Stained glass – “Carrying the Cross of Christ” Gabriel Loire (1904-1996)
But what does “taking up the cross” mean? This is the first reference to “the cross” in Matthew, and Jesus uses it as a metaphor for the difficult work of embracing an unconventional life of intense, generous commitment to God’s mission — a willingness, as Jesus sums it up, to “lose their life” in order to “find it” (Matthew 10:39). According to this ideal picture, following Jesus means making God’s mission of love and justice the first priority in our lives, even above family and livelihood (Matthew 10:35-37; 10:9-10). It means being willing to confront and conflict with death-dealing powers, so much so that — even as genuine peacemaking remains the ultimate goal — it may well initially appear as though we “have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 5:9; 10:34).
In brief, discipleship means leaving behind conventional approaches to kinship, career, and social harmony — and that’s not a prospect to be taken lightly. Count the cost before you go. The good news of the Gospel may be for everyone — but discipleship isn’t. That may be counterintuitive. Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that anyone can become a disciple, and that the goal is to make as many as possible? Well, if Jesus thought so, he had a strange way of showing it.
According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus encountered thousands of people during his ministry — but only called something like fourteen to be disciples. Nor did he send out the twelve disciples to recruit and expand their ranks; rather, he expressly sent them out to heal and liberate and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 10:1,7-8). Likewise, Jesus and his entourage moved through the countryside feeding, healing, and teaching the crowds, but not signing them up as disciples. For the overwhelming majority of the people he met, his signature sign-off wasn’t “Follow me,” but rather: “Your faith has made you well,” or “Return home and declare how much God has done for you,” or “Go on your way, and sin no more,” or “Go in peace.” In short, Jesus comes to save many (indeed the whole world!), but as for disciples, he calls only a few.
As Jesus commissions his disciples, he warns them of adversity to come — and such struggles continue today. Death-dealing forces come in many forms, of course, but in American life (and beyond!) a prime example is racism, a hateful injustice that will not go quietly when confronted by forces of love and equity.
Peacemaking is the ultimate goal, of course, but every unjust status quo has formidable supporters with vested interests (that’s why it’s the status quo!), and so moving toward genuine peace almost always initially involves conflict. Jesus both acknowledges and normalizes this turmoil, counseling us to expect it — and calling us to trust a caring God of love and justice along the way. In our lowest moments, God comes alongside us with loving-kindness, asking, “What troubles you?”