The cross is often mysteriously absent in the theology taught in many American churches. It might show up in reference to Jesus’s death on the cross, but it is often missing as a sign of discipleship. Many American Christians simply don’t see suffering as part of the normal Christian life. In an interview, Elizabeth Elliot—a former missionary to Ecuador whose husband, Jim, had been killed by the Waodani more than fifty years ago—was asked what she thought was missing in evangelical churches in America. Without hesitation she said,
Sacrifice and commitment are overlooked themes in the church today. They were overlooked themes when Jesus first articulated them. There were not very many people who wanted to follow him after he made it perfectly clear that if you want to be his disciple you must give up your right to yourself. That has to be the hardest thing God asks of us. And he puts it right up front. No ifs, ands, or buts.
In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to focus on ourselves: “If it feels good, do it”; “It’s your life—do what you want.” To speak about a daily cross of suffering in such a context doesn’t seem to fit. How tempted we can be to shape Christianity into something a little less demanding, a little more comfortable. But even so, the call to Christian discipleship is a call for nothing less than death to self and sacrificial service of Christ. That often means suffering. But sometimes we have misinterpreted Jesus’s call to take up our cross and follow him. We often use the phrase bearing my cross to mean putting up with some difficulty. I’ve been a Chicago Cubs baseball fan all my life, so before the Cubs recently won the World Series, when someone mentioned the long dearth of World Series appearances for the Cubs, I was tempted to say, “Oh, that’s just the cross I have to bear.”
People use this phrase for everything from having to wear glasses to being short or having acne. But that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Crosses were not inconvenient burdens to be carried; they were cruel instruments of death. In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a sentence that became one of the most famous theological sentences of the twentieth century: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It was a statement that Bonhoeffer backed up with his own blood, shed at the hands of a Nazi executioner. The cross is not only a symbol of Jesus’ death/our salvation, it is also a symbol of our daily discipleship.
REFLECTIONS: What do you think of when you see a cross? Has it become a common symbol devoid of deep personal meaning? Think of a way to remind yourself that the cross is a symbol of death, a reminder to die to self, daily.
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.