Do you need the cross to follow Jesus?  

This is Holy Week. It is a time to reflect upon God’s action on the cross and to remember and rehearse everything about Jesus, who he was, what he said, and what he did. Holy Week is much more than a Palm Sunday sermon, Maundy Thursday Holy Communion, and special Easter music.  Holy Week is about the cross and the kind of life God calls you to live in Jesus.  

So, do you need the cross to follow Jesus? Maybe the question is, who needs the cross?  

Who Needs the Cross?

You do when your spirituality denies someone’s humanity. In fact, the cross speaks directly to hatred wrapped upon in religiosity.

You do when you want to make law greater than grace. “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion. Which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

We all do when we make our faith a mirror of morality, giving more value to one stage of human life than another. We all do when we deny the reality reflected back to us in Jesus regarding who is loved and who is not. God’s love is not based upon our moral values. In fact, it is the cross that gives us moral and ethical ground upon which to stand.   

We all do when we support systems that benefit us while at the same time take benefits away from others. Regardless of political, social, economic, or cultural structures, we all need God’s grace in and through the cross when one life is valued more than another.

It Matters Where You Start

It matters where you start when it comes to following Jesus. The question is, do you need the cross to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple, a Christian?

The apostle Paul would tell us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” It is in and through Jesus the Christ, that God’s grace abounds. So, why do we act so entitled in this world when all we have is grace?

It is Holy Week. It is time to reflect upon such questions. So, as you reflect, it is time to pick up your cross and follow. If God and God’s movement of grace and mission of love are the point and purpose of your living, then all other loves, perspectives, preferences, beliefs, and wisdom are far less by comparison. 

The only gospel that can change our world today is the “word of the cross.” Foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. But to those who are not allergic to obeying God’s call, it is the hope of our future. 

Do you need the cross to follow Jesus? Read what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. 

Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe. 

22 For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Reflect

When it comes to following Jesus, it matters where you start. As an example, the apostle Paul starts with the cross. For him, the cross is the core of the good news. The event of the cross is the hinge point that makes a difference not only in all of history, but in everyday living. That is why, in the middle of addressing divisions in the Corinthian church, he stops to talk about the cross.

The Cross and God’s Mission

He understood the cross as part of God’s mission. When he writes, “It is written,” he is drawing a connection between the God revealed in Jesus as the same God revealed to Israel and the prophets. (Read Isaiah 29:14)

From his perspective, the response to the event of the cross divided humanity into two categories. The first was nonbelievers. They were the people who relied on their own potential and achievement. The second was believers. They were the people who responded in faith to God’s grace. Both groups represented an action in process. Non Believers were not necessarily eternally doomed, and believers might have been on the way, but had not arrived.

Paul Addresses Divisions in the Church

So, he is addressing the divisions within the church. Their disagreements were centered on where they started. Each group viewed things in terms of their own human wisdom. Their thinking and living revealed they still missed the point.  And because they were missing the point, their divisions continued to grow.

So, Paul focused on the cross as the way to address the conflict. He said that the world did not know God through wisdom, but through the foolishness of what was preached. It was not the act of preaching but the content of the preaching that was considered foolishness. The word he used is related to the English word “moron.” Crucified savior was a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron.  It was foolish to think that a “crucified savior” would make the difference.

The God Revealed in the Cross

From his perspective, the Christian faith was not the confirmation of their best efforts, and insights. The Christian faith was the replacement of their efforts.  Following Jesus was not based on best practices. In fact, the gospel overturns not only our worst practices, but our best practices as well. The God revealed in the cross of Jesus does not and cannot fit into our ideas of how the world works. The cross is a reversal of all our expectations, not just those that are evil or stupid.

All Humanity is Included

Here is where it matters where you start. When Paul refers to the Jews and the Greeks, he is not using ethnic or national terms. He is referring to all humanity. Jews corresponded to the Jewish way of speaking of “Jews and Gentiles” and the Greeks corresponded to the Greek way of designating the whole of humanity as “Greeks and barbarians.” He refers to the Jews as those who represent the people who believe that God’s act is made obvious and clear by miraculous events. The “Greeks” represent those who assume that God’s way of working is a confirmation of their own intellectual system, or ordinary “common sense.”  Both types presume that God works according to their presuppositions. The truth is the cross turns both sets of beliefs upside down. To claim to believe the Christian faith because it has measured up to our expectation, whether of miracle or intellect, is still to operate with the wisdom of this world, which has been shattered by the unanticipated, unpredicted, incalculable event of the cross. In other words, grace that is not amazing is not grace. It matters where you start.

The Scandal of the Cross

The term “stumbling block” literally means “scandal.” There is a necessary scandal of the cross. When it is watered down or eliminated, the gospel has been domesticated to our expectations, and the Christian faith is only a projection of our “best” insights and ideologies.

Two thousand years of using the cross as a positive religious symbol, as decoration, and as jewelry, has dulled the impact of the scandal. The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of those who disturbed the good life of Roman peace. Crucifixion was a public display of how important they considered “law and order.” It is important to note that Roman citizens were not one crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for revolutionaries, terrorists, slaves, and unpatriotic lowlife.

God’s Movement of Grace & Mission of Love

So, the event of the cross of Jesus, though meant to maintain the law and order of the status quo, was in reality the reversal of our best into God’s movement of grace and mission of love. The very event itself, when understood and incorporated into human living, transforms our human wisdom into God’s love.

Paul’s term “those who are called” refers to followers of Jesus, Christians. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. What we could not attain or verify by miracles or intellectual systems or common sense, God has freely provided in the surprising event of the crucified Christ.  

Paul uses the people in the Corinthian Church as testimony to his point. The church included both rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile. This was part of the message of the cross, the overturning of all human priorities and expectations.

The Cross is Experienced in Your Living

Let me say it one more time in a different way. For Paul, the church was not a matter of developing human potential but the work of God. The Corinthians wanted to be proud of their church, their preachers, and their apostles. They were so proud that they could not live the love of God. So, Paul reminds them that Jesus is the true wisdom of God. True wisdom is not intellectual systems or common sense retrofitted into the gospel.  Jesus, as the wisdom of God, is God’s act of love on the cross.

So, the cross does make a difference in your life not by how much you know or how great your faith but is experienced in your living. The difference is seen in your righteousness or your right relationship with God and with the people around you. The difference is seen in the way you act on behalf of people who are either down and out or up and out. The difference is seen in your everyday living at work, at home, and the places you play. This is what true wisdom is all about.

There are places in the world today where the Christians all come from the edges of society, intellectually, socially, politically, and culturally. They read Paul’s words and dismiss them as true but foolish. They read Paul’s words but pay little attention. There is a movement today, in our country, to be seen, recognized and accepted by the world. The church lives with this temptation. Do we follow the way of God’s love, or do we seek acceptance in the world?

You might use the social status of members to penetrate the upper levels of society, but you must be careful not to abandon the “people of the land.” You might seek out the healthy, wealthy, and wise, but your call is fulfilled when in loving service to those faceless ones who are powerless. When you start with the cross, God calls you to love all people just as God has loved you.

Let me crass for a moment. Paul never wore a t-shirt or a cap that said, “Make Rome Great Again.” Now let me be truthful, the cross speaks directly against making the best practices of religion an established form of government in its relationship with the world.  I know it sounds foolish and it gets in the way, but the cross of Jesus is our way, truth, and life.

During this Holy Week, consider this: Jesus rises from his knees and says to his followers, “Get up, let us be going.” He then goes before them to the Cross. As a follower of Jesus, it is not your wisdom or your faith that makes the difference. Picking up your cross and following Jesus is what makes the difference. Picking up your cross and following Jesus is who you are as a Christ centered leader.   

So, do you need the cross to follow Jesus? As foolish as it seems, I have put my life on it. 

Respond

Warner Sallman is known for his paintings of Jesus. In one of his paintings Jesus is knocking at a door. There is no handle or knob on the outside of the door. The implication is that the door must be opened from the inside. 

Over my years of ministry, I have heard preachers say, and rightly so, “Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart, or at the door of your life. Because there is no handle on the outside, you must open the door to let him in.”  

I like that, but this Holy Week, I challenge you to think of it in slightly a different way. Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart, or at the door of your life. Because there is no handle on the outside, you must open the door to hear him say, ‘Come out and follow me. I have some friends I want you to meet.’” 

I once used that as an illustration in a sermon. A woman, when greeting me after the sermon, said, “You misunderstood the meaning of the painting. Jesus is knocking on the door to come in.” 

And I replied, “I agree with you. Jesus is knocking on the door to come in. I just know that when he was knocking at the door of my heart, I opened the door and he said, ‘I have some friends I want you to meet. When I come into your life, I am bringing them with me.” 

For Consideration During Holy Week

Holy Week This Holy Week, as you journey toward the cross and reflect upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, consider the following:   

You have work to do to follow Jesus and to be grounded in love. Has the cross made any difference in your living? What would it take for you to pick up your cross and get in line behind Jesus? It might seem foolish, but who will you love unconditionally with the love of Jesus? How will you be a person of healing hope in your family, in your church, in your community, and in the world? How will you work for justice? How will you shine with the light of love until God’s movement of grace and God’s mission of love is a reality in everyday situations and circumstances? How will the people around you experience God’s love in and through you? 

It might seem foolish, but how has the cross made a difference? Why not show your community and the world the difference the cross has made by the way you live your life and in the relationships you are developing? Following Jesus is who you are, and who you are is how you lead. 

Pray

O God, make me aware of the people around me today and throughout this Holy Week. By your grace, help me be an extension of your love in the lives of the people you send my way. Help me yield a little more of myself so that I may love others as you have loved me in Jesus. Help me be faithful to your call upon my life so that I may be a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. Amen 

Return

As you reflect back upon your day, give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. What difference did the cross make in how you responded to people? How you loved them? Cared for them? Advocated for them? How did you invite people into God’s movement of grace and mission of love? How did you offer Christ to the people around you?

Think about the people you encountered today. With whom do you need to practice your faith so you will become more who God has created you to be. What will you do differently tomorrow?

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