In Matthew 16, Jesus says to “Take up your cross and follow me.” He announced his upcoming crucifixion to his disciples in the previous verses, and essentially telling them that if they are not willing to lay their life down also that they will actually fail to save it. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?” – this question is paramount, but like taking up one’s cross, what does it mean.
First, let’s look at the cross. Historically it was simply the Roman’s way to punish those who had broken the Roman law somehow – whether it be thieving, murdering, deserting or what have you, it was the staple punishment for those who had failed Rome. Rome was the world, the Emperor was god, and by failing, thus “sinning” towards the empire, you lost your life on the cross, suffering greatly towards the bitter end. The cross is both a symbol of death and suffering for one’s deeds. it did not matter if you were innocent or guilty, only the perception of guilt mattered when it came to the cross. The cross was the ultimate judge, the ultimate executioner. The cross did not care if you were sorry, you suffered just the same, and your fate was also the same in the end. You suffered, you died.
Believers in Christ believe that Jesus suffered on the cross for all of us. He bore, and still bears, our burdens – our sins, our sickness and our disease. That Jesus would tell us to take up our own cross and follow him is evident that he desired us to suffer for His sake, versus living a life striving to gain the world, a life in which, in the end, we would lose our soul. Again, what does this mean? Before we delve into this, let us look at some questions.
Does God want me to be happy? Short answer is no. God wants you to live, and to have life more abundantly. Life does not mean happiness, at least not in this world, which has fallen into sin and despair. In John 17:16, Jesus says that we, those who believe in him, are not of this world, just like He is not of this world. His prayer, in the verse before, is not that we should be removed from this world, though we are not of it, but simply that we should be kept from evil. He prays in verse 17 that we may be sanctified through truth, and then clarifies through the Father’s word, for it is truth. Furthermore, Jesus says that as the Father has sent him, he has sent those who believe in him.
So, “how” did the Father send Christ? The Father send Christ as a sacrifice. He sent Christ as a lamb. He sent Christ because of love, not just for a people, but a love for the whole world. Likewise, Christ has now sent his followers in the same manner. In doing so, he urges us to take up our cross, like He did his, and follow him. Follow Him where? To Calvary.
Now we are at the crux of the discussion – pun intended. What does it mean to take up our cross? What does it mean to be sent by Christ as Christ was sent out by the Father?
John 15:13 says that there is no greater love that a man can show then to lay down his life for his friend. In Mark 12:30-31, Jesus also says, explaining the two greatest commandments, the ones that sum up the law as loving God with all of your soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. To love, we must lay down our lives – both for God, and also our neighbor. So, as Christ took up his cross for us, our of love for both His Father and for us, we must in turn take up our cross, for the sake of love, for Him, the Father and our neighbor.
Wait, you say our neighbor? Yes, our neighbor. Christ sacrificed himself for our sins, for the sake of the Father’s desire that we may have life, and again, have that life more abundantly. This is shown in John 10:10, where Jesus says that he comes that we may have life and have it more abundantly, where as the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. This would insinuate that the thief is of this world, where as Christ, and likewise believers, are not. I would argue further that the world itself is the thief – the world, in its fallen state desires only to take, kill and destroy, for evil and sin have inhabited it. If this is the case, then those things that are of the world only seek likewise, and therefore do not, and cannot bring happiness. There is no life in them, and by seeking to gain these things, there is no life in us. Happiness, as we perceive it, is of this world, but as we are not, these things are not for us. Life comes only from the Father, and we can only get to the Father through Christ (John 14:6), and to do that, we must take up our cross and follow him. James 1 elaborates further that every good and perfect thing comes only from above – life only comes to those who have the love of God reigning in their hearts. This love of God is both for God, and our neighbor, and that love is bearing a cross of sacrifice.
We must be willing to lay down our life for one another, and not just those who we care about, and not just those who believe as we may, but for the entire world. Our life is just not our mortal being, but our spiritual one as well. As believers, our mortal life may be in this world, but through Baptism we die to our self and made into a new creation. (Romans 6:4 / 2 Corinthians 5:17). St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians expands further that, as Christ was sent to the world to bring reconciliation – through the cross and through His sacrifice, that we likewise are sent to do the same thing. It only makes sense that we, being in Christ, would bring about reconciliation as He did, not through judgment, but through love.
What about John 5:22? This passage from John proclaims that the Father does not judge, but has given that authority to the Son – as St. John calls Him, the Logos, the Word. Does this mean, by taking up our cross that we, likewise, can judge? The short answer is yes, we can. Luke 22:28-29, says that a kingdom has been appointed for those who have followed Him in is trials, and that they may eat at His table, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. However, that right to judge comes from following Jesus through His trials – again, taking up your cross and following him. Also, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-3 to judge not, or you will be judged by the same measure. Proclaiming that though we may see the small speck of sin in our brother’s eye, we miss the log in our own. Lastly, Jesus says in John 12:47-48 that even though people here and do not obey, He does not judge them, for the judgment will be at the last day by the word He has spoken. In other words, judgment and salvation are both separate and together. The way to life is through Christ, but so is road to judgment. For those who hear and obey, salvation, a new life, is at hand. For those who do not hear and obey, their judgment is set. Not through Christ’s actions, not by His proclamation, but through the word itself. Simply, those who do not obey are already judged, likewise those who do obey are as well, and the sentence is either life or death based upon the treatment of the words He spoke. Jesus himself says that He did not come into this world to condemn the world, John 3:17, but rather to save it. John 3:18 continues to say that it is belief that saves and unbelief that condemns, again, reiterating that it is the Word itself that passes judgment in the end.
This brings us back to taking up our cross and following Him. To believe in Christ, to believe in what the Word said, is to obey Him. We are to take up that cross and follow him, laying down our lives in love for the world. Not condemning the world, for the world condemns itself, but loving those around us, as Christ loved us. As Christ bore the sins and sickness of the world upon his back, for the salvation of our souls, likewise we must do the same. We must not cast the first stone, but instead we must drop all of the stones we hold and in turn, hold the one who is before us that has sinned, John 8:7. We must not be like the accusers and simply walk away when shown the truth, we must turn to the one being stoned and declare the love and forgiveness of God, for it was this purpose that Christ was sent into the world. We must show this love, this forgiveness, by giving all of ourselves, even unto death, that we may be a beacon to those who live in darkness. We must bear the weight of those around us who cannot. We must also proclaim the truth of love, through both our word and deed, to those around us.
We can condemn, in fact, I would argue that it is our worldly nature that we hold onto that forces us to do so, yet in doing so we condemn ourselves. Unlike Christ, we are not without sin, being born into a world of sin. Though cleansed by the Cross and through baptism, we remain mortal in this world as long as we breathe, and therefore temptation and sin crowd around us. We are forgiven, yet our memory still remains, and it is that memory of sin, the imprint of that stain upon our own soul that only those who are of this world can still see that causes the desire in us to condemn those around us instead of walking in love. Our desire to condemn comes from abiding in the world that we live in, but God’s desire is that we abide in Him, and likewise, allow Him to abide in us (1 John 2).
The question then is this, if Jesus did not walk in condemnation of judgement of the world, how then can we allow ourselves to do the same? If Jesus came to this world because the Father loved all of His creation, then how can we not follow Christ in that love? If we are to abide in the Father, if we are to follow Christ, we cannot do so. Instead, we must lay down our very self for those around us, and not continue to make excuses because of our own desires and happiness.
in closing, Jesus lived among the sinners of the world, quite frequently, the Gospels show him ministering to those who had sinned – Essentially those who knew they had sinned, and even more so, those who had judgment passed on to them from those around them. This is key in understanding the nature of our own walk with Christ, the following of his path. It is not the purpose of salvation that we may be rich on Earth, but that we may have life, and abide in the Father. Worldly wealth will pass away, this life will pass away as well, and in the end, it is the Word that will judge us all. If anything, Christ knew and knows we will suffer, and that suffering is for His sake, Matthew 10:22. Through the enduring of that hatred, just as Christ suffered for us, is salvation.