Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
I write with broad strokes here, but the argument is valid.
Crosses are now instruments of adornment. Jewelry, clothing, and pop-culture symbols all use the cross as a means to communicate the identification with “being” Christian. I would hazard a guess that most people with crosses around their necks, on their shirts, or tattooed on their bodies do not think of the cross as a symbol of state-sanctioned death. The cross is modernity is a symbol of “being” Christian.
But what does the cross tell us about following Jesus?
For starters, Jesus is speaking to an oppressed people.
His disciples and followers are Jewish. They have no real part in the power structure of their time. Even the scribes and Pharisees are just pawns in the empire’s structure of ruling distant territories - controlling their own people with no real authority. If the oppressed rose up against the power of the empire, they were often hung on a cross.
For Jesus’ time and place, for the audience of Mark, the cross stands as a symbol of state sanctioned death. The cross was a penalty for those who would defy the empire’s power. The cross was a death sentence reserved for slaves and members of the conquered peoples to remind them of their place in the empire. Jesus is speaking to those who would most likely be hung on a cross for revolutionary actions. For defying the empire in any way.
"Take up the cross" is a conscious decision.
For Jesus to say to his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” the image is quite clear. It’s a conscious way of life that is risky. Dangerous. Deadly.
The way of life that Jesus offers will be judged as treason by those in power. The life Jesus offers is in conflict with the status quo. The life of one who follows Jesus may lead them to death on a cross - as it did for Peter and others who followed Jesus.
The call to deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow is a conscious decision to follow into a way of life that is risk-filled and potentially deadly.
This call from Jesus is not about eternal salvation, it’s about a way of life. This is not a “decision for Jesus” that has no consequences for life in this world. This is not a "saying yes to Jesus to save my soul." The call to deny ourselves and take up our cross has everything to do with how we follow Jesus here and now.
So what do we do with "take up your cross" today?
For starters, I am a person of privilege - white, male, cisgendered. The crowd that I engage a majority of the time is privileged. I live my life in the midst of those who hold power. We are not oppressed by any stretch if the imagination when compared to the audience of Jesus.
So what does it mean for privileged people to bear their cross?
Perhaps for privileged folds the question shifts to “what are you willing to risk?”
What are you willing to risk?
What am I - privileged, white, male - willing to risk as a follower of Jesus?
Am I willing to risk my popularity? My reputation? My standing in the good graces of others? My job? My paycheck? My access to resources? Am I willing to risk any of those things for the sake of following Jesus. Am I willing to risk these things for the sake of another’s well-being - which is the action of love?
Those are the questions of a privileged, modern-day follower of Jesus.
For some in the world, the threat of a state sanctioned death still applies. There are those who are still being killed for the sake of the Gospel. But that is not me, a privileged person in a modern empire.
What am I willing to risk? Or to put it another way - to use death as a metaphor...
Am I willing to die to my own ego, my own pride, my own security, for the sake of following Jesus? For the sake of others?
That’s the question - and the risk - of following Jesus.
A major cultural piece and metaphor for taking up one’s cross from my time and place is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
I use this story because it is so widespread and because I have an affinity for the books.
Spoilers for anyone who has not read the books or seen the movies!
In the Harry Potter series, Harry is confronted by the dark wizard Voldemort, who attempts to kill Harry as a baby as the result of a prophecy. Because of this prophecy, Harry’s life is in danger as long as Voldemort assumes Harry is a threat to his power - which is always and perpetual.
Harry has a choice in this story. He can choose to acknowledge the prophecy and Voldemort’s assessment of Harry as a threat to power. Or Harry can ignore it. It is a risk-filled, life-threatening, decision.
"You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal....In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set stone by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you..."
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 512
This story is a powerful one for our time. It continues to inspire. It is worth telling. It points us to the words of Jesus - "Take up your cross."
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is risk-filled, dangerous, conscious way of life.
This is the power of "taking up the cross" in the Gospels. It is an honest statement from Jesus, not to be taken lightly.
So, what are you willing to risk by following Jesus? That is the question.