It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. It gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.

Cross

cross 2

A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.

cross 1

If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.

The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?

And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.

cross 4

Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.

“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”

Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?

But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.

He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.

There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.

“Thirst.”

Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.

Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.

“Yeshua!”

Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.

He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…

Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.

He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.

The Problem with First World Problems

“First world problems.”

It was a funny categorization at first, but that phrase has begun to wear thin, don’t you think? It’s one thing to recognize that my problems aren’t as significant as other points of suffering in the world. Rarely, though, was this sobering realization followed up by action on behalf of those who are suffering with greater significance.

After all, few of us appreciate suffering. We don’t want to experience it, we get uncomfortable when we witness others go through it, and more often than not it is our guilt and our pity, rather than our compassion, that is aroused when we hear of global atrocities near and far. And, save for a bold few, it would seem that over time Christians in the West have lost their stomach for suffering.

Which is odd.

Because suffering is intimately connected to what Christians are taught to look to as the source and the power of our faith.

Pictured: suffering.

Pictured: suffering.

The ultimate activity of following Christ is to be made like him. It is the journey of sanctification – by the movement of the Spirit within us, we are slowly, day after day, made holy.

Our culture, however, encourages us to have our desires, needs, and aspirations met as quickly as possible. This selfishness is found in a slick-suit preacher who says, “Come to Jesus and he will make your life one joy after another.” While it is true that Jesus promised abundant life to those who would follow him, as the pioneer of that life, he set his “face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7) and walked faithfully on into a violent, fallen world.

Thus the question comes, what is more tragic: the poor and needy who have experienced suffering, or the proud and naïve who have no stomach for it?

If we are to become like Christ, suffering is necessary, and faithful perseverance is the goal. In his influential work, The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “The Son of God suffered ‘unto death’ not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.”

When we pray for God to reveal to us his glory, we should remember this. It was only after the visibly heartbroken Jesus washed his betrayer’s feet, broke bread for him, and bid him leave to fulfill his treachery that he was able to proclaim, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

To identify something as a “first world problem” may be to communicate perspective on hardship, but may we never forget that suffering is not something to always be on our guard against. May we be open to whatever comes our way, trusting in the provision and the compassion of a God who truly has seen it all.