Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Cross

Jesus tells us that to follow Him, we must take up our cross and walk in His steps. But what does that mean?

Bearing Our Cross Like Christ

In Luke 14:25-33 we discover a great deal about what Jesus Christ's invitation of "Follow Me" really means. The account begins by describing how "great multitudes went with Him." And why not? Here was a teacher with incredible insights, a humanitarian providing food for the masses, and one performing miraculous healings. Indeed, Jesus must have been an incredible human magnet drawing gigantic crowds. What was there not to like? But now, He knew the time had come to tell His audience what the rest of their journey entailed.
He proclaimed: "If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And you cannot be my disciple if you do not carry your own cross and follow me" (New Living Translation).
How do we do that?

Emulating the cross-bearing life

Jesus' statement isn't a casual invitation, but a demanding expectation that requires surrendering every fiber of one's being. Bearing a cross wasn't lost on the audience of that day. Many had seen condemned individuals carry the beam on which they would die to the spot of their execution. Such a vivid description surely grabbed their attention!
Christ's invitation to "come after Me" remains for all to ponder throughout the ages. Before going any further, notice what Jesus specifically states regarding His expectations.
Those who accept His invitation, He said, would have to bear their own cross—not to be confused with the redemptive sacrifice borne by Christ alone. Thus, we don't "piggy back" on His cross, but learn from Him how to bear our personal challenges as we follow in His steps.
Here the One who so often spoke of life was seemingly embracing suffering and even death as a gateway to fuller understanding. Is it any wonder He challenges His followers to "count the cost" to see whether they have the commitment to finish the course? (Luke 14:28-33).
How, then, do we respond to this invitation as we face our many challenges in the arena of life? Let's prepare the pathway of our personal journey by appreciating that emulating a "cross-bearing" life was foundational to the teaching and expectation of Jesus and the early Church.
The apostle Paul summarized it in this way: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20, King James Version). Paul expounds and expands the spiritual equation that the crucified existence is not something limited to Golgotha alone, but is to be firmly staked in our hearts, representing the seat of our motivation.
While the Bible would not have us elevate the symbol of a cross to the level of adoration, our daily worship of God is molded by this powerful biblical metaphor of bearing a cross. Embracing and internalizing its significance, as Christ intended and the apostle Paul expressed, is a guiding principle of not being conformed to this world, actively renewing our minds, and being transformed into Christ's image. How then do we bear a cross, ourcross, like Jesus?

Always keep our purpose in mind

The first aspect to emulate is that Christ's purpose was always before Him. Jesus didn't simply wind up on a cross as some kind of "accidental savior." At the beginning of His ministry He clearly stated, "The Son of Man must be lifted up" (John 3:14), alluding to His coming crucifixion.
He referred to Moses raising the emblem of the serpent in the wilderness to stop death in its tracks as a type of what His role would be to halt sin's death grip. Jesus clearly began each day with this end in mind. He understood that He was set apart for a special purpose—to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The crucified life in Christ is something no naturally minded person would ever choose. But Jesus made something very plain in John 15:16, stating, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you." Likewise, our purpose of honoring such a calling and serving others must always be set before us, lest we succumb to being "accidental Christians."
Jesus Himself said, "I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:30). He knew that He had to die that we might live. And likewise we must die to our own agenda that Christ might live in us. As long as you cling to a personal agenda, the will of God will be thwarted in you.
Paul expressed the full significance of the crucified existence when he wrote, "But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
In following Christ, Paul was putting to death any desire he might have had to follow the allure of this world or to establish an agenda apart from God's will. When God's purpose is foremost in your life, you won't live accidentally (despite stumbling at times). Your established focus of a cross-bearing life will serve as the ultimate "spiritual GPS" directing your steps.

Carrying our load with humility

The second aspect of Christ's life to consider is not only His bearing of a cross but howHe carried it. It is the essence of the crucified existence. It's not simply recognizing a cross in our life or even being willing to bear its weight, but how we carry it that creates the meaningful outcome of glorifying God. Bearing our cross like Christ means we must walk in humility behind His example.   
Allow me to be blunt: Religious folks aren't always the humblest people. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) or the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees to all those "sinners" gathered around Jesus (Luke 15:1-2) displays a pride-filled walk diametrically opposite to that of Christ. Their vaunted estimation of themselves before God was blurred by who they thought they were and what they knew rather than what their hearts revealed about their inner motivations.
Their hearts, while sincere, were contrary to the words of Paul in Philippians 2:5: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (English Standard Version).
Jesus stepped down from the realm of eternity into time and space and died for us so we might live forever! He did it without fanfare or complaining about the mission set before Him. He never lifted Himself up beyond what was proper and allowed His Heavenly Father alone to "highly [exalt] Him and [give] Him the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:9).

Embracing spiritual reality

What does such humility entail for followers of Jesus Christ? Humility is a proper estimation of ourselves apart from God and who He is. It is a proper recognition that we deserve nothing but death but have been rescued, reconciled and restored—the reality being that, but for the grace of God, we would still be drowning in self.
Thus, we view and respect others as God has treated us—graciously—and recognize that God has not completed His work in them or in us. We realize full well that we were "dead men walking" and never forget it.
Paul outlined this trait of humility again and again in his letters. He often prioritized humility as a premier trait of God's Spirit. This was in stark contrast to the worldview of the day that disdained the thought that humility could be a virtue. Paul repeatedly emphasized this vital step in bearing our cross like Christ in stating, "Walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness" (Ephesians 4:1-2).
Even as we bear our personal cross with footsteps of vision and humility, allow me to be frank: The crucified life within you can be humanly lonely. Scripture reminds us of challenges Jesus faced—that early on the disciples didn't grasp His discussion about crucifixion, that He prayed alone while others slept, that His associates fled at Gethsemane when humanly needed most, and that one of His closest associates repeatedly denied knowing Him.

Helping bear the load

Need I say any more about the lonely walk of bearing a cross? Yes! God will bring people into our lives to help us carry our cross. Scripture gives a clear example in Mark 15:21that when Jesus could humanly go no further, one named Simon of Cyrene was used to help God's Son go the distance.
When God does bring such people into our lives, we need to let them help carry the load. Appreciate them! More than that, be prepared to step up and bear the spiritual and emotional cross of others.
Again, we are reminded in that chronicle of Christ's humility in Philippians 2 of our duty in this regard: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others" (Philippians 2:4).
Paul further broadens this concept in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."
Simply put: Pass it on! Being a modern-day Simon of Cyrene is never planned, never easy, sometimes unpopular—except with God. It's being open, available and willing to experience what God has in store.
As we accept the challenge of bearing our cross like Christ, whatever it might be, understand that it's not simply going to disappear because of imitating His approach and attitude. We may still have to endure great hardship. But it will have purpose-filled meaning. The unique calling that God has granted us and fellow believers is not designed to bring instant gratification, but rather to conquer the flesh and place it in context with God's eternal perfection being molded in our inner man now.
When we embrace this reality, we will accept that pain is inevitable and it's only misery that's optional. Christ bore His cross and was hung on the cross, remaining there until He died. He did not come down from that which He bore in our place. Neither can we abandon that which we have been honored to carry for God's purposes to be revealed.
Before we bear a crown (2 Timothy 4:8), we must bear a cross. It may be on us now or perhaps it awaits us—along with God's promises concerning His care. He will never lead us where His Spirit cannot care for us. Always recognizing that the greater the need, the greater the grace, step by step we take up the privileged invitation of carrying a cross like Christ.

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