I always get nervous when Christians start talking about taking up their cross and following Jesus. It isn’t that we shouldn’t. It’s in the bible. What makes me nervous is the way we talk about it. It always sounds off. Hey Jesus, I know you were literally scourged, beaten, spit upon, and had nails driven through your body to hold you to a cross to suffocate on your own fluids while people mocked you as you hung naked to die. I totally get where you’re coming from. Like this one time, someone made me wear an old tshirt over my face and I didn’t want to. It was really uncomfortable, but I get it. Sometimes Christians just have to bear their crosses too.
Never mind some of the disciples our Lord spoke to were literally crucified, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. It’s actually not that most of us haven’t suffered the way Jesus did. Good. It’s not a contest. The worst pain you’ve ever felt is still the worst pain you ever felt. That’s the whole thing. When Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me”, most of the time we only identify the cross by how it looks. Painful. We look for the times we hurt as the fulfillment of what He calls us to do. It completely changes what the cross is. It turns it inward. Selfish. You’re the only one that can feel your pain. If you stub your toe, mine doesn’t actually hurt. I can relate to it. Empathize with it. Remember doing it myself. Still, I’ve got nothing to do with your toe and the coffee table. Sorry, the time the coffee table made you take up your cross to follow Jesus.
When you measure your cross by the pain you feel, the cross is just the source of the pain. The coffee table is one thing, but if we’re being honest, the worst pains most of us have felt were usually caused by someone, not something. The people that can hurt us the most are usually the ones closest to us. Do not think that Jesus came to bring peace to earth, but the sword. Families set against each other hurt in a way that puts the coffee table to shame. This is the really dark thing that happens when Christians talk about “taking up their cross and following Jesus” in terms of dealing with suffering. Most of the time, by bearing the cross, we mean each other. Bearing the cross stops being for your neighbor and usually ends up being because of them.
That’s why we don’t make the crucifixion a contest in hurting. We don’t mark the real Christians as the ones who have been through more. We don’t identity the cross by how it looks. The cross isn’t about what hurt looks like. It’s about who it’s for. Jesus sacrificed for the very people hurting Him. When we lose sight of that, the cross is robbed of all forgiveness. When the cross is because of our neighbor instead of for them, it leaves us only as victims looking for oppressors and enemies. It leaves you looking for injustice, not justification. It leaves you angry at the very people Jesus bore it for in the first place. The word martyr is robbed of its first meaning. It isn’t just someone who dies for the faith. The word martyr used to mean witness. Witnesses pointed to Jesus. Some of them died singing hymns. Some prayed for their enemies. Jesus died for the whole lot, and those martyrs who clung to Jesus found a life that no death could take away. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but the sword. For once, realize that isn’t a call for more war. It’s a call to stand for something even if it’s for the ones who have hurt you. Ask Peter who swung one at the soldier’s ear. You aren’t to wield the sword but to endure it and cling to one truth the whole while. He who died for you even died for them.
The call to take up your cross and follow Jesus isn’t a call label your hurts as true marks of Christianity and revel in them because they prove you love Jesus more than the people hurting you and more than the ones who haven’t hurt as badly. If all you’re looking for is enemies who caused you pain, the second part of the reading makes no sense. It’s a call to hear those sent to you by God as the ones who bring hope. Look to the little ones who need a cold cup of water and serve them. Then stop pretending they’re only God given if they don’t happen to be sinners who have wronged you. They’re the sinners sent to you by the God who showed you how much they were worth by paying the price for their souls in blood. Care for the least of these, because God paid the highest price for them. Sacrifice for your neighbor not out of obligation, but because that sinner who hurt you is someone God said is worth His own life. Not because it saves you. It doesn’t, and it doesn’t need to. It’s just an extension of the mercy shown to all. Because there’s only one cross that matters.
Jesus died on it for sinners. For you. He bled and died not because of His enemies, but for them. That’s what makes His death a sacrifice and not just a tragedy. The sins of all are forgiven there. It’s even for you, angry and hurt. It’s for you, bitter and resentful. It’s for you who would rather see someone Jesus died for as a source of wrong than a soul redeemed. For that anger, your sins are forgiven you. For that grudge, there is a call to carry forgiveness. Take up the cross and follow Jesus. Then realize that isn’t a call to hurt. It’s a call to cling to the only cross that saves. All forgiveness comes from there. Even the forgiveness you offer to each other. None of it comes from you. All of it was won by Him. Take up your cross where your Jesus died for you and carry that forgiveness won there everywhere you go. Revel in it. Your sins are forgiven you. Take up your source of salvation, where Jesus died for you. Wear it on your neck. Hang it on your walls. Take up your cross and let your identity not be the one who hurts, not the victim, but the one who carries the mark of forgiveness and the peace it brings everywhere you go. That forgiveness means something. Angry or not, it is still finished. Sins are paid for. Your salvation doesn’t depend on your feelings, but your Jesus. Hurt or not, you will not lose your reward. Victim or oppressor, your salvation is given in Jesus and cannot be taken.