What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.

An old way to read the Bible

I shared yesterdayMatthew 5 about my friend Chris’s new app Parallel Bible–“the world’s first social, visual Bible”–and I’d encourage you to check it out; it’s pretty cool.

This week I’ve also been diving into an ancient practice of reading the Bible called lectio divina–or “divine reading” in Latin. It’s one way that Christians over the centuries have used to hear and listen to God through the words of Scripture, consciously and intentionally laying down our agendas before coming to the text–or at least, allowing those agendas to be changed and transformed by God through what we find in the Bible. Essentially, it’s praying the Scriptures. If you’ve never tried it before, give it a shot; I’m in the process of building it into my life (and I’m definitely feeling like I should have a long time ago!).

I’ve been reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, and she has a great summary of how to go about doing it, so I’ll just let her explain:

Choose a passage (six to eight verses); it can be part of your normal reading plan, a passage you select for today or a passage from the lectionary reading for this week. Use it to enter prayerfully into the lectio process. Following are very detailed instructions to help you learn the moves.

Preparation (Silencio). Take a moment to come fully into the present. With your eyes closed, let your body relax, and allow yourself to become consciously aware of God’s presence with you. Express your willingness (or your willingness to be made willing) to hear from God in these moments by using a brief prayer such as “Come Lord Jesus,” or “Here I am,” or “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Read (Lectio): Listen for the word or the phrase that is addressed to you. Turn to the passage and begin to read slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences. You may read silently, or you may find it helpful to read the passage aloud, allowing the words to echo and resonate, sink in and settle into your heart. As you read, listen for a word or phrase that strikes you or catches your attention. Allow a moment of silence, repeating that word or phrase softly to yourself, pondering it and savoring it as though pondering the words of a loved one. This is the word that is meant for you. Be content to listen simply and openly, without judging or analyzing.

Reflect (Meditatio): How is my life touched by this word?Once you have heard the word that is meant for you, read the passage again, and listen for the way this passage connects with your life. Ask, What is it in my life right now that needs to hear this word? Allow several moments of silence following this reading, and explore thoughts, perceptions and sensory impressions. If the passage is a story, perhaps ask yourself, Where am I in this scene? What do I hear as I imagine myself in the story or hear these words addressed specifically to me? How do the dynamics of this story connect with my own life experience?

Respond (Oratio): What is my response to God based on what I have read and encountered? Read the passage one more time, listening for your own deepest and truest response. In silence after the reading, allow your prayer to flow spontaneously from your heart as fully and as truly as you can. At this point you are entering into a personal dialogue with God, “sharing with God the feelings the text has aroused, … feelings such as love, joy, sorrow, anger, repentance, desire, need, conviction, consecration. We pour out our hearts in complete honesty, especially as the text has probed aspects of our being and doing in the midst of various issues and relationships.” Pay attention to any sense that God is inviting you to act or to respond in some way to the word you have heard. You may find it helpful to write your prayers or to journal at this point.

Rest (Contemplatio): Rest in the Word of God. In this final reading you are invited to release and return to a place of rest in God. You have given your response its full expression, so now you can move into a time of waiting and resting in God’s presence, like the weaned child who leans against its mother (Psalm 131:2). This is a posture of total yieldedness and abandon to the great Lover of your soul.

Resolve (Incarnatio): Incarnate (live out) the Word of God. As you emerge from this place of personal encounter with God to life in the company of others, resolve to carry this word with you and to live it out in the context of daily life and activity. As you continue to listen to the word throughout the day, you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning, until it begins to live in you and you enflesh this word to the world in which you live. As a way of supporting your intent to live out the word you have been given, you may want to choose an image, a picture or a symbol that you can carry to remind you of it.

- Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, 59-61