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Taking Up My Cross – No Matter What (Faith Matters)

The Jesus Story - the crucifixion

Today, whilst working on an assignment for my MA in Theology and Ministry, God broke in through the words of an academic, writing in a textbook, and spoke directly into my heart. I wasn’t expecting to find healing in a textbook, and yet God used it regardless of my expectations. My assignment is on atonement, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading about how the crucifixion of Jesus is interpreted and understood. I thought I understood, but the more I read, the more certain I become that I’ve had it wrong all this time. 

What struck me today, what broke me and made me weep, was the realisation of what it truly means to ‘take up my cross’ and follow Jesus. On the cross, at Calvary, Jesus was victimised, wrongly accused, beaten, mocked, tortured and put to death by the very people that He had come to save. I’m not referring here to the Jews, but to the human race – past, present and future. Every human being that has ever walked this earth is entirely – completely and without exception – culpable in the death of Jesus. That’s not something that’s often mentioned in churches – we hear a lot of sermons about Jesus dying to save us, but not so many about our responsibility for his death. We Christians tend to airbrush over the parts of the Gospel that make us uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t what hit me today. What hit me today was the sudden understanding that when Jesus hung on the cross, and asked His Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and told the thief hanging beside Him that he would “be in paradise” (with Jesus) (Luke 23:43), He was preparing to spend all of eternity with the very people who had victimised, beaten, mocked and crucified Him.

And that is what hit me, hard between the eyes. To take up our cross and follow Jesus is to imitate Him in both life and death – and that goes against everything that we might describe as ‘human nature’. Christians and non-Christians alike talk about ‘justice for victims’, and that sense of justice-retribution runs deep in our societies. We might speak about ‘justice being done’ or ‘restitution’, or tell people that God will exact vengeance for us when we have been abused or wronged or victimised – that oft-quoted verse: “Vengeance is mine, saith the LORD” (Romans 12:19). But when we think in terms of justice or vengeance (ours, or God’s), we’re thinking in human terms, and going against the model that Jesus offered us on the Cross. Ideas of justice and divine vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence that has hampered the human race since the beginning of time (or, more accurately, since the Fall). And it was that very cycle that Jesus came to earth, fully human and fully God, to put to an end.

Think about it. Throughout His trial before Pilate, Jesus remained silent. He didn’t object, didn’t point the finger, didn’t demand ‘justice’. Throughout the beating, the mocking, and the crucifixion, Jesus spoke not of revenge, anger, injustice being done, but instead uttered words of love and forgiveness. All Christians understand that Jesus saved us, but where we perhaps miss the point is what he saved us from, and what he saved us to. “He saved us from our sins,” you might argue, and you’d be correct. But what does that mean? Truly, as Christians, are we any less tempted by sin than those who are not ‘saved’? The jury’s out on that one. But what if we reframed that idea of ‘sin’, and consider what the result of sin is?

Paul summarises neatly in Galatians 5:19-21: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

With a few exceptions, at the heart of these ‘works of the flesh’ is that cycle of violence.

Paul continues: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24).

Every one of fruit of the Spirit (fruit, singular, not fruits, plural) can be identified in Jesus on the Cross. What is absent is the cycle of violence.

The cycle of violence (that which leads to feelings of entitlement, injustice, retribution, revenge, anger, frustration, and so on), Paul says, was crucified. On the Cross, Jesus put an end to the cycle of violence by refusing to perpetuate it. In response to persecution, he offered forgiveness instead of giving in to self-pity and anger towards those who persecuted him. In his nonviolent response to the violence of humanity, he took away the power of those who thrive on persecution (and persecution is a response to the fear of being persecuted – a “do unto others as they would do unto you, only do it first” mentality). The cross broke the cycle. It saved us from being trapped in the cycle of violence – that’s what Jesus’ death really means.

But here’s the kicker. Jesus dying to save us is only one half of the equation. God did His bit, and the rest is up to you. Being saved is more than just a case of ‘accepting’ Jesus as your Saviour. Participation isn’t optional, it’s essential. Jesus gave His life, and as part of the reciprocal relationship that salvation enters us into, we also have to give something. Not our lives, at least not in the literal sense. No, what we have to do is give up our human addiction to the cycle of violence and refuse to be part of it. We have to imitate Christ – and that means extending true forgiveness in the midst of persecution. No more forgiving people with the expectation that God will exact revenge on our behalf. That’s not what Jesus did. Jesus forgave the people He expected to spend eternity with – the Centurion who pierced His side and exclaimed belief that Jesus was the Son of God, for example; the Jewish leaders who He still hoped would receive salvation; or, indeed, every other human, past, present or future, all culpable in His death. Likewise, Stephen imitated Christ as he was stoned to death, forgiveness not justice, and Saul, who was watching and complicit, will be in eternity with him.

This realisation hit me hard, and gave me pause to question whether I could imitate Christ in such a way. The first thirty years of my life were marked by suffering and abuse, and I forced myself whether I was really prepared to pray to spend eternity with the people who had exacted such violence against me. That’s what it means to pray for those who persecute you. Not to just pray that God would bless them, but to pray that they would receive salvation as you have received it. Not just to pray that their eyes would be opened, whilst expecting God to exact revenge on your behalf nonetheless, but to forgive them, and then ask that God would forgive them as He has forgiven you.

It isn’t an easy task. But then, Jesus never said that it would be easy. He was crucified to break the cycle. He paid the ultimate price. The least that I can do is to do my part. Because if I don’t, then His death becomes meaningless, and I can no longer call myself a Christ follower. A Christ straggler, perhaps, but not a follower. It’s never enough to want the saving and not be prepared to do the participating. I have to want to join Jesus in breaking the cycle of violence. I have to lay down my desire for God to exact revenge on my behalf and be willing to carry my cross all the way to Calvary and forgive as He forgave, love and He loved, and refuse, any more, to participate in the violence of humanity.

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