Holy Week | Walking in the Way of the Cross
Lectionary Readings for Good Friday Year B: April 3, 2015; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10: 16-25; John 18:1-19:42
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mark 8:34
The cross means different things to different people these days. For some, it is a piece of jewelry. For others it is a sign and symbol of their commitment to Christ or their call to ordained ministry. For many Christians around the world, the cross is an experience—it takes the form of daily and life-threatening persecution. For every Christian, the beauty and brutality of the cross is the inescapable reality that confronts us during Holy Week, challenging us to consider what it means for us to follow Jesus in taking up our own cross—whatever form that may take.
Take up Your Cross
For decades, I have lived in and traveled to areas of the world where Christians are a persecuted minority. In the 1970s, I was a student in Lahore, Pakistan, when Muslim extremists desecrated the church on a Christian college campus. The building was damaged, Bibles were burned, and Christians were assaulted. This made no sense to us because the college had provided the finest education to both Christians and Muslims in Pakistan for more than a hundred years. The Christian community was outraged, and we held a rally in Lahore Cathedral to pray and express our frustration at how we, as minorities, had been treated by the majority community. Leaders of the assembly (made up of nearly 2,000 people) then marched to the governor’s house in Punjab to present a memorandum of protest.
I was asked to carry a large processional cross to lead the march. Although it was a peaceful demonstration, armed policemen repeatedly pointed their guns and batons at my chest. It was a terrifying experience at the time, but one that now seems almost mild in light of recent events. You see, it was less than two years ago on a Sunday morning in September when two Taliban suicide bombers attacked All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan. The attack left 127 worshipers dead and more than 250 wounded.
In January this year I was invited to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at All Saints Church. It was a profoundly moving experience to worship on the very ground where the blood of Christian martyrs was spilled. After the service, I was approached by Mano Rumalshah, bishop emeritus of the Peshawar diocese, who presented me with an iconic Cross of Thorns. “Receive this Cross of Thorns,” he said. “Receive it on behalf of a people who carry around in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies. And please remember us in your prayers” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
Marked by the Cross
The bishop’s request for prayer was no mere formality. Incidents of violence against Christians were becoming more frequent and churches in predominantly Muslim countries were on high alert. Just three weeks earlier in the coastal Libyan city of Sirte, masked ISIS gunmen went from room to room in a residential compound checking IDs, and separating Muslims from Christians. The Muslims were released but the Coptic Christians—Egyptians working in Libya—were handcuffed and kidnapped. The identification process was simplified by a distinctive mark—a small cross tattoo on the inner wrist.
For generations, Coptic Christians have tattooed themselves as a permanent sign of their allegiance to Christ. On February 12, less than three weeks after my trip to Peshawar, the video-taped beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians by Islamist militants in Libya was worldwide headline news.
It is stories like these and many others that I wrestle with throughout Lent and Holy Week. What does it really mean for Christians today to be obedient to the call of Christ? How are we to respond to his teaching: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Those who first heard these words and decided to follow Jesus had already made a risky choice. It was a perilous time in Roman-occupied Palestine—violence and uprisings were common and threats to the state were ruthlessly put down. Jesus’ followers knew he was the Messiah, and they thought that meant Jesus would soon be overthrowing the pagans, restoring the temple, and establishing a new kingdom built on justice. That was their dream. But instead of defeating the Romans, Jesus ended up crucified. And his followers were left with a command to exchange their lesser dreams for a cross.
This, at its simplest, is what Jesus was all about. Through his crucifixion, the Messiah makes it clear that following him is not without cost. In fact, it is a dangerous choice that inevitably leads to death of one kind or another. Or did we suppose that taking up a cross would require only a few minor adjustments to our ordinary lives?
The persecuted Christians I have come to know over the past thirty years help me to understand more about what it looks like to take up one’s cross today. Their living faith has grown from a risky choice to align themselves with the cross of Christ. Their cross is a daily struggle to follow Jesus in the midst of betrayal, suffering, threats, and persecution. And this commitment is the source of their extraordinary perseverance and power. They embody the truth that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”
(1 Corinthians 1:18).
Jesus’ Call to the Cruciform Life
Jesus’ life and death show us that the cross is not optional. Taking up one’s cross is required for all who follow Jesus Christ. Christ leads the procession carrying his cross; we, his followers, are to walk in his steps bearing our own crosses. We do so knowing that life with the cross ultimately ends not in death but in the glory of resurrection.
So what are our crosses? They are not simply trials or hardships. It is typical to think of a tough boss or a troublesome family member as a “cross.” But difficult relationships are not the same thing as a cross. Even suffering, illnesses, or disabilities cannot properly be called crosses. A cross is a choice. We take up our cross when we walk in Christ’s steps and embrace his life, which means extending ourselves in difficult circumstances for the sake of the gospel. At times, that may mean lifting high the cross of Christ in the public square. At other times, it may mean embracing weakness instead of power.
For Christians in Pakistan, it means loving those who persecute them. “We are 100,000 Anglican Christians among 30 million Muslims,” said Mano Rumalshah, “and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have told us to leave or be killed. Instead, we wash their wounds and provide them tender care in our hospitals when they are injured. We are not leaving. We are continuing to serve, to carry his cross, and to follow Jesus by loving those who hate us.”
Such sacrificial love for others—the cruciform life—is the gold standard of Christian conduct. The apostle Paul and the first followers of Jesus did not win the world to Christ through sword and power but through service and witness. The church in the northern hemisphere has been losing membership because it has become aligned more with wealth and power than sacrificial love. The sign of the church’s true power is not in the heights of our cathedral spires, but in the depths of our loving and sacrificial service. It is in and through our weakness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that the church finds its power to conquer violence and death.
Learning from Jesus How to Be Like Jesus
In a world marked by poverty, greed, apathy, violence, and persecution, Jesus’ life and death challenge us to live cruciform lives. The world is waiting for us to lift high the cross—to make costly choices for love of Christ. I hope and pray during this Holy Week that we will all find ourselves under the cross of Jesus, asking what it means to follow him in life and in death. As we walk in the way of the cross this week and ask Jesus to show us what it means for us, may we heed his plea:
“Take up thy cross,” the Savior said,
“If thou wouldst my disciple be;
Take up thy cross with a willing heart,
And humbly follow after me.”
—“Take Up Thy Cross,” Charles William Everest
© 2015 Patrick P. Augustine. Not to be reproduced in print without permission.