“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Matthew 16:22).
If Jesus had lived in the deep south in the years following the Civil War, His “cross” probably would have been a rope around his neck and His crucifixion a lynching. If he’d been preaching among Polish Jews around 1940, the cross would have been a gas chamber. Depending on when and where Jesus might have lived and whom He riled (as, sooner or later, he would have), the nails that fixed Him to a piece of wood might have been replaced by leather straps holding in an electric chair. Regardless of the method used, Jesus would have died a criminal’s death, not a hero’s death.
We can see now why Peter reacted to Jesus as he did. For Peter, a cross was too terrible a prospect to consider, if not out and out nonsense. Jesus was the One his people had been waiting on; Jesus was the King. Hadn’t Peter just told him? Hadn’t Jesus agreed with Peter? Kings go out in a blaze of glory — if they go out at all. And so Peter quite naturally balks at the notion of a lynching: “Now hold on, waitaminit!” And Jesus says, “No, you hold on.” He then proceeds to turn all conventional wisdom on its ear (Matthew 16:24-26).
What is Jesus telling us? Is he saying that we can’t follow Him without dying violently at the hands of unbelievers? Must disciples be martyrs? Some must read the text that way. In Saudi Arabia, it’s a capitol crime to confess Christ. If you preach in Laos, you’ll end up preaching in jail — if you’re still able after they break your jaw. Chinese worshippers watch the door as anxiously as some American worshippers watch the clock. I imagine these people filter Jesus’ words through bruises and soreness: “‘Carry the cross’? Of course. This is what it means to be His disciple.”
Thankfully, violent persecution isn’t happening everywhere. It isn’t happening in western Europe or Britain or the U.S. — yet. Nevertheless, if we follow Him, sooner or later we’ll pay a price. I remember a boy in high school. He was one of the nicest fellows I knew — and I gave him a wide berth. We all did. Because he wore work clothes and blockish work shoes and out of his shirt pocket bulged a well-thumbed red Gideon New Testament. At lunch hour, we left him to preach and sing with his tiny band of disciples. They were harmless enough, we all agreed — so long as we stayed away from them. If somebody got too close, he’d be smudged with their holiness. To wear that mark was to invite ridicule.
Is Jesus then telling us to wear funny clothes and preach during lunch? Not necessarily. But here’s a better question: When Jesus does tell us to do something, will we do it? Whatever else Jesus means by “take up his cross and follow me,” he surely must mean He’s the Leader, not us.
In the movie Rudy, a young man is anxious to play on the Notre Dame football team. He goes to a Catholic priest to ask his advice. “In thirty years of theological study,” the priest says, “I’ve discovered two things: There is a God. I’m not Him!”
If only Jesus would take my advice! I’ve given it to him for years and it’s so good! I tell Him that if He lets me fall flat on my face, He won’t be glorified! What does He do? He lets me fall flat on my face! I tell him that if I don’t get what I want when I want it, I can’t praise Him. I know he wants me to praise Him. So why won’t He give me what I want? I tell him I need power and influence so that His will can be done on the earth. He laughs at me! Why?
I guess it’s because He’s God . . . and I’m not. Jesus is the Leader, and we’re not. If we choose to follow Him, that is.
To carry a cross, then, will sometimes lead to frustration. It will be like having our arms bound when we want to swing them; like having our feet fixed when we want to walk and run.
So why would anybody want to carry a cross? If you’ve followed Him a long time, you probably know why: Being able to help ourselves doesn’t mean that we will. Being free doesn’t mean that we will stay free.
I was never a good student. In fact, I was lazy. I didn’t want to study because study seemed like work and I didn’t want to work. What did I do? Instead of studying, I threw snowballs and paddled on the lake. And I failed the class. Now I was free, right? I wish. I had to take Biology all over again. I had to get up early and drag myself to the same old boring class. I had no choice but to study. Whereas, a semester before, study had felt like leather straps binding me to my chair, now it felt like nails pinning me to wood. I’d helped myself to what I wanted, and I’d found that Self-Help is no help at all. I’d saved myself for myself — and ended up kicking myself.
We’re afraid to deny ourselves for Christ’s sake. Why? Because we’re afraid we will be cramped or hurt. We know (or think we know) what we’re running from, but what are we running to? In a word, frustration. We give as much of our time as we think we can spare — and gripe about how our efforts go unappreciated. We give as much money as we think we can afford — and resent it. On the outside, we’re bubbly. Inside, we seethe.
Of course, we think we’re still in charge. We’re angry and resentful and full of pain, but we’re in control! It’s like cutting off a dog’s tail a piece at a time to make it easier on the dog. Still, it’s better than a gory old cross, isn’t it? Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven! The truth is, one way or another we’re going to carry a cross. One way or another, we’re going to be nailed down. The only choice is the cross Jesus offers or one of our own making.
We understand that Jesus wants us to lose everything for His sake. We know He doesn’t want so much of our time, money, or labor — He wants us. This is what rattles us, this business of losing our lives. But our fear fogs the other side of the equation: Finding our lives.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis acknowledges how difficult it is to surrender ourselves, but he explains why it is necessary: “We are trying to let our mind and heart go their own way — centered on money or pleasure or ambition and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
“And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle doesn’t produce figs. If I am field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and not wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.”
Lewis goes on to explain that the real battle to surrender the heart doesn’t occur where we think — not as some gargantuan temptation rakes its claws against the door, not as we face some crisis of soul. The real arena is in our beds first thing in the morning. As we wake, all our wishes and plans for the day rush at us like animals. Lewis says that the first order of business is simply shoving them all back, listening to “that other voice.”
If it sounds difficult, it is. While we consider whether it’s worth it, however; let’s ask ourselves this question: Just what are we trying to hang onto? Money? Most of my life, I kept my money for myself. So why do I have so little now? Time? Is there never enough time to serve the Lord? I guarantee you, one day we’ll all have more time than we can possibly use — sitting alone in a nursing home. If we live that long. For life is even more slippery than time.
Martyred missionary Jim Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Elliot’s sacrificial life and perfect peace stand in marked contrast to the hedonistic lifestyle and tortured mind of W. Somerset Maugham. Blessed with wealth commensurate with his great writing gifts, “Willie” lived in luxury on the Riviera. At the close of his life, however, he was plagued by shrieking terrors: “Go away! I’m not ready . . . I’m not dead yet . . . I’m not dead yet, I tell you . . . “
The fate of Somerset Maugham underlines the truth of C.S. Lewis’ words: “Look for yourself and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
Why would we want to carry a cross? Why wouldn’t we?
Gary D. Robinson is Preaching Minister at Conneautville Church of Christ in Conneautville, PA.