While Christianity is filled with joy in the certainty of Jesus’s promises, those promises are balanced with assurances that we will face suffering. In fact, suffering seems to be tendered as a condition of our Christianity, for Jesus says [NIV Matt. 16:24]
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that if we don’t find a cross to carry, we can’t call ourselves a disciple of Christ.
Now the obvious thing about the cross is the pain involved. But if the experience of pain was a condition of grace, Jesus would have come into the world a cripple, and shown us how to overcome that deficit. And to be healed would be contrary to grace, rather than an act to be celebrated – as Jesus so joyfully did – as a demonstration of great faith.
So we should be cautious against ascribing a long illness as a cross to bear, nor a difficult relationship or financial challenges. Jesus presented us another tool to use in overcoming those difficulties: an openness to the unconditional love tendered from the divine source, and a sharing of its riches with those around us. It was a message of truth that both revealed our nature, and the grace of the relationship that God seeks to share with us.
It is this observation that leads us into an understanding of the metaphor as Jesus offered it. The cross was not just the place of suffering – it was a tool wielded by the rulers of the age to prevent Jesus from sharing his message. Those authorities achieved their position largely through fear. In the case of the Romans and Herod, it was fear through threat of violence. In the case of the Temple priests, it was fear gained through the threat of spiritual corruption.
To take up the cross, then, is to offer the world the experience of our love, and to be harmed by those who use fear to control those to whom we offer hope. It is to speak truth to power, to do it joyfully, and to make courage born of faith a demonstration of the weakness of our persecutors.
There is no place in which it is more important to do this than in our churches. Consider: the only direct assault Jesus mounted against the rulers of his age was against the money changers in the Temple – the intermediaries that profited by standing between the faithful and the healing love of God.
So do not make too much, fellow Christians, of finding that we have pain in our lives. That is not what qualifies us in the eyes of Jesus. We find certain grace as Christians only when our pain serves to overcome the institutions that stand against love: either the perfect love of God, or the love that we offer each other.