Taking up the Cross
We had travelled to the South West of Ghana and into Ahanta-speaking country. We were staying at Dadson’s Lodge, a simple hostel located a few yards from a golden sandy beach, in the heart of an extensive village, the houses were of mud and brick, some meagre and insubstantial, others more extensive. The Lodge itself (this was 2004) had an air of faded splendour; our room boasted a remarkable chaise longue sofa which, in 1920, was probably attractively splendid and cosily comfortable. Likewise, the décor was seriously tired, the bleached wallpaper parting company with the walls, the worst problems carefully concealed behind dated pictures, and the plumbing adventurously unpredictable. That said, it was a delightful place to stay as a visiting group representing Wycliffe Bible Translators.
I woke the first morning very early, disturbed by a demented cock greeting the new day. Sadly, it had a snooze setting which precluded any notions of rediscovering sleep. My recollection of early morning breakfast was that, despite the notable absence of much modern technology, there was a working TV. I was both fascinated and disturbed to realise that the entire content on view, day after day, was of great rallies in a football stadium, where a preacher addressed a vast multitude of assembled people. Apparently an evangelist was paying a visit ‘on mission’ to Ghana. It became clear that he was sharing a message which might be described as ‘a prosperity gospel’. Let me summarise what the message was:
- If you follow Jesus you will find your problems solved
- If you follow Jesus you will be made healthy
- If you follow Jesus you will be made wealthy
- If you continue to have problems, if you continue to be unhealthy, if you continue to struggle financially (and remember this was Africa) then you cannot be a real follower of Jesus, and your faith is deficient.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13
According to the Bible, it is wise to be ready for suffering in life. Often the most painful emotions people experience when life is hard is because they think God would never let anything bad happen to them. But Easter tells us how God let the most perfect man (Jesus) suffer for a greater good (my good), so why should I ever think this might not happen to me, a follower of Jesus?
It is significant that Peter wrote the above, given that it was an issue with which he had struggled. It is ever so easy to superficially accept what Peter writes in his letter and to imagine ourselves immune from the seductions of the prosperity gospel. We need to be more self-aware and realise that a version of that false teaching can easily take root in our lives, under a different guise. Deep down there is a resistance in all of us to ‘take up the cross’ and follow Christ. The Gospels tell us how there was in Peter’s heart a reluctance to deal with hard and difficult things whilst following Jesus. Peter wanted following Jesus to be all glory and power and victory and status. So much so that when Jesus spoke of going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter had the effrontery to try to put Jesus right:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Mark 8:31-32
After rebuking Peter, Jesus further explains the principle that must inform their following of Him: the way of the Cross:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Mark 8:34-36
When Jesus spoke of carrying one’s cross He was referring to what took place at an execution. In Britain, when executions took place publicly, the condemned criminal was led through the streets on foot or dragged in a cart to the place of the execution. The crowds watched this grim procession, knowing exactly what lay at the end of the road for the victim. A person on the way to their execution was compelled to abandon all earthly hopes and all worldly ambitions. Such things were lost to them. Their life was forfeit, their earthly hopes were lost and worldly ambitions dashed. It is this costly surrender of all worldly ambition, and earthly hope, which lies at the heart of what Jesus teaches here about discipleship.
The word Jesus uses for ‘life’ is psyche, from which we get our word psychology. It is a reference to your identity and personality and selfhood, everything that makes you, you. What Jesus is saying is that you must not build that identity on gaining things in the world.
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Note that we are incapable of saving our souls. That is an accomplishment that is beyond us. But we are capable of losing our soul by not following Jesus and by building our lives on other foundations.
The point is that every culture has lures and enticements saying: ‘If you have this or accomplish that then your life will be valuable’. In traditional cultures you would struggle to find acceptance and respectability unless you had a family and children - very tough on the single or childless. In western individualistic cultures you are a nobody unless you have a stellar career that provides you with money and status. Whether you are in a traditional culture or an individualistic one, the message is the same - your identity is performance-based and achievement-determined. We are then turning these things into saviours.
Jesus’ point is that this never works. He is the only saviour. If you are building your identity on success, and success eludes you, or on a relationship, and that relationship fails then you are left feeling as if you don’t have a self that matters. We end up with loss, not gain.
Jesus said: whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. The Gospel is the love of Jesus and it is His love that changes and transforms. Jesus is saying that He went to the cross and lost His identity so that we could have one. Knowing that kind of love in your life makes all the difference. That is the love we focus on afresh at Easter.