22 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: V. The X-Change

Philippians 2: 1-11

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 21st March 2010

What does it mean to live a cross-shaped life? That’s the question we’ve been exploring these weeks in Lent. What does it mean for us to live lives formed and informed by the cross of Christ? Jesus was quite explicit about the role of the cross, not only in his life but in the life of everyone who bears his name. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).”

Last week we saw the link between the depths of Jesus’ compassion that led to his passion on the cross, suffering with and for God’s people. To live a cross-shaped life means that suffering of some kind is never very away. It’s not just any kind of suffering that comes from living in a fallen world. A cross-shaped life is not glorifying in suffering. Instead, it’s the suffering that comes when we are committed to the vision and values of God’s Kingdom; it’s what we’re willing to endure for God when we confront the injustices of the world; it’s the consequence for attempting to resist everything and everyone in the world that is at odds with God’s redemptive vision for humanity. It’s the suffering that comes when God’s Kingdom comes up against all the kingdoms of this world, all the powers and principalities and forces, all the injustice, and sorrow, and evil that tries its best to undo God’s vision. The New Testament calls this force, anti-Christ. The anti-Christ is not the name of a person, but the name given to anything and anyone in the world and, yes, even within the church that is at odds with the redemptive purpose of God’s world. (1) It means being anti-God. Cross-shaped suffering is the kind of suffering that comes when in compassion we see the plight of God’s children and then choose to enter into their suffering, to stand with them, and struggle to alleviate their suffering.

That’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry because it’s God’s way. Jesus is the link between compassion and passion; they cross in him. The more we link the two in our lives the more our lives become cross-shaped. We saw last week that the word for compassion in the Bible (splaghnizomai) does not refer to pity or “feeling sorry” for someone, but it means to be moved to one’s guts, one’s bowels. (2) It’s a deep feeling in the gut. Jesus looked out and saw the suffering of God’s people and it made him sick to his stomach. He suffers with them. To suffer means, literally, to undergo, to receive. He participates in their condition and makes it his own; he shares their pain and makes it his own. And that experience moves him to act, to care, to alleviate their pain and suffering. We begin to see that what Jesus did among the crowds in the Galilee was intensified on the cross, receiving our experience and making it his own, receiving into himself our sin and making it his own, participating in all the suffering and hurt, undergoing the brokenness of our lives and making it his own, sharing our plight, our sin, taking it all into himself. Yes, he takes it all into himself, absorbing it all, every blow. Blow after blow after blow. He bears it all.

But Jesus doesn’t stay there. He just doesn’t sit with our suffering and pain; he participates in it and then gives something of himself to the situation. He acts, he moves us beyond that point either by overcoming it all and offering something new in its place, or taking our suffering and while not removing our pain does something meaningful, something creative with it. He reframes our understanding of suffering. He puts in a new context.

It’s very clear that the early church saw within Jesus something new and different. He showed that suffering can have meaning, for there was meaning in his death. “If the suffering embodied on the cross did not have such a powerful and creative [dimension] to it in love, the eye-witnesses of Jesus would have seen only his pain, misfortune or even his failure, instead of the embodiment of something new about God. Otherwise they would have dismissed it as only another instance of regrettable pain in a tragic hero.” (3) There were thousands crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus (36- c.100) tells us that at one point there were no trees left in Jerusalem for the Romans to construct crosses with. (4) Yet they saw in Jesus’ suffering love and resurrection, the sign that something new has broken into human history.

With compassion Christ participated in human suffering in order to confront it, face it head-on, in order to judge it, redeem it, and offer in its place the healing presence of God. This is what I’m calling the exchange. Receiving one thing into himself, Jesus offers something new in its place. He takes all the sin and brokenness in the world – what the Bible calls death (which is more than just physical death) – absorbs it into himself, suffers through it and extends resurrection. That’s the exchange – and it’s powerfully reflected in the symbol and meaning of the cross itself. It’s actually the cross linked with resurrection, for together they have yielded something new into the world and into our lives through faith.

For people like Paul, for the early Christians, this exchange occurred in the life of Jesus, but it didn’t stop there. It didn’t just happen in his life. Because of the power of the Spirit of Christ at work in us now, this is also a description of the life of one who is, as Paul loved to say, en Christo, “in Christ.” In Jesus we saw how God participated in humanity and how his humanity participated in God. Right from the start followers of Jesus believed this same pattern, this same dynamic, this same “mind of Christ,” as Paul says here in Philippians 2, was available to everyone who is “in Christ.” Because we are “in Christ,” God continues to participate in humanity, in the human condition, in order to bring humanity, the human condition into the very life of God. This is the exchange.

This understanding of the cross as exchange is found in the early centuries of the church. We see it in the words of Irenaeus (2nd century – c. 202), Bishop of Lyons, writing sometime in the second century, “Lord Jesus Christ…did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” (5) See the exchange here? Or as Athanasius (c.293-373) said in the fourth century, “God became what we are to make us what [God] is.” (6) This way of viewing the Christian life has always been more prevalent in the Eastern Church. They called it theosis, it means humans become like God. For them, following Jesus meant participating presently in his presence. They believed God was actually at work in them, doing something beautiful with their lives, shaping their lives to reflect more and more the glory of God. It’s why Irenaeus could say, “The glory of God is when a human person is fully alive.” The more a human being comes fully alive by participating in and with God, God’s glory is all the more shown. This approach is still central in Eastern Orthodoxy.

This view never caught on in the Western church, in either the early Roman Catholic Church or later in Protestantism, although you can find it in John Calvin (1509-1564). In the West the emphasis has been upon imitation. Think of Thomas á Kempis’ (c.1380-1471) classic text, The Imitation of Christ from 1418. The title alone sums up how many view what it means to be a Christian. How often do we assume that being a Christian means only imitating Jesus, doing what he did, trying to be good as he was, trying to behave like him. It’s as if we’ve set Jesus up as an ethical ideal or role model and have tried to emulate him, copy him, be like him. This view inevitably sets us up for failure, for who could ever attempt to be like him?

That’s not Paul’s understanding. Contemporary Pauline scholar, Douglas Campbell, argues that Paul’s theology “is no mere imitatio Christi! [imitation of Christ], for “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” to participate in Christ, such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian life into the likeness of Christ.” God is inviting us to participate in God’s life through Christ. For Paul it’s about cultivating the “mind of Christ:” “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

It’s here Paul offers this glorious hymn to Christ. What is the mind or way of Christ? What is the mind or way of God that we discovered in Christ? And what is that mind or way, what does it look like? It looks like a cross. As Jesus revealed with his life, at the very heart of God there has and always will be a cross. If Jesus is the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever experienced, then that means that Jesus on the cross is telling us something of God, of God’s way of being, of serving, God’s way of sharing and participating in human suffering. At the center of Jesus’ life was a cross. At the center, the crossroads of the Christian life stands a cross. Because in the heart of God there has and always will be a cross – the symbol of suffering love, of love that suffers for and with God’s people, the “furthest point which a God of love can go – that is, to the uttermost depth of alienation and estrangement.” (8)

Most translations of the hymn read, “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….” Such readings make it sound like when Jesus was born he gave up part of his divinity, to take up the role of a servant or slave. It sounds like he did something that a God usually doesn’t do. That he chose to condescend to being human. However, as Michael Gorman has recently shown, the text can also be translated, “who, because he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to grasped, but emptied himself….” (9) And it should be noted here, that empty doesn’t mean divestiture or a limiting of divine attributes. It’s really a robust metaphor for total self-abandonment and self-giving. (10) In Jesus, God is shown to be a servant, who pours Godself out in service and compassion for the sake of the people. Why? Because this is who God is. Because God is the One who gives and serves and gives God’s life as a suffering servant, no doubt echoing Isaiah 53. Jesus served because that’s what a God does, serve like a slave. This is a shocking claim, if you think about it.

In Jesus’ day this was not the normal way to view the “form of God.” As a matter of fact, scholars have recently shown that this phrase “form of God” was a term used to describe the characteristics of the Roman Emperor, of an Augustus, whether Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) or Tiberius Augustus (42 BC – 37 AD), of one worshipped as a god. For the Romans the emperor as form of god was demonstrated with “Piety, War, Victory, and Peace” – a demonstration of brute force and strength, the very opposite way of a slave. In the eastern section of the Empire, “form of God” was language that only applied to the emperor. For Paul and the early Christians to use this phrase in their hymn to Christ sets Christ over against the Roman emperor.”(11)

In fact, this hymn says,
if you want to see the true form of God,
if you want to know what it means to be a true God,
if you want to see how power ought to be used,
then look not at the imperial eagle of Rome,
but to the cross inflicted by Rome
which has now
by God’s grace,
in a surprising turn of events,
been given an exchange of meaning:
a symbol of death becomes of a symbol of power over death,
a cross which symbolizes God’s self-emptying in Jesus who gave in love,
and remained faithful to this love,
to the point of death,
even on a cross.

Let his life, his way of suffering-love and service, his way of compassion, empathy, sympathy, let this way, which is the very way, the mind of God, unfold in you. That’s what Paul is saying. This is not the language of imitation, but the language of participation – spoken directly to the church. Because a community that lives “in Christ” will be shaped by the journey to the cross; our journey of the cross is shaped by the story of Christ narrated here in this hymn. This is the cross-shaped life. Such a community does not simply remember and try to imitate a story. The world today is tired of a church that tries to imitate Jesus – because for the most part we’ve failed miserably at this. People have given up on the church because we have failed to yield what we say we believe. Instead, the world hungers for a church where people participate in the way of suffering-love, an experience of the present activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in us now, forming and transforming us, sometimes in costly ways, and shaping us into a body that reflects the grace and justice, the glory and love of God.

This is what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to look like and what the world needs. We see glimpses of here and there in the world and now and again in ourselves and in this church. It’s because we’ve seen what God can do through the church that keeps us here, but there’s so much yet to be done. Our journey of the cross never ends. We are called to take it up daily. The vision set before us is shaped by the mind of Christ at work in us, forever enabling us to live lives shaped by his cross.

1. See John 2: 18 & 2: 22, for example. Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155) warned the Philippians that everyone that preached false doctrine was an antichrist.
2. See Matthew 9: 35-38.
3. Hiroshi Obayahi, Agape and History: A Theological Essay on Historical Consciousness (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981), 271-271.
4. Josephus in his Jewish War tells us during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, five hundred or more were caught daily venturing outside the city to forage for food. These were crucified until there was no more room for crosses, nor any more wood to build them (5.451).
5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c.180), 5.1.
6. Anthanasius, Incarnation of the Word, 54.
7. Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, cited in Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 71.
8. Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), .
Gorman, 9ff.
Gorman, 21.
9. John Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostles Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, cited in Gorman, 18. See also Gorman, 19.

15 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: IV. (Com)passion

Matthew 9: 35-38

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 14th March 2010

What does it mean to live a cross-shaped life? What does it mean for us to live lives formed by the cross of Christ? When Jesus invited his disciples to join him in the kingdom he said one must first take up a cross and follow. The God’s Kingdom is the way of the cross; the way of the cross is the way of God’s Kingdom. Cross and kingdom cannot be separated. To embrace one is the embrace the other. The way of one is the way of other.

Three weeks ago we saw that one way to approach Jesus’ cross is from the perspective that it was not the inevitable goal of his life, but the consequence of being faithful to his identity as the Son of God, and his commitment to preaching the good news of God’s Empire. Undying commitment to one’s calling will inevitably mean facing considerable temptation to give up, to find an easier way, to deny one’s identity. Commitment to God’s Kingdom inevitably involves some kind of cost, as we saw last week. This is the way of Jesus Christ we find in the gospels. While Jesus’ life and work were unique to him, something of the pattern of his life, of his journey informs and shapes the pattern of lives that seek to be in conformity and relationship with him; his life defines the template of our lives; his journey shapes our cross-like journey.

The word passion is often used to describe Jesus’ journey to and experience of the cross. It’s a term used for the events and the spiritual, mental, and physical anguish Jesus faced in the hours leading up to his crucifixion. The etymology of the word lies in the Greek verb paschō, meaning to suffer. We see it used in Matthew 17:12, “…for the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands,” meaning the chief priests and Pharisees (with parallel passages in Mark and Luke), and in Acts 1:13, “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them….” The Greek paschō was translated into Latin with the word passio, hence passion, meaning “to suffer.”

The implications of this are quite uncomfortably obvious for us. To live a cross-shaped life means suffering of some kind is never very far away. The cross includes passion, an experience of suffering. To suggest otherwise is to try to have Christianity without a cross – and there are far too many expressions of that in the history of the church. This might not sit well with us. As Protestants, we prefer, as my mother described, an “empty cross,” without Jesus. Ours is the cross of resurrection, we like to say, not of Good Friday suffering. This is true. But we need to remember: we don’t get to an experience of resurrection without first dying. The way to the empty tomb is through the suffering of the cross. This is difficult to hear, I know. I don’t really want to preach it. Heck, there are times when I don’t even want to live it. It’s not a popular image. This is not the kind of message that churches generally use to market themselves to gain new members. You don’t see this on church billboards. “Come join us and suffer like Christ!” What kind of impact do you think that would have for the thousands of people who drive past us on Frederick Road? This is not the message of the mega-church or even large churches. This will never be a message embraced by the masses. From the beginning this has always been the subversive message of a minority, when the church was indeed a tiny, struggling minority in the vast Roman Empire. That is before Christianity became the official religion of in 313 AD. Some historians say that’s when Christianity lost its soul. (1)

Now all of this talk about passion and suffering is depressing, I know, but it’s also dangerous when it is divorced from some larger purpose or meaning. Jesus’ passion, his sufferings were never just for the sake of glorifying suffering. This is not some kind of embracing suffering for suffering’s sake. Neither does this mean that in order to be more Christ-like one must suffer more. Jesus didn’t suffer on the cross because he had to. We could say it was his choice. Not because he wanted to suffer, but because the depths of his love for the good news of God’s Kingdom, a worldview that offered true justice and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, and when – in compassion – he looked out and saw the desperate conditions of the people and how far they were from the Kingdom. Jesus’ love for God and for them led him to his place of passion. That’s what compassion does.

It’s when we make this link between passion and compassion that our lives become more and more cross-shaped. (2) The link is there within Jesus’ life. The passion Jesus underwent in Jerusalem had its origin out among the people, helpless and harassed (no doubt by Rome), who wandered directionless “like sheep without a shepherd.” On his Kingdom of God preaching and teaching tour through the cities and villages of the Galilee Jesus saw the people – the masses, the crowds – he spent time with, lived with, ate with the people, no doubt hearing their stories, hearing their hopes and dreams, their concerns for family, for children. He saw the abject living conditions of the people, he saw the way the Roman occupying forces were brutalizing them, he felt the burden of their lives, weighed down by heavy taxation. He saw the diseases and illness of the people and offered healing. They were helpless.

Matthew tells us, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them….” Five times in Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus expressing compassion, often for the crowds who were helpless or hungry. Indeed, just before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we find in Matthew’s gospel an account of Jesus healing two blind men who stand along the road, crying out for mercy. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus said. They said, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him (Matthew 20:34),” — right into Jerusalem, right into his passion.

So what is this compassion? It’s more than pity. He wasn’t just “feeling sorry” for them either. It’s far more profound that than, its meaning goes much deeper, very deep, actually, down right into one’s gut. The Greek verb Matthew uses here is splagchnizomai, and literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels.” It refers to our entrails – our vital inner organs, stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidney. In Jesus’ day the bowels or entrails were thought to be the seat of love and caring. Although we don’t believe this to be biologically true, our language still reflects this understanding. (3) We know what it’s like to live from one’s heart; to hold to a conviction or belief that’s grounded deep within the core of our being. We also know what it’s like to be in turmoil or distress, to feel it in the pit of our stomachs, to become “sick” with worry and concern and feel it within. We know what it means when we hear someone has a “broken heart.” For Jesus, splagchnizomai, compassion, here is a deep feeling in his gut. He looks out and not only sees the suffering of the people he deeply feels the suffering of the people, deep in his gut, tearing up his gut. We could say, becoming sick in his stomach over the plight of God’s people.

This is a moment of suffering. Jesus is literally suffering here. To suffer means – the literal meaning of the word – is to undergo, to receive. Jesus receives their experience and makes it his own; he participates in their suffering and makes it his own; he shares their pain, shares their condition, and that experience moves him to act, to care, to alleviate their pain and suffering. Here we see the link between compassion and passion. And we begin to have a clearer sense of the cost involved in this way of being. And it begins to dawn on us that what Jesus did there with the crowds is intensified on the cross: receiving our experience and making it his own; receiving our sin into himself and making it his own; participating in all the suffering and hurt of the world and making it his own; undergoing the brokenness of our lives and making it his own; sharing our plight, our condition, experiencing it all – taking it all into himself – in order to bear our pain, to bear our sorrow, to enter into our loss and then acting to move us beyond that point by overcoming it all and offering something new in its place!

Compassion is excruciating – for Jesus, for God, and for us. The use of this word is very intentional, with crux, cross, right at the center of it. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the cross. But we have to go even deeper, all the way down into the depths of Jesus, all the way into his guts and find there in him the very heart of God, the stomach of God who is participating and sharing in the depths of the human experience. In the heart and stomach of the Son of God we see the stomach, the heart of God disgusted by the sufferings of God’s people, mourning over their condition, and wanting to save. It’s why Jesus could say, “Blessed is the one who mourns, for he shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” What we discover in the way of the cross is the way of God. This is how God chooses to be toward us as the God of compassion and passion. What was true then, is still true today.

When this way fills our way we know why the early church understood love as empathy and sympathy. Em-pathos means to put myself in the skin of one who is suffering, to try to understand it, to feel it, and act, either to alleviate the suffering or at least stand there and try to share it – even if it hurts. It means imaginatively putting oneself in another’s situation in order to apprehend or fathom what it feels like from their perspective, to discover what the world looks like from their perspective, what it’s like to be that other person, and then determine how one might act. And sym-pathos means, “I choose to suffer with you.”

For as the cross has shown us, “there can be no love without suffering.” “For suffering,” if you think about it, “in the widest sense means the capacity to be acted upon, to be changed, moved, transformed by the action of another,” or through relationship with another. (4) To suffer love means to be acted upon. Perhaps this is the greatest threat to love and compassion in the church and the wider world, for to be aware of another’s feelings is to participate in them, to be influenced by them. It’s the sharing of the experience that transforms – and here we see the great cost in living this way, because to live in our guts, to feel with compassion inevitably means we will be changed, we won’t be the same. To take on another’s suffering and pain, to participate in it with them, to stand with them or attempt to share the experience with them means we will inevitably be changed. There’s no way we can go to such depths without it having some kind of impact upon us. And that scares us – rightfully so. When we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of the people of Haiti or Chile and allow their plight to touch us, we act. When we imaginatively think what it’s like to be a child in Nepal and allow their situation to touch us, we act. When we put ourselves in the place of the homeless of Catonsville and Baltimore and allow their plight to touch us, we act. When we care for the neighbor who shares the pew with you, the neighbor who shares this sanctuary space and you allow their lives to touch you; when you reach out to a neighbor or co-worker, a child, parent, older-adult in need, allowing their world to touch yours, we risk being changed. Sometimes it’s all too much; the need is too great, too painful. So we stop reading the newspaper, we don’t watch the news, we don’t pay attention because we can’t, it’s too overwhelming, we don’t have enough energy to care or we don’t want to be hurt or – worse – inconvenienced by all this, we don’t get close, so we remain aloof. And many simply cannot go there or won’t go there without the grace of God. Some know that’s it’s only because of the grace of God and the bottomless depth of love that one is able to endure all things for the sake of the other, believe all things for the sake of the other, hope all things for the sake of the love (1 Corinthians 13: 7).

There’s an old Hasidic tale that tells us how [compassion can] happen. "The pupil comes into the rabbi and asks, 'Why does Torah tell us to "place these words upon your hearts"? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rabbi answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.'"

A cross-shaped life begins again and again in the human heart. In hearts that on a daily basis risk being broken open with compassion toward the crowd, the people. When we risk the depth of feeling for the needs of our neighbors, when we share their plight, when we, as Paul said, suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), when we undergo what another experiences, to stand, to participate, to share, to suffer, this is the way of the cross. It’s the way of Jesus and his people, because we have seen in Jesus that it’s God way of being in the world. It’s God way of saving the world, with us and for us.
Photo: Georges Rouault(1871-1958), "Crucifixion"

1. This refers to the Edict of Milan when Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as the religion of the empire. There is a tradition coming from Pope Sylvester (Pope from 314-335) that, “…at the moment when Constantine bestowed large endowments on the church a voice from heaven was heard to say, ‘Hodie venenum effusum est in Ecclesiam.’ ‘Today is there poison poured upon the Church.” Cited in Douglas John Hall, Thinking Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 202-203.
2. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at a time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972).
3. After the sermon, Jeff Bolognese noted that this way of understanding “bowels” was still common in the nineteenth century and can be found in Charles Dickens (1812-1870), A Christmas Carol (1843). When Scrooge meets Marley's ghost, Dickens writes, "looking through his waistcoat, [Scrooge] could see the two buttons on his coat behind." There's a line right afterward that reads, "Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now."
4. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Welwyn: James Nesbit, 1968), 117, cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 170-171.

07 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: III. The Cost

Matthew 20: 17-28

Third Sunday in Lent/ 7th March 2010/ Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

When we began this journey we saw that one way to understand the cross (and there are many) is to see it less as the goal of Jesus’ life, than as the consequence of him being faithful to his identity as God’s Son and his calling to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. We saw last week that if the cross is the consequence, the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given identity and calling both as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, then don’t be surprised if we’re faced (like Jesus) with the temptation to run the other way, to take the less-painful, less risky, less faithful course.

The focus of this series is Jesus’ cross, but it’s really more about our own journey of the cross. What does it means for us today to bear the cross? What does it means for us to have a cross-shaped, life?

Being faithful to God to who we are as children of God with a God-given calling come with a price. There’s a cost.

This is worth remembering because there is a very powerful propensity in the history of the church to try to have it otherwise; that is, to have Christ, the Kingdom, and the Christian life without the cost. This is what H. Richard Niebuhr (1909-1945) was addressing in his classic text The Kingdom of God in America. Niebuhr, one of the wisest of American theologians, describes the American Protestant church of the late nineteenth, early twentieth-century, influenced by the social gospel movement. Liberal Protestantism at that time believed in the essential goodness of humanity and denied the reality of sin; it rejected anything supernatural about the faith and therefore jettisoned the importance of doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the full divinity and humanity of Christ. It preferred to see Jesus as an exceptional human being, an extraordinary teacher who gave us an ethical ideal that we could achieve on our own, if we just put our hearts and minds to it, because we could do anything. Humanity could actually usher in the kingdom of God. They believed in a God who turned out – surprise, surprise – to be remarkably like themselves. They believed, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (1) They were so optimistic (some would say arrogant) to assume so much. They wanted to follow Christ into the kingdom, but on their terms. They wanted the kingdom without realizing it comes with a price.

There’s something of this attitude in the mother of James and John who asked for a special place of honor for her sons when the kingdom comes. She wants the glory, the status, authority, power for her sons when Jesus takes over Jerusalem, but she doesn’t understand what the kingdom is about and she doesn’t understand the way to the kingdom is difficult and not for the faint of heart. “You do not know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Do you not realize there’s a cost involved? For the Son of Man will be handed over, and condemned to death, then handed over to Rome to be mocked, flogged and crucified. We can’t blame her for not getting it. The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ message. It was illusive at best. It was a shock to their system (it always is). For the Kingdom has nothing to do with business as usual, it has nothing to do with status, authority and power-politics; it has nothing to do with personal gain and wealth, fame or fortune. God’s Kingdom of justice and grace is the opposite way of the world. It’s the complete undoing, a topsy-turvy, overturning of the values of the world. “For whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” To accept Jesus’ Kingdom way, to live God’s way means giving up our way. The Kingdom is as free as God’s grace, but to accept it will mean giving up our control and an end to life as we know it. That’s the cost.

To follow Christ without a cross, without a cost, is to dally in what Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) famously called “cheap grace.” Indeed, it was cheap grace and its false-optimism of the 19th century that exploded, literally, with the Great War in 1914 on the fields of France and Belgium. So much for sinless humanity. Many of the leading German theologians at the time actually signed a document supporting the Kaiser’s War. That act eventually led Bonhoeffer to write between the wars that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” (2)

What is cheap grace? Cheap grace is when we turn Jesus and the faith into a set of ideas or beliefs, doctrines, even morals that we “hold,” but do not “hold” us, that we use for our own purposes instead of the purposes of God. Cheap grace is keeping Christ at a distance and not participating in his life. When we’re not personally, existentially committed to him., it doesn’t cost anything. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer said, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, …. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than probably anything else. (3)

In contrast, costly grace, Bonhoeffer wrote, here referring to Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him….Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it cost a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son: ‘ye were bought at a price [1 Cor. 6:20],’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” (4) Bonhoeffer believed this; he also lived it personally, existentially, and became a martyr in 1945, assassinated by the Nazis, thus fulfilling his own prescient statement from 1937, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (5)

Rare is the person called down Bonhoeffer’s path of discipleship. Nevertheless, walking with Christ means living a cross-shaped life. Perhaps for many of us the greatest cost in following him is associated with what we value the most – our egos, our selfish pride, our self-centeredness. How often do we say we want to follow Jesus, but do so on our terms? We say, yes, I want to be Christian, but in our own way, which usually means with as little inconvenience as possible. We say we, yes, we want to be part of the church, but to get from it only what we want when we want it, failing to see what it asks of us.

But to yield to Christ, to drink from his cup, to give our lives in service to God’s kingdom, yes, it comes with a cost, but it’s worth it because we are invited to give our lives over to something larger than ourselves, to something more important than fame or fortune or honor, to something, indeed, someone in whom we will lose ourselves, only to truly find ourselves (Matthew 16:25). The One who invites us to share in the feast of the Kingdom of God, to know him and to be known by him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).

1. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1959[1937]), 193.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963[1937]), 45.
3. Bonhoeffer, 47, 59.
4. Bonhoeffer, 47.
5. Bonhoeffer, 99. Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on April 8, 1945, at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was executed there by hanging at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany.