"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:38). What does the word "any" mean? Is it really impossible to be a Christian without this kind of radical commitment? And Jesus adds "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" (8:35).
I am going to define a cross as "pain accepted voluntarily for a greater cause." So cross taking is "a voluntary commitment to a course of action that could be painful, and in which you easily be crucified (used metaphorically)" Jesus is not talking about involuntary suffering say as a result of a genetic condition. He expressly says "If any want to become." That means a choice is involved. Nobody is forced into Jesus' kind of cross taking. And he is not saying that cross taking is necessary for making it to heaven.
There is another kind of cross that is forced upon one by life's circumstances. A person is paralyzed by a car accident or by cancer. In such cases there is a choice to accept the situation with courage and joy, or to choose to spend one's life making known's one's resentment.
A woman who commits herself to having a baby is nailed to a cross which includes nine months of discomfort, and the trauma of childbirth. She also knows that this will be followed by the costly pain of caring for the child day and night for many weary months.
So taking up a cross is a very common experience in many areas of life. To see how this works out in Christian commitment let's look at three risks of cross taking, which all sorts of ordinary people voluntarily engage in.
The Cross of Challenge Climbing mountains is a tough risky challenge. The early slopes may be easy, but soon you will be dangling on a rope above a precipice. But when they gather for a drink after a very hazardous situation mountain climbing enthusiasts only remember the thrill of the climb. Undertaking to climb Mount Everest inevitably involves pain and exhaustion and a very strong risk of death. And nobody has much sympathy for a mountain climber who quits half way to the summit. "It was cold up there, every muscle ached, and I had to share a pup tent with a guy who snored and called me a meathead."
Similarly there is an exciting challenge for those who choose to follow Jesus the Messiah. But does not make it easy. "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:38). And nobody is impressed when a Christian says "I found the going too hard, it interfered with my other interests, and somebody in church called me a dingbat. I am quitting."
The Cross of Love There is a cross in any kind of loving. If you love anyone, you will inevitably get hurt. There is a cross in having children. If we love them with all our heart, they can deliberately or carelessly hurt us very badly. Commitment to marriage also involves a commitment to a loss of freedom, possible disappointment, and very great risk. Forty-seven years ago Mollie agreed to marry me. We had been in the same Hindi language class in India, and had met on social occasions, but we got engaged on our first date. She was leaving the next day for the hospital she worked at hundreds of miles away. She certainly took a very dangerous risk in committing herself.. The first ten years were often rough, and I hope I am a bit less of a male chauvinist now than when we began. But she has stuck with me "for better for worse, for richer for poorer."
As we follow Jesus the Messiah, he will say "Now I want you to learn the cross of loving enemies." That does not mean getting walked over. With enemies we certainly have to defend ourselves. During a war, according to the Geneva Convention, each side is allowed to shoot at the other, but as soon as enemy soldiers hold up their hands or run up a white flag we are protect them, feed them, lovingly tend their wounded. As Christians we will add that, even though they have been our enemies, we love them as friends and neighbors. To say "I will never forgive my enemy" is a total rejection of Jesus cross of love.
Perhaps the cross is most painful when we commit ourselves to loving other church members in our congregation. It is easy to remember words that hurt us, to gossip about failures, to reject those who come in to take our place in leadership positions. One woman I knew was told "Why don't you go back to your own church? We don't need you here."
Some people decide that the only way to avoid getting hurt is to stop loving. They withdraw into a shell, and decide to avoid any kind of loving and being loved. But as Jesus said immediately after the words about taking up our cross, "Those who want to save their life will lose it" (Mark 8:35). By refusing the risk of loving, we end up losing everything. On the other hand "Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (8:35). The way of love is to count the cost of knowing that in any kind of loving we will get hurt, and settling, as Jesus did, that it is OK to be hurt. When the willingness to be hurt becomes the joy of our life, then we are freed to love and be loved.
But God does not dictate to us what kind of loving we must engage in. "Here are a hundred different areas and ways in which you could invest your loving. You choose." We don't all have to work among the dying like Mother Theresa, or work with the handicapped, or among drug addicts. We can invest in loving our family, our neighbors, work among young people, in our community, our city or country. Mollie and I chose to go and work in India for eleven years. God says "You decide how and where to invest your loving. And whatever you choose will be painful and risky. But if you reject the risk of loving, your life has already terminated."
The Cross of a Great Cause With mountain climbing, or going to the North Pole, it is the challenge that grabs people. But it is the importance of a great cause that moves those who volunteer to risk their lives for their country. Martin Luther King took up the cause of his own black people, and in gaining for them their civil rights as American citizens he was martyred. There are also bad causes that people are willing to risk their life in. A person becomes a hit man for the Mafia. Those who joined the IRA to kill and set off bombs are still refusing to lay down their arms. And Hitler had hundreds of thousands of Nazi men and women who were willing to engage in his very bad cause. The causes that humans think up all fail and turn sour after a few years. The one cause that never turns sour is the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is the Messiah King of that eternal kingdom. And I have never ever met anyone who regretted serving Him and the one great cause that has heavenly consequences.
So he invites us to take up the cross of challenge, the cross of loving
and being loved, and the cross of the great cause that brings the freedom
of love to men and women everywhere.