by Pastor Sarah Stadler
The cross is an ubiquitous Christian symbol.
We wear it around our necks and on our tee shirts. We hang the cross on the walls of our homes, over our rearview mirrors, and on our car bumpers. We create cross crafts at church events and purchase greeting cards with cross-themed art. The cross appears everywhere in churches: on steeples, in chancels, in paintings, on and above altars, on paraments, on hymnal covers, embroidered on stoles, outlined by our own hands after we dip our fingers in the water of the baptismal font. Surely, when we see the cross worn by someone, hanging in someone’s home or car, gifted to us by someone, or emblazoned on a building, we assume that person or building is Christian. We deeply associate the cross with Christianity.
Not until Emperor Constantine forbade execution by crucifixion in the late fourth century did Christians embrace the cross as a symbol of identification. No wonder. Up until that point, at least within the Roman Empire, people likely cringed, likely shuddered when they saw the cross. An instrument of torture, standard capital punishment, a method of public humiliation, that’s what the cross meant to people living within the empire. Instead of beautiful, instead of adorned with Easter lilies, instead of plated in gold or silver, the cross of the fourth-century Roman Empire was bloody, grotesque, feared.
Twenty years ago when I was in college, I daily donned a cross. I had for years, and I wore it proudly. As I walked around my college campus, I imagined others seeing my cross and saying: Ah! Right there is a good Christian woman. But through the course of my religion studies, I realized what the cross meant—originally. I abruptly decided to no longer wear the cross. I didn’t want to lift up a method of torture as a symbol of beauty.
I wonder if that’s why the earliest Christians didn’t identify with the cross either—or if identifying with the cross was simply too humiliating. The savior of the world dies on a cross. So ironic is the crucifixion of Jesus it’s like saying: a great general, who oversees strategy and doesn’t usually pick up a weapon and fight, is killed in hand to hand combat. The greatest warrior becomes the most vulnerable victim…survivor, eventually. No wonder the early Christians didn’t wear the cross.
Two thousand years later, the meaning of the cross no longer looms large in our public conscience. But the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, what it meant politically and socially has not changed. Just because we are not familiar with this particular method of execution doesn’t make it prettier, less brutal, or more palatable. Jesus tells the disciples today: I’m going to die, and by the way, you pick up the cross too. You and me both probably want to clean it up, to skip to Easter, to proclaim the victory that the cross represents. No. When Jesus tells the disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, he means: do whatever is necessary to follow God’s call. He does not mean: suffer and suffer innocently. He does not mean: seek death. He does not mean: allow injustice, allow unjust persecution. If anything, he means the opposite. He means: God is calling you to a way of life, to abundant life, to eternal life. Walk in that way, even if it leads to death. You following me is more important than what others do to you. Love and forgiveness are more important than comfort and getting even. Giving—of yourself so that all might know the love and justice of God—is God’s way, not expecting payment, reward, acclaim. So even when your very life is taken from you in pursuit of that goal, that’s okay. That’s what the cross means.
I still don’t wear the cross. Not because it’s inappropriate. I squirm beneath the weight of the cross because of all the plated gold and silver, all the Easter lilies, all the beauty. I don’t wear the cross because I think we’re confused about what the cross means. When we forget that Jesus’ death on a cross meant he died a criminal, convicted of something warranting capital punishment, we fail to see the political nature, the radical nature of Jesus’ command. While following Jesus, we are going to encounter resistance. People are going to see our love, our forgiveness, our compassion, our giving, the justice for which we advocate, and these ways of Jesus may offend, may frustrate, may exasperate others.
In trying to come up with an example of how others might resist us, all that came to mind was the eye-rolling I see from others sometimes when I make choices that prioritize care for Earth. Call me a hippy. Call me a tree hugger. Call me a Christian. I believe God created the fragile planet on which we live, and I hear God’s call to care for our planet home, a call that originates in Genesis chapter 2. God cares for all that God created, including the animals of Earth, including the plants that feed us and other animals, including us. Because of the way we live on this fragile planet, we are making it harder and harder for us—humans—to live here. Now, am I persecuted for my care of Earth? No, persecuted is a strong word. But the eye-rolling, that happens. You may hear me talking about my chickens and my garden, my gray water bucket that guides waste water to water the plants instead of going into the sewer system, my biking and using every manner of non-disposable items. You may hear my anxious questions about the very structures of our society and our economy which exacerbate already high carbon dioxide pollution levels. You may be politically opposed to measures which I think are critical for the continuation of human life on this planet. You may roll your eyes with the best of them as you see me fastidiously attend to the thermostat and sort trash and recycling. That’s okay. For me, caring for Earth is not simply a political issue but a spiritual one. This is one way I pick up the cross and follow Jesus, ever asking myself how I might best live with respect in creation—not just for the sake of other animals and plants but for humans, especially the most vulnerable humans in our world who are most impacted by global climate change.
And yes, following gets tiring. There are days when I use Styrofoam. There are days when I could bike but it’s just too hot so I drive instead. And of course, there are larger structural questions I don’t ask myself because they simply make me too uncomfortable. Why follow Jesus in this way or similar ways, ways that move us out of our comfort zones, ways that cause us to question things we take for granted? Why follow Jesus when it makes life harder?
Now, we hear the good news of the cross. For once we pick up the cross and follow, once we give up our old lives and allow those old ways to die, we follow Jesus not just to death but through death to new life. This is why our crosses are gold and silver plated, why we lift high the cross, why the cross is the Christian symbol of identification. New life. The cross is the gateway to new life. Today, Jesus commands the disciples and us something that feels impossible: pick up the cross and follow me. But he continues: For those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.