words. But in the first century, they were all very much politically-charged - dangerous terms for the early church to use and champion. The early church did not invent this vocabulary... but in using it, they were speaking the truth to power.
Along these lines, the Greek word euaggelion - which we render as "gospel," meaning "good news" (and from which we get our words "evangelize" and "evangelical"), did not begin as a Christian term of announcement. It was, like so many others mentioned above, borrowed from the Roman Imperium. As a common word from their culture, to euaggalizó was to announce the "good news" of Rome's victories. When Rome's conquests yielded expansion of the Roman empire through new lands, resources, taxes and peoples, this was cause for proclaiming the "good news" of "the kingdom." Someone would go out into the streets and propagandize exactly that.
So it becomes all the more beautiful to see Jesus' people using "good news" to tell the story of God's kingdom expanding and including everyone, and doing so through love rather than the subjugation of violence and war...
But this is not how you make Rome happy.
In "good news," just as in "the cross," we find there is a political element which reaches beyond our distinctions of "Left" or "Right" or "liberal" or "conservative" within Empire. In fact, it's the sort of political element which transcends the typical discussion, presenting a third way which questions the assumptions of Empire itself. And when Jesus said that to come after him would mean taking up our own cross, he ensured that his followers would forever be drawing parallels and finding resonance despite their differing contexts.
But the cross has gone on a tremendous journey over the past 2000 years, hasn't it?
It's fascinating, if you think about it. The cross went from being:
- the underside of the Roman empire, controlling the people through fear and dishonor, to being
- the trophy of the early church in its power to subvert Rome - as followers of Jesus embraced it in nonviolent resistance, to being
- a religious icon of affiliation, within the institution of Christianity as it came to power and dominance (at which point the cross WAS Empire, and that was just 350 years or so after Jesus... let that sink in for a moment), to being
- the lynchpin of Reformation-era atonement theology (which was an improvement, but still kept the cross as a detached concept rather than a tangible reality within society), to
- its place today within good, old timey western religion, and
- its convenient familiarity adorning religious buildings, necklaces, bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc.
We have lost touch with Jesus' political dynamic in parading the Roman cross, and as a result, we have lost touch with our own potential Imperial moment. This entry has gone on long enough, and there is no space to even begin developing specifically what it means for each of us to reclaim that Imperial moment, but I do believe that this is a rediscovery we must ultimately make, and a process we must undergo... And that all begins at the place of opening our eyes.
Jesus says that to see the kingdom (which is always at hand and in our midst) requires a new birth within us. Christianity is not excluded from needing that new birth. Before we can reclaim something better or greater concerning the cross, we must reckon with what has become of it.
So first, we recognize this:
The cross no longer represents what it once did
to the people of the world.
It now rests comfortably within an isolated bubble of Christendom and Christian teaching on salvation. We remember it now merely for what happens on it (someone dies), and not so much what it means to those using it or witnessing it, and what they associate it with in relation to the Powers around them.
Where the cross began prophetically and politically to expose the authorities... it became a Constantinian icon of authority. Where it began as something forced upon peaceful dissidents being treated like violent agitators, it became something used by a power establishment still claiming (absurdly) to be a part of their same faith lineage. Where it began as a tangible reality, dynamically intertwined with the world they knew firsthand, it became merely an intangible thing God was using to settle some cosmic score - outside of this world and its systems.
Essentially, the cross went from being something we bore on our backs as we followed Jesus for his glory, to being something we bore on our shields as we ran from him - toward our own conquests and glory. From being the device of our own sacrifice at the hands of the Powers, to being the device we used to subjugate and sacrifice others as an exercise of our own power. It mutated - from the symbol of the revolution to the symbol of yet another establishment, and from something which proclaims "Jesus is Lord," to something which reinforces that Caesar is.
The Imperial Order used the cross to accuse Jesus and many of his people of sedition, treason, insurrection... terrorism. And the early Christians wore that as a badge of honor. They submitted to it without violence or retaliation, and yet found the true victory. A powerful and unstoppable expression of Jesus' church expanded around them. The cross, for them, was a fellowship of sufferings. But for those Christians today moving to assert their power and cause suffering with the cross as their banner? ...My, how far we have come.