He 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. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
I Corinthians 1:22-24
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
What is the wisdom of God?
What is it to have wisdom?
I grew up on Indiana Jones movies. In the third, ‘The Last Crusade’ Indiana and his father are searching for the Holy Grail. After many adventures they reach the place where it has been kept for centuries. The bad guy arrives at the same time as Indie in the inner sanctuary. The Holy Grail is being protected by a very old crusader. The bad guy pushes Indie aside.
There is an array of chalices. Which one is the cup of Jesus? The bad guy chooses the most beautiful and ornate chalice, made from gold and adorned with precious stones. But it is not Jesus’ chalice and instead of giving life it gives death.
“He chose foolishly,” says the ancient crusader.
Indie steps forward and picks out the simplest chalice, a humble, wooden one, carved by carpenter. It is, of course, the right one.
“He chose wisely,” comments the crusader.
Wisdom is about the choices we make. To be a Christian is to try to align our choices with God’s choices. It is to ask, “What would God want of us?” Christians can go one step further. We can move beyond speculation and can look to a real person, Jesus. We can ask, “What did God choose for Jesus?” and, “What choices did Jesus make? And how can these inform our decisions and model our good and wise choices?”
For Christians Jesus is the wisdom of God. But how does this relate to the saying of Jesus that to follow him one must deny oneself and take up one’s cross?
Sometimes when the church talks about self denial it can sound superficial, like giving up chocolate for Lent. It can almost sound like a kind of delayed gratification, giving up something now for a future gain, like saving for retirement. Self denial is not a high value in our culture. In some senses it is counter cultural. Often it is a virtue we applaud in exceptional people like Mother Teresa while at the same time not expecting that we ourselves will follow the same path. At times self denial can be interpreted in a bad way such as keeping silent in the face of things that are intolerable. This is not what God wants.
Of course at times self denial is necessary. All of us from time to time need to adjust or even change our behaviour, especially if it is causing harm to ourselves and/or others.
But how did Jesus model self denial? And what is he asking of us in this saying?
Was Jesus an ascetic like Mahatma Gandhi? I don’t think so. Yes, he did not own much, perhaps only the clothes he was wearing. But at the centrepiece of his ministry were dinner parties in which all were invited regardless of their background and social status. It was because of this that his enemies called him a drunkard. And he asked us to remember him by eating and drinking! So the call to self denial seems more complex than it may first appear.
Likewise the saying about taking up one’s cross needs some thinking about. This is a saying from a man who affirmed life as a blessing from God, who healed the sick so that they could enjoy life more fully, who even, it is said, raised the dead to life, and who on another occasion said, “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance.” So what is this cross carrying about?
I think of it in two ways. First, there is the personal cross that from time to time anyone may bear – the crosses of hardship, illness, pain and suffering. But there is another cross. It is the communal cross over all humanity. There are some things that are wrong with the world that are not the fault of one individual and whose hurt is borne by many. The church calls this structural sin. 3 billion people live on less than US$2 a day. This is wrong! I am one of the fortunate ones who are not in that situation. But this is by and large an accident of birth. If I had been born elsewhere then there is a very high possibility that I would be in that situation.
It may look as if this communal cross is hurting and harming some more than others. And of course it does cause great suffering to many every day in very real ways. Living on less than US$2 a day means life is a constant struggle to survive. But in another sense all of us are diminished as a result of this huge inequality; all of us are harmed, one way or another.
To follow Christ is to choose to take up that cross with the poor and disadvantaged and to seek to remove it from humanity’s shoulders. How we do that will depend on each person’s circumstance. But there are many ways that many of us an make that a huge difference and at relatively little cost.
But there is another side to this cross carrying. When Jesus tells his people that following him is a matter of self denial and cross carrying he is saying something that is very real to his context and experience. Jesus did not invite the cross. He did not walk up to the Romans with arms outstretched and say, “Kill me!” He was killed because he was a threat to the authorities; because his actions intimidated them and because he threatened their privilege and power by breaking down barriers and empowering the poor and marginalised.
That, for Jesus, was the cost of his authentic life-giving ministry. This takes self denial to a whole different level.
Now that will probably not be your calling! I hope not! Thank God if you live in a relatively free and fair society where the authorities are not threatened by your Christian faith or by calls for justice and equality. But for many people in the world that is not the case. For many today following Christ means in a very real sense denying oneself and taking up one’s cross.
For Christians, the cross is the ultimate symbol of our faith. It identifies us with Jesus who lived for others. A man unfairly condemned to death at a cruelly young age but who all his life had lived so others could live fully. In his life we see life. In his death we see God’s solidarity with us, God’s proclamation of universal forgiveness and God’s commitment to give life to all.
Pondering the cross of Christ we ponder the deepest truths about ourselves and humanity. We begin to see what is true wisdom.
Mark Rogers, 17/09/2012