Ever since Jesus took his place on it, the cross has gone on to function as the cultic symbol of Christianity. It is, as Black Liberation Theologian James Cone says, “[a] great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation.” Yet, we stumble when the cross is presented to us as the crux of Christian discipleship. We digress or play down its relevance by hiding behind the comfort and promise that prosperity gospel offers. But then, we don’t always have to blame prosperity preachers, do we? Those of us who have our own share of concerns and contentions about prosperity teachings have still refused to come to terms with what the cross really means by replacing its reference to an organized pattern of oppression to mere individual discomfort and temptation.
In Luke 14:27 Jesus is saying something very radical: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross is a prerequisite to authentic discipleship, yet it can mean different things to us today. To Jesus’ audience the cross represented power, torture, and death. When Jesus tells the listeners that they should be willing to take up the cross if they want to be counted as disciples, Jesus is reminding them of the cost of discipleship. If they choose to follow Jesus, apart from the neutral act of following him wherever he went about, they must be prepared for anything, even death. As I was meditating on this verse over the last few days, I began to wonder what the cross could have meant to a Jewish listener, apart from its explicit indication to torture and death. And as I kept thinking on those lines, I realized that when Jesus asked his followers to carry the cross it not only meant a preparedness for suffering and death, but also to a willingness to change one’s values and perspectives of oneself, people, and God.
What then could the cross have meant for a Jewish listener? It could have meant for the listener to be prepared to touch the leper like Jesus did and be willing to be ‘polluted’ by that act; it could have meant for the listener to be willing to heal the sick on a Sabbath and burn bridges with the religious elites; it could have meant for the listener to be morally courageous and refuse to cast the stone on the adulterous woman; it could have meant for the listener to get ready to leave behind family, friends, and the comfort of a known and secure place and place one’s life in the hands of God, just like Jesus did; it could have meant for the listener to risk one’s reputation by sitting and eating with sinners, just like Jesus did; and it could have meant for the follower to open oneself to live on the hospitality of someone other than their own – family and race – thereby finding life’s meaning in the lives and offerings of others.
To me the cross is any burden turned into calling. What do I mean by that? The listeners may have no need to dine with the tax collectors or break social and religious norms. They may have every right to confine themselves to their secured private spaces. In fact, the easiest thing to do is to be conformists (to the law) and willingly cast the stone on the woman. They could also question the need to challenge the religious leaders when they could just as much continue being passively devout. The point I am trying to make is that carrying the cross would now cause them to alter their way of living and do things that they wouldn’t have done otherwise. These ‘burdens’ will now become their calling.
Today, when we fight sexism, we will experience discomfort in our relationships; but Jesus demands we do it. When we stand up and voice out on behalf of those being colonized by fascist regimes, our patriotism will be challenged; but Jesus demands we do it. When we stand in solidarity with the queer community, our Christian fidelity will be called into question; but Jesus demands we do it. When we confront the hideous powers of today, our vocation will be disputed; but Jesus demands we do it. When we privilege the poor and the afflicted, our privileges will fade out and could cease to exist; but Jesus demands we do it. The moment we decide to follow Jesus every burden, every transgression becomes our calling; it becomes a cross that we must bear unceasingly. This, to me, is the cross of discipleship, and mind you it is heavy. Jesus’ discipleship is a call to radical living, and it demands sacrifice and moral courage to live, say, and do as Jesus did. The cost of discipleship is indeed costly and the crucified one demands much, even today.