Several times in the gospels, Jesus challenges one or more people to “take up [your] cross, and follow me.” This challenge is found in all three of the synoptic gospels, and occurs long before Jesus is crucified. So what did the cross represent before Jesus’ crucifixion? What was Jesus telling the people to do?
Crucifixion was typically reserved for non-citizens and traitors. Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17). There is no dual citizenship. One must choose obedience and allegiance to Jesus, or to the princes of this world. For Christians, when a decision has to be made to either obey one or the other, obedience to Christ must be chosen. This becomes nothing short of treason to the other.
Who are the princes of this world? Obviously in Jesus’ time the Roman government was top of that list, but other things made the list as well and these were not intrinsically evil things. These were good things given to us by God, but not intended to be placed before God.
The first competitor for our allegiance is life itself. One of the first things Jesus tells the twelve he chose to be the leaders in training for his new kingdom was “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10: 28). Jesus also told his disciples “those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10: 39). It was a hard lesson to learn. Peter later rebuked Jesus when he said he must be killed and Jesus called him “Satan” and a “stumbling block.” (Matt 16:21-23). Fear of death leads us to worship the false god of immortality. Not the immortal soul or life in eternity, but the desire for immortal here in this life on this earth. From the Conquistadores search for the fountain of youth to today’s obsession with beauty and youth, we seek to be like God. Taking up our cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”
Jesus’ next instruction to the twelve is not to allow family to become more important than commitment to him. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37) Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from their boats and the family members that were on them to follow Jesus. To what extent they stayed away we do not know, not completely, because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, but I am sure there were many times their families and the other disciples’ families had “other plans” for them that they had to forgo. At one time Jesus’ family, including his mother Mary tried to talk him into returning to Nazareth and stop his crazy behavior. Jesus responds asking the rhetorical question “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12: 48) He answers his own question saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 12: 50).
Material possessions are another of the princes of this world that call us to worship at other altars. In Mark, chapter 10 it was the man who came up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to whom Jesus said take up your cross. Some translations just say “come, follow me”, but the KJV and some Greek manuscripts indicate that he was told to first to give away all that he owned to the poor and then take up his cross and follow Jesus. The world tells us we need to worry about how much stuff we have and do we have the right stuff. The billions of dollars that are spent on advertising each year are testimony to the importance the world places on buying and selling stuff. Jesus says the stuff is not important. Following me is what counts.
With Jesus’ crucifixion, the cross takes on an additional meaning. The cross becomes for us the symbol of our Passover from everlasting death. Jesus is the director in this Passion Play. While the leaders of the synagogue, Herod, and Pontus Pilate may all believe they are in control of the events of Good Friday, Jesus reminds Pilate, that God is the one in charge and that they can only do what God allows. The scene is set at the Passover which has deep symbolic meaning for the Jews, but the meaning would not have been unknown to the local Gentiles because Passover was a huge holiday. All the merchants and innkeepers would have geared up for the hordes of people that would descend on Jerusalem for the Passover, just like coastal communites prepare for Spring Breakers.
After declaring during the previous night’s meal that that wine is representative of his blood that will be spilled and that the bread is representative of his body that will be broken, Jesus allows history to progress normally with his betrayal by one of his own disciples, his arrest by both the Jews and the Gentiles, his trial and physical abuse that so resembles the agony of Psalm 22 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 to 53, and finally his crucifixion. This was not a coincidence; it was carefully staged by Jesus to occur at this time in this manner. It is clear that Jesus intended his sacrifice to call to mind that first sacrifice in Egypt on the night of their deliverance out of slavery and bondage and to be a reminder for all time that with his blood, we are delivered from the plague of sin and eternal death.
We cannot take up Jesus’ cross. There is only one cross of Christ. Richard Harris says in a poem he wrote about the religious struggles in Ireland, “There are too many saviors on my cross, lending their blood to flood out my ballot box with needs of their own. Who put you there? Who told you that was your place?” We are not called to take up our cross to save the world. Jesus has already done that. We are called to take up our cross by swearing allegiance to Christ and to Christ alone. We should stick out as aliens in a foreign land and no one should have to guess at our nationality. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven whose allegiance is first and always to our king, Jesus.