The Death of Jesus: The Way of the Cross

Luke 9:23-25—Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who would want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world and lose or forfeit their very self.” 

Luke 14:27– “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciples.” (This verse is followed by the parables of building a tower and a king planning for war.) 

Romans 6:5-8—For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (These words are written in the context of baptism.)

Galatians 2:19b-20—I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. 

Galatians 5:24—Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (These words are preceded by Paul’s listing of the fruits of the Spirit.) 

Galatians 6:14—May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. (Remember that in the New Testament, the word “world” can be used in two different ways.)

In all these passages (and there are many others we could look at including the entire Book of Revelation), we see the cross interpreted in ways which assume that it has significance for our own discipleship and daily life. It’s not just that in some way Jesus died for us. It’s also that Jesus’ death served as a model or paradigm for the way we are to be his disciples. 

In many churches, this dimension of the cross has rarely been preached, especially  in relationship to atonement. Now granted, the full truth and significance of the death of Jesus cannot be contained in the concept that Jesus’ death is an example for us as we take up our cross and follow him. But it is at least a part of the meaning of the cross. And since it comes from the very lips of Jesus, I think we should say that it is as important as any theological theory suggested by fallible humans!

The cross we are called to carry is the price we pay for being faithful to God’s Kingdom in a world hostile to that Kingdom.

So, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Take up your cross daily and follow me”? The cross we are called to carry is the price we pay for being faithful to God’s Kingdom in a world hostile to that Kingdom. Jesus paid a price for being obedient to God and God’s way when he spoke truth to power; when he reached out to include the rejected, marginalized, and despised in his society; when he put human need over loyalty to tradition and ritual; when he loved the unlovable and the unloved; and when he chose compassion over hatred, forgiveness over revenge, and peace over violence. The price we pay/the cross we bear is when we act similarly in our time and space. (Notice that in Luke 9 we find the word “daily.” Following Jesus is a commitment that must be renewed every day.) The world is no more ready for God’s way today that it was 2000 years ago. And anyone who takes God seriously will discover how hostile the world can be when threatened by truth, justice, and compassion. 

How often do American Christians hear in their churches the critical necessity of following Jesus? Those in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) probably heard this emphasis more than many in other denominations. I rarely heard a focus on following Jesus in my home church. Sure, we sang the hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” but the full implications of that following were never made clear. I have a sermon somewhere in storage entitled “The Unasked Question.” In that sermon I refer to the questions I remember being asked over the years which were intended to measure my religious commitment and salvation. Here are some of those questions:

A) Are you saved? 

B) When and where were you saved?

C) If you were to die tonight, where would you go?

D) Have you been baptized?

E) Are you a member of a Southern Baptist church?

F) Do you know the Lord?

G) Is Jesus your personal Lord and Savior?

H) Have you found Jesus? (I never knew he was lost.)

I) Do you believe the Bible is infallible and inerrant? Do you believe in the Virgin Birth, literal and eternal hell, the Second Coming, a historical Adam and Eve in an actual Garden of Eden, the Second Coming, the rapture, etc.?

J) Do you speak in tongues? 

K) Have you received the Second Blessing?

L) Do you believe the Book of Daniel was written in the 6th Century BC or the 2nd Century BC?

Some of these questions are doctrinal (Bible, Virgin Birth, Hell, Date of Daniel). Others refer to personal experiences (saved, know the Lord, speaking in tongues). But one question I’ve never been asked—not as a child, at the time of my profession of faith and baptism, at youth meetings and church camps, at revival services, at seminary, at my ordination, or by any search committees considering me as a candidate for minister of their church—was this: “Are you following Jesus?” In the Gospels, Jesus charges people 87 times to follow him. With that kind of emphasis, one would think that the question “Are you following Jesus?” would at least be on the radar of church members, pastors, and church leaders. But my experience and the experiences of many Christians I have talked with over the years is that this is still the unasked question in many churches. 

Why have so many Christians and so many churches moved away from an emphasis which is so clear and strong in the New Testament?

So why have so many Christians and so many churches moved away from an emphasis which is so clear and strong in the New Testament? Let’s explore three reasons:

1) It’s difficult to follow what we worship. Religion so often stresses the difference between the Creator and creatures and between God and us. And since the focus has often been on Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity, it’s almost blasphemous to suggest that we sinful humans can follow him. So much religion has dealt with UP THERE and OUT THERE that there is little place for talking about daily following our Lord as we pay the price of being faithful to God’s Kingdom. 

But with the Bible we find a dramatic reversal. The essence of the gospel is not being saved so we can go to heaven. The essence of the gospel is that heaven has come down to earth—the Word has become flesh and walked among us. And that incarnation continues in us as the Body of Christ in time and space. The “scandal of the incarnation” is that God Almighty has taken residence on earth and desires not only our company but also our following as we join with Abba in loving this world into its healing and wholeness. In the New Testament, Jesus is understood to be both the object and the example of our faith. He is the great Pioneer who goes before us blazing a glorious trail into God’s Kingdom. Any proper understanding of the gospel will not permit us to worship Jesus while neglecting our discipleship and taking up our cross daily and following him. 

It’s a lot more convenient and comfortable to worship Jesus than to follow him.

2) It’s a lot more convenient and comfortable to worship Jesus than to follow him. We love to put him on a pedestal so he can be removed from our daily lives and decisions. We divide times, places, and relationships into two categories: sacred and secular. It has been observed that the more God and Jesus are depicted as distant, heavenly, regal, victorious, and fearsome, the more the church strays from following her Lord. (Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, religious wars, the constant and deadly identity of God and country.) As Clarence Jordan said, “We’ll worship the hind-legs off of Jesus, but we won’t do a thing he says!”

But worship without following does not impress our Lord. Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount referring to many who will come to him on the final day and say, “Lord, Lord, we preached in your name, cast out demons in your name, did mighty works in your name.” But Jesus will reply, “I never knew you. You never did the will of my Father in heaven.” Now, who’s saying that they preached, cast out demons, and did mighty works in Jesus’ name? Not the “pagans” and the heathen. The ones who will make those claims are those in the church who forgot what was most important. And what is most important is doing the will of God which equals following Jesus. Belief without following does not cut it in the Kingdom of God. You can follow Jesus without believing in and worshiping him. But you cannot truly worship and believe in Christ without following Jesus. 

3) In our hearts and at gut level, we know what it means to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. It requires change, conversion, risk, courage, and sacrifice. Too often we’ve turned the cross into a decorative item to be worn around the neck, to be placed on top of a steeple, or to adorn a chancel. We can buy crosses made of silver, gold, or platinum. There are crosses with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. From the way most churches display the cross, one would never know that it was originally a horrific instrument of torture designed to slowly and agonizingly kill another human being—and to do so in a public place to warn all others of the danger of even thinking about questioning the powers that be. 

I suggest that on a deep and honest level we all know what Jesus would have us do about so many of the heart-wrenching and critical problems of our day. What would Jesus have us do about: 

1) Hunger and poverty

2) Neglect and abuse of children and the elderly

3) The rape of the environment

4) War and violence

5) Prejudice of any sort

6) The powerless and oppressed who suffer so much in this world

Yes, we know deep down in our hearts what it means to follow Jesus, but because we recognize that following him will require change, conversion, risk, courage and sacrifice (FIRST OF ALL ON OUR PART), we prefer to define the essence of Christianity in ways which will allow us to neglect the cost and impact of following our Lord in our daily lives and decisions. 

When we are called to give an account of our lives, I have a more than casual suspicion that God will not ask us what we believe about the Bible, the Virgin Birth, or hell. I doubt if the Lord will ask us if we speak in tongues or if we have received the Second Blessing. And I’m pretty sure the Almighty will not quiz us on the date of the Book of Daniel. 

“Did you follow my Son Jesus?” Until that question ceases to be the unasked question in our churches and becomes, instead, the central question of our daily lives, I doubt if anything else will ever matter in our Christianity. 

But if the Gospels are at all trustworthy, there is one question God will ask: “Did you follow my Son Jesus?” Until that question ceases to be the unasked question in our churches and becomes, instead, the central question of our daily lives, I doubt if anything else will ever matter in our Christianity. 

Addendum to The Death of Jesus: The Way of the Cross

Peter Abelard (1079-1142 CE) proposed a way of interpreting the death of Jesus which has some similarity to The Way of the Cross theory of atonement. Abelard was a brilliant French theologian and philosopher during the 12th century. He is perhaps most remembered for his tragic romantic relationship with the beautiful and well-educated Heloise.  

Abelard rejected any notion that God’s attitude toward humans needed to be changed. Instead, he maintained that our perception of God was in need of change. God is not the offended, harsh, and judgmental Deity presumed in the Satisfaction theory of Anselm.  Abelard maintained that “Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love” which can change the hearts and minds of sinners and turn humankind back to God. 

Abelard’s theory was not well received during the Middle Ages or in the Reformation. Most theologians still feel his theory does not adequately reflect the full meaning of Jesus’ death. However, most theologians today are more sympathetic toward this Moral Influence theory, at least in its understanding of God’s eternal and essential nature of unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love.  

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English theologian, philosopher, and hymn-writer, wrote the popular hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Even though the words may not reflect his Calvinist theology, this hymn has been viewed as reflecting the Moral Influence theory of atonement. 

1. When I survey the wondrous Cross 
On which the Prince of Glory died, 
My richest Gain I count but Loss, 
And pour Contempt on all my Pride. 

2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, 
Save in the Death of Christ my God: 
All the vain Things that charm me most, 
I sacrifice them to his Blood.  

3. See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet, 
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down! 
Did e’er such Love and Sorrow meet? 
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown? 

4, Were the whole Realm of Nature mine, 
That were a Present far too small; 
Love so amazing, so divine, 
Demands my Soul, my Life, my All.

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