In August of 2003, the Church of the Holy Cross in New York City was broken into twice. In the first break-in, thieves made away with a metal moneybox that had been resting next to a votive candle rack. Three weeks later, vandals escaped with something much more valuable: they unbolted a 4-foot long, 200-pound plaster Jesus from a meditation area, taking the statue of Christ, but leaving behind his wooden cross on the wall. The church caretaker, David St. James, confessed his bewilderment at this: "They just decided, 'We're going to leave the cross and take Jesus.' We don't know why they took just him. We figure if you want the crucifix, you take the whole crucifix." In other words, David St. James was saying, "If you want Jesus, you take his cross, too."
Leaving the Cross
It's a bit embarrassing to admit this, but I understand the choice of those thieves. I like the figure of Jesus: I like the clever and compassionate way he treated people; I admire the clarity and balance of his ethical teaching; I love his stories. The character of Christ is the ideal of health and wholeness toward which I want to grow more and more. The whole world would be better if more of us lived Christ's way. According to almost every study I read, millions of—even those who hardly ever darken the door of a church or have serious questions about God—are quite attracted to the figure of Jesus. As for his cross—that's a little more complicated. Some of us prefer not to get too close to that. Isn't there already enough violence, blood, and cruelty in this world? Hasn't religion often wrapped itself up in that same kind of horror in the name of God? Who wants to associate Jesus with that sort of thing? I can appreciate that sentiment.
There's another reason I'm inclined to take Jesus and leave the Cross: there are times when I just want to look at the Cross and take in how Jesus suffered for me. The Cross fills me with awe and gratitude. I don't fully understand why Jesus would voluntarily choose to die to pay the price for my sins. Along with millions of Christians around the world, I've often thought, Thank God that Jesus died on the Cross, so that we wouldn't have to. On one level it's true when Christians say, "Jesus died on the cross so we wouldn't have to." In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, the apostle Paul writes: "I want to remind you of the good news I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved … that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." The apostle is describing what some theologians call the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This doctrine states that Jesus voluntarily substituted himself in the place of punishment that should have been ours because of our sin. He threw himself in front of evil's bullet, so that we wouldn't be destroyed by it. He pushed us out of the path of the judgment that was thundering down upon us because of our sin. The one innocent being in the universe said to the divine court, "Your honor, I'll be executed in their place; let them go."
Christ's subsitutionary role is the towering mystery around which Christ-followers all across the globe and throughout history have united. I hope you've taken in the amazing truth of Christ's work. I hope you've accepted it by faith. Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice that was worthy and weighty enough to cancel the debt of your sin and mine. With his work of atonement, Christ made it possible for us to put our trust in him and finally be "at-one" with God. Jesus died on the Cross so that we would not have to.
Lifting the Cross
There are other good reasons why someone might choose to take Jesus but leave the Cross. You might do it because you don't want to get too near his blood. You might do it because you honor his blood. But there's another reason many of us might leave the Cross where it stands: because we don't want to shed any of our own blood.
We like the figure of Jesus; we like being forgiven people; but we are not sure we want to follow or be formed by Jesus if it means taking up our own cross. But following Jesus does mean we have to take up our cross. Forgiveness of sin and the blessing of eternal life comes through accepting what Jesus did on his Cross. But truly following Jesus—being formed into the image of Jesus and knowing his abundant life—comes through accepting what we must do with our cross. Hear the words of Jesus recorded in Mark 8:34-38. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."
A few years ago, I heard a message by Reverend Peter Hiett that was provocatively entitled "Marriage: A Sneaky Way to Get a Person Crucified." At first the title seemed crazy to me. What in the world does marriage have to do with crucifixion? Then I thought about it, and I realized the answer: a lot. You don't sign up for marriage because you're thrilled about the prospect of learning to deny yourself or losing your old way of life; you don't go into it thinking, "Oh good, this is going to be really hard. Thank goodness I'll finally get to have my character defects nailed and my selfishness flogged. Nobody goes into marriage or any other covenant in life because they are eager to take up a cross. Who would voluntarily sign up for a summer camp whose symbol was a giant mosquito? "Come to Camp Stinger! Your blood is our business!" When I listen to the way of Jesus, it seems that crazy. Turn the other cheek? Pray for those who persecute me? Forbid myself from not just from touching lustfully, but even looking at others lustfully? Visit the criminal in prison? Give my hard-earned money to a beggar? No way! It's unrealistic. It's overly demanding. It's hard to walk that way in life.
Loving the Cross
Jesus implies in Mark 8 that when we perceive how hard and counter-cultural his way is, we might actually be "ashamed of his words." We might be tempted to dilute, diminish, or domesticate his teaching. A. W. Tozer, one of the finest Christian leaders of the last century, was very concerned that this was exactly what had happened to American discipleship in the 1930's and 40's. He wrote: "We live in a spiritually troubled time in history. Christianity has gone over to the jingle-bell crowd." In other words, Tozer felt Christianity had become a path of cordiality and modest charity—a sort of self-indulgent Christmas cheer. He went on write: "Everyone is just delighted that Jesus has done all of the sorrowing, all of the suffering, all of the dying."
Avoiding the pain of our own cross is not a new syndrome for followers of Christ. When writing in the fifth century A.D., Augustine of Hippo wrote: "It is necessary to die, but nobody wants to. … We want to reach the kingdom of God, but we don't want to travel by way of death. And yet there stands Necessity saying: 'This way, please.'"
It is crucial to remember that Christ's purpose in calling us to take up our cross is that we might live more fully. He calls us to die to our old selves, so that his self—his heart, soul, mind, and strength—might be more fully alive in us. In Mark 8 Jesus begs his followers not to trade down in life, while foolishly thinking they're trading up. He is saying: Don't buy into this "gain the whole world," more-for-me mentality that is the rage of humanity every century. You'll only "forfeit [your] soul"—your shot at the most real and renewing kind of life.
Here's the blunt truth: if our goal is to be like Jesus, we must do what few people naturally do: we must choose the Cross Road. We must go the way of foolishness in the eyes of the world. We must deny the very self that we are constantly being told to coddle, preserve, and expand.
Taking the Cross Road requires some conscious steps. First, we have to make a decision as to whether we really want to follow Christ. There are other models and plenty of other pathways. How much do we really want to be like Jesus? If we decide we do want to pursue the way of Jesus, we then must accept the fact that a progressive death to self is required. Your self has to die in order that Christ's self might come alive in you. Third, you have to start down the Cross Road and resolve not to turn back, even when it gets very hard. Crucifixion isn't painless or quick, but the outcome—the new life Jesus makes possible—is worth every groan.
I've been married for 18 years now. I've been a parent for almost 15. I've been a stumbling disciple of Jesus for almost 30. These commitments have been killing me—and therein lies my hope. I am praying toward that day when I can truly say with the apostle Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."
Where are the Cross Roads for you? What needs to be crucified, dead, and buried in you? At what intersections will you need to make a conscious choice if you want to remain in the company of Jesus or know the fullness of his life? Are you like those thieves in the story I told at the start? Do you think you can have a cross-less Christianity? Or are you ready to take the next step to more fully follow Him? Jeremiah 6:16 reads: "This is what the Lord says: 'Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.'"
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.