The Cross – Decoration or discipleship?

Mathew 16: 21-28

Rev. Dr. Wati Longchar


Churches all over the world observe Good Friday. It is a time of prayer and contemplation on the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. Good Friday challenges us to retrospect our commitment and our calling as Christian. It is also a special moment of prayer to recommit our life as Christian for rebuilding our nation and churches.

The Cross is not for decoration, but a self-denial. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mtt. 16:24). The cross is the centre of Christian faith. That is why the symbol of cross is found in all the churches, Christian homes, some people even stick the symbol of cross in their cars, motorcycle, etc. We see cross made of gold, silver affix in necklace, earrings or rings: Is cross an ornament? We see young people wearing T. Shirt with cross printed: Is cross is for wearing? Do we think that having a cross in our neck, possession as an ornament make us disciple of Jesus? Do we think worshiping, praying, singing every Sunday in front of the cross makes us disciples of cross? or followers of Jesus Christ? Self-denial is the core teaching of Jesus Christ. There is no meaning of the cross without self-denial.

For the disciples of Jesus, the ‘Cross’ was a reality. Jesus suffered pain and died for us. Jesus sacrificed on the cross for humanity. It was the victory over the power of evil. The cross exposes the weakness of the worldly power. It was a cowardice act of the perpetuators of injustice. It was tumbling down of all political machineries who wanted to rule people to fulfill their vested interest. For the Romans and Jewish collaborators, the cross was symbol defeat, mockery, shame, condemn and rejection. The cross was an instrument of punishment for criminals, for social outcasts, and for rebels. The cross, at the time of Jesus, was a death machine to create fear and subjugation. It was an assertion of political authority over the subjects. It was meant to show that there is no authority above the empire. But the testimonies of the disciples of Jesus and the believing community in the subsequent years and centuries have testified that the cross is victory of truth. It is confronting evils by truth. It is sacrificing and suffering one’s life for justice. It is a concrete expression of God’s love in action for reconciliation and peace in the world. Do not make cross as mere ornament and decoration, but make it as the power to face unjust system.

The cross stands as an undefeatable power. Military equipment like Tanks, F-16 fighter jets, missiles, hydrogen bombs, are all useless weapons for those who are willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus Christ. The weapons can destroy building, roads, infrastructures, kill and inflict injury to thousands of people, but cannot win the war when people are willing to sacrifice their life for justice in love. The spirit of self-sacrifice cannot be crushed by any power and guns. This is happening in Palestine, Middle East and among many indigenous communities around the world.

After the crucifixion of Jesus, the two disciples were running away from Jerusalem to Emmaus to escape persecution. It was a safer place to flee. But when the power of the cross overwhelmed them and they returned back to Jerusalem to witness about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The place of persecution, fear, pain and tears became the place of resistance, self-sacrifice and witness. The Roman authority and army could not crush those disciples who took up the cross like their master Jesus. Mark was dragged to death behind a chariot, Luke was crucified, Stephen was stoned to death, James was beheaded, Thaddeus was crucified and shot to death with arrows, Nathaniel was skinned alive and the crucified, Philip was hanged from a column of the Temple, Andrew was crucified in Egypt, Thomas was speared to death in India, Simon was sawed to pieces while alive, Paul was beheaded, and many missionaries who dedicated themselves to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ were killed, but the power of self-sacrificed could not be defeated. The message of good news of cross could not be suppressed anywhere. The cross, the spirit of self-sacrifice, stands as the symbol of undefeatable power even today.

This cross has brought people of different races, languages, cultures as one family. Thousands of missionaries have courageously crossed oceans, mountains and travelled afar to tell people the good news of the cross which was heard one Friday morning two thousand years ago. It continues to heal the sick, brings hope to the desperate, comforts the oppressed and marginalized, empowers people to resist against injustice, guides the lost ones to find meaning, motivates to extend solidarity support to marginalized ones, provides shelter to the poor and destitute, challenges us to be fearless against oppressive power, saves the condemned and meets the needs of every generation in every human situation. The worldly powers trample down before the cross. This is the power of the cross.

The Cross and Discipleship cannot be separated. A disciple is someone who engages constantly in learning the instructions from a teacher, and practices those in his/her life. Disciples of Jesus were asked to follow his teaching which includes bearing the cross. Jesus told to his disciples, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself and pick up the cross and follow me”. The cross means denying oneself, sacrificing oneself in love for others. Jesus did not flee from the cross. By embracing the cross, Jesus showed that the most important prerequisite to bring change in the world is self-denial. It means giving up one’s possessions, sacrificing our family, our wealth, our prestige, public esteem and greatness. Albert Nolan, a South African theologian, said “Only the willingness to suffer can conquer suffering in the world. Compassion destroys suffering by suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer. A sympathy with the poor that is unwilling to share their suffering would be useless. One cannot share the blessings of the poor unless one is willing to share their suffering.” The true discipleship therefore, involves self-denial for the sake of justice the oppressed ones.

Discipleship without the cross is worldly. Many people followed Jesus, but many of them were not willing to deny themselves. Judas was one of the disciples of Jesus who did not like to deny himself. He decided to follow Jesus, but not out of his love or affection, willingness to sacrifice, suffers for Jesus, but to gain fame, position and power. His hopes and aspirations of following Jesus was that Jesus would liberate the Jews from the reign of the Romans, but it was not accomplished. He did not see any hope of gaining earthly kingdom. He became disciple of Jesus hoping that Jesus will establish a mighty earthly kingdom where he would exercise power like oppressors. Judas also became a disciple of Jesus for getting more money. That is why he betrayed Jesus for 30 shekels. He saw in Jesus a ‘potential target’ for making profit. Judas became a disciple of Jesus hoping that he would accomplish his ambition and would be able to make more profit from/through Jesus. Like Judas, many people who followed Jesus (many of them came from the lower strata of the society) thought that Jesus would reverse their position. They would become the rulers in new kingdom. They would be served and they will exercise power and authority over the oppressors. This resulted in betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. We need to ask hard questions ourselves” Am I bearing the cross as Christian? Are we serving the church to increase our fame? prestige? public recognition? or even money? Are we pretending to be disciple of Jesus like Judas without willing to bear the cross? Pope Francis said, “When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly.” One cannot become a true disciple of Jesus without revering (or changing) our attitude, without repentance from the dominant perception of power and richness. We are not true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ without willingness to bear the cross.

Discipleship with the Cross makes the world upside down. We live in a world where we want to exercise authority over the others. We want to be greater than others. We always aspire to be rich and acquire more and more. We are never satisfied. The rich, ruler, priest occupied high position in the society at the time of Jesus. They were served and enjoyed great respect from the people. To be poor and to live in poverty depending on someone else help means sinner and cursed by God. It was in this context that Jesus challenged the disciples saying one cannot serve God without denying oneself and bear the cross. You cannot serve God, if you are not willing to become slaves of all. It was a strange and unexpected message to many disciples, perhaps a very disappointing message. Jesus tried to reverse the attitude and understanding of the disciples about serving God by connecting with the cross, suffering and rejection. This means that the joy of discipleship lies not in exercising power, but by bearing the cross in love. In Jesus’ theology, no peace and liberation without love and self-sacrifice. Not by money, not by exercise of power, not my force, but by love and self-sacrifice can make the world upside down.

Is the broken and crucified God still working today? Can we discern God’s voice among the people who are marginalized through unjust system today? When we say God works, we often think in terms of miracles, success and blessings in life. True in one sense. But God’s voice can be heard more vividly in the utter brokenness and hopelessness. The cross testifies that we encounter God in suffering. In pain, suffering and rejection we experience God’s love and compassion. When people stand together in solidarity in love, deny themselves for the sake of common good, no power can challenge and crush them. Marginalized people’s cries for justice can make the world upside down if we resist bearing the cross for one another. Even today one can discern God’s voice love and compassion amidst struggles for life and justice.

But the cross is costly discipleship. It is not ruling over or exercising authority over the others, but serving others bearing the cross – the cup of suffering, rejection and humiliation. What makes Christianity distinctive in today’s institutionalized oppressive context is that we stand for justice in solidarity bearing one another. We stand together in solidarity in love encouraging one another, energizing, accompanying, sacrificing, empowering and transforming people of nobody into somebody. When we bear the cross in love for the rejected, neglected and oppressed ones, then the world will see the power of the cross and the marginalized one will experience fullness of life. As we observe Good Friday, let us, once again be reminded that Christianity has not meaning without denying oneself and bearing the cross for one another in love and courage. Amen