In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
This question is especially appropriate for our current liturgical season. After all, Lent is a time to consider our approaches to living a spiritually-engaged life. It is a time to reconnect with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves—forty days to examine, repent, and remember.
So, again: what does it mean to be a Christian?
Consider for a moment the most prolific symbol of Christian identity that we have: the cross. The cross is the focal point of the Christian calendar and of the Gospels. The cross is everywhere! Almost every church and denomination uses the image of the cross to signify their relationship with and belief in Jesus Christ. Most churches have a variety of crosses within their worship spaces—such as the brass cross behind me and the wooden cross above me. Our own shield of the Episcopal Church has a total of 11 crosses on it—the red Saint George’s Cross in the center, the nine small crosses that make up the diagonal white cross in the upper left, which itself is the saltire, the Saint Andrew’s Cross. The cross hangs in our homes and hangs from our necks. It symbolizes the power of Christ who overcame death for our redemption…
The vocation of Christian life that Jesus’ words present to us in this Gospel passage points us directly to the cross. We must “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross”. And only then, can we follow Christ! The crowd that gathered around Jesus that day knew very well what taking up one’s cross would entail.
The cross was an instrument of death. It would’ve been visible throughout Jesus’ life, along roadsides leading in and out of every city and town. In Jesus’ childhood, he likely would have seen over two thousand crosses erected throughout his homeland following the Galilean insurrection of 6CE. What an impression this would have made on him. Those crosses and the corpses that hung from them were constant reminders of who was in charge: The Roman Empire. The crucifixion event itself was centered around humiliation and torture. The person would be stripped and scourged. After that, they were often then forced to carry their cross to the place of execution. This is no easy task—the cross would easily weigh at least 300 pounds…
As my dear friend and mentor, the Episcopal priest and theologian Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. […]” She says, “The cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity.” The cross is an instrument of death, but also an instrument of control. It was the Roman Empire’s way of maintaining order, of maintaining their power. Think about who gets crucified: thieves and criminals, rabblerousers and insurrectionists, the poor, pirates and slaves. Crucifixion is to discourage troublemakers from making their trouble.
“Take up your cross” is not advice that the crowd could have wanted to hear. How is this the good news they expected?! Jesus directly asked them to become criminals: “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” Jesus does not offer them peace or freedom—he offers them death… death upon a cross. His response to them is startlingly honest: It’s not going to be easy. He tries to make them understand that they will be constantly facing challenges, but that they must do so with braveness and conviction.
Imagine the disciples’ confusion when Jesus told them, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” rejection, and death. But how can this be?, they must have thought… How is this good news? Would the disciples also have to undergo that same suffering and death? That is surely not what they signed up for! They sought glory and power, liberation from Rome… but before the crown comes the cross. Suffering has to be part of their journey alongside Jesus.
It is easy to love comfort. It is easy to love complacency. It is easy to love privilege. But being a Christian means giving up some of those things to suffer alongside those who walk the stony road to the cross. Being a Christian means removing my-self from the center of my own concerns. It isn’t always about a “feel good” theology. It asks us to do hard work. Being a Christian means waking up every day and choosing to walk with Jesus, no matter how much it challenges us—because being challenged to become better people, to become more Christ-like, is not meant to be easy, pleasant, or clean.
Discipleship means giving up parts of our own lives through sacrificial love, that which Jesus modelled for us on the cross. We sacrifice the cheap things of our life for eternal things. We give up candy or being uncharitable to strangers so that we might have a taste of that heavenly banquet that Jesus has promised us. Those who put themselves first will indeed be last. Those who are ashamed to be Christians do not honor the glory of the Lord Jesus who died for them, as Jesus so clearly explains.
God gave us life to spend, not keep. Living “abundantly” is to take up that cross and walk alongside Jesus and those who suffer, those who are humiliated, and those who are crucified by injustice. Walking with Jesus requires us to recognize our self-centeredness and help someone else first. I sense that what it means to be a Christian is to be Simon of Cyrene, to meet Jesus along the road to his crucifixion, to carry his cross, and to ease his burden for a while.
This is the journey of Lent. Taking up your cross does not feel like good news… And it shouldn’t. But we’re in it together. We do it together. We do this work as a community of believers—as friends and siblings and the people of God. And we all know what comes next: the cross that comes before the crown. And, so, while we carry our crosses, we must look toward the resurrection with the hope that Christ is always beside us.
Let the words of our sequence hymn be your Lenten instruction manual this week:
Take up your cross, then, in his strength,
and calmly ev’ry danger brave.
It guides you to abundant life
and leads to vict’ry o’er the grave.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015), 180.