Jesus pulled no punches in his speeches to recruit disciples. How are these for examples? To the man who said, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,“ Jesus responded without a heaping dose of empathy saying, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:59-60) When another prospective disciple asked leave of Jesus to “say goodbye to my family,” Jesus’ response implied he would have nothing of it. “No-one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:61-62) What a recruitment pitch! These replies from Jesus sound like what the Marines might have on their poster. He sounds demanding. Did he mean to? If anyone but Jesus would have answered in this fashion, it would at best sound harsh and at the worst, almost evil. (By the way, the Marines are so successful in their recruitment because of their challenges and demands. They look for “a few good men and women”)
These are not some obscure diversions from the substance of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus extended his call 2000 years ago to a culture largely indifferent both to him and his message and his words fall on the same type of ears today. I’d say today’s audience is even stiffer, having had centuries to consider Jesus message and his life as recorded in scripture. “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:38-39) If I was not a believer in Jesus today these words would jolt me. Maybe even scare me. As a believer, these words still jolt me. They are meant to. In Luke 14:27 Jesus proceeds in the same strain saying “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
In the earliest days of Jesus saying “follow me,” people left their nets, livelihoods and sometimes inheritances to pursue life with Jesus. They were sacrificing, perhaps to them gambling that a future with greater hope and promise awaited them. Today, many see their “cross” as a metaphor for “spiritual devotion.” There’s no doubt Jesus continues to seek those with spiritual devotion, but potent phrases like “take up your cross, lose your life, and cannot be my disciple” are troubling. Crosses were instruments of death. Do we get what he’s saying? They were not mere stresses or inconveniences such as working under a harsh or incompetent manager, waiting for what you wish for or struggling in a relationship and “dealing” with people. We may even interpret our physical illnesses, financial hardships or surviving the death or illness of a loved one as our crosses. To Jesus, however, the crosses he spoke of were the sacrifices disciples would make to inherit the kingdom and follow his example closely.
Puritan Thomas Watson adds additional perspective for us as we consider our cross (sufferings) contrasted to the worth of our salvation. Watson says “Your sufferings (crosses) are not so great as your sins: Put these two in balance and see which weighs heaviest.” We can embrace the greatness of our salvation even amidst great affliction when we recognize how much worse we deserve because of our sins. As Jesus disciples we must not reduce the centrality of the cross. It meant death to him. It means death to and freedom from old ways as well as new life to us. It means evaluating and attributing value to our earthly priorities. The model Jesus gave was that a cross costs everything yet our willingness to suffer it (as he did) offers so much more despite the pain and sacrifice.
Let me add as I finish that it is through a growing trust in God and receiving his measureless grace that we gain the desire and capacity to carry our crosses. This is neither an easy task nor an overnight transition. God knows the limits of what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13) and measures our ability as he encourages us to slip into his yoke where he promises to share our burden. (Matt.11:29-30) Additionally, God has given us the body of Christ to comfort us, strengthen us and to also share our burdens. For a disciple, there will be crosses. Jesus said it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it. Mere “following” has fewer complications. There is a cost to “discipleship.” Think About It.