What if we’ve only preached half the message of the cross for most of the history of the church? What if the message of the cross was meant to be more than a momentary transaction at the foot of Christ’s cross? What if the evangelization of the world prior to Christ’s return requires a community of the cross that embodies the self-sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus in the world.
My sermon two weeks ago essentially argued that while we happily embrace Christ’s cross that forgives us our personal sins, we struggle to embrace our own cross we’re called to take up. In this third and final post, let me tackle the third aspect of discipleship that is perhaps most neglected and misunderstood. Again, Jesus’ clarion call is this:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must 1) deny themselves and 2) take up their cross and 3) FOLLOW ME” (Mark 8:34).
The first two are difficult to do, but not difficult to understand. We get the basic idea of self-denial and we get that sometimes loyalty and commitment to Jesus can lead to suffering and persecution. But the third element of discipleship invites us to completely reimagine the world through the lenses of the cross. The cross wasn’t just the death of Jesus, or the death of sin. The cross gave birth to a new “cruciform” way or pattern of life. Something shifted in the fabric of the universe, and all fundamental building blocks of civilization were redefined by the cross.
Paul understands this deep shift, and tries to find language to describe it. He says, “By his cross my relationship to the world and its relationship to me have been crucified” (Gal. 6:14). Paul started to rethink EVERYTHING in light of the paradoxical power and wisdom of the cross that appears weak and foolish to those still seeing the world through conventional goggles.
Paul now has cross-vision, and this means that new life comes through death, the cross was not a defeat but God’s strange victory, the philosophers of the day could not grasp this wisdom, but “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful” (1 Cor 1:27).
Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for his radically new upside down (or right side up?) Kingdom when he said things like:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 25:27).
Power and authority exercised “over others” was thereby “crucified” and transformed to power and authority “under others.” The most powerful person in the room is not the one bossing people around but taking the role of a servant and humbling serving others (e.g., washing their feet).
When Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciples must…follow me,” he means follow his new cruciform way of living. This is precisely what the church has neglected, by and large, for much of church history. It really comes down to how exactly we view power and our precise methods for advancing God’s Kingdom and purposes. We all desire justice and peace in the world, and we all believe Christians have some role in bringing that about.
But how? For the first 200 years of the church, when Christians had no political power or influence, faithful witness to Jesus’ non-violent and cross-shaped ethic was more central. Jesus had said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Early Christians knew this meant that those who fight evil using its own violent methods only perpetuate the cycle.
They really thought Jesus was giving his disciples a new ethic to shape their lives when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:38).
The first Christians didn’t find create ways around the clear summons to radical enemy-love. While it may not be “pragmatic” or easy, Jesus really thought that the following cruciform ethic shows the world we are truly children of our Father in heaven:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:43-44).
Now, here’s the sharp edge of my recent sermon: What if the church has not spread the full message of the cross around the world until it has backed its message up with a community of the cross that shows what Jesus’ self-sacrificial love looks like in practice?
What if God is delaying Christ’s return until Christians broaden our definition of “repentance” to mean more than just mental assent to a belief about what Christ has done on the cross, but the actual reorientation of our entire way of seeing the world and our way of being in it?
Repentance (Gk: meta-noia = change-mind) means a deep change of mind, a turning away from one approach or view of things to embrace a radical alternative. What if the Lord is patiently awaiting a church that moves beyond “making converts of all nations”, but instead gets busy about making true disciples of the cruciform life. We tend to read the following with a “conversionist” view of repentance:
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God has been infinitely patient with the church down through the ages as she has preferred to advance Christendom by way of political power and ecclesiastic authority, baptizing imperial power and resorting to the sword and violence to get converts and squash the opposition, both the heathen and internal dissenters. The Inquisition. The Crusades. The Crown using the Church, and the Church using the Crown. Cruciform discipleship went out of style with the baptism of the empire under Constantine, and we’re still preferring Caesar-power over a cruciform witness.
The American experiment, weary from a long history of religious and governmental corruption, wisely sought to separate church and state. But in the process the Enlightenment dualism also kicked God upstairs in the sky to worry about “spiritual” things, while we let John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and other bright minds teach us how to do politics.
One unfortunate result, as I’ve been emphasizing, is that we’ve let Jesus be our savior of personal sins and our ticket to Heaven when we die. We have not let him be our teacher of a radically new ethic and alternative politic here and now. We quote Jesus saying, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21) as a way of saying, “Let God be in charge of your eternal fate, and let the Constitution of the United States be your political guide and aspiration.
All the while, Jesus is longing for his people to pledge their sole allegiance to His Kingdom and let the Sermon on the Mount be our community charter and Kingdom constitution. He’s waiting for the church to stop relying on “power-over” strategies, wielding sword-power in the name of God, to repentance from all forms of “redemptive violence” and the “wisdom of this world [that] is foolishness in God’s sight” (1 Cor 3:19).
This long and slow rewiring of our thinking, of bringing our minds into conformity with Christ (cf. Phil 2:5-11) and his cruciform Way, is all packed into this summons: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). As someone put it, “The cross is both the way to God, and the way of God.”
We need another Bonhoeffer to stand up in our day and expose the easy Christianity and cheap grace again on offer. We may even need to hear Jesus’ sobering warning to his own crowd of admirers: “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say” (Luke 6:46)”
Or, put another way:
Why do you keep calling me your Lord, when you don’t make any efforts to follow me into a new way of life shaped by the cross?
Certainly someone is raising their hand to object, accusing me of a hard, graceless gospel of moral effort. Not so. “We are saved by grace through faith alone” (Eph. 2:8) by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. But as Paul says two verses later, we are saved in order “to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). This is only too hard a task if your view of your own sin is larger than your view of the Spirit’s power now at work in you!
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear…and follow!