If carrying the cross is equivalent to suffering, there’s no doubt that we’ve been doing it. Every one of us has stories of disappointment, loss, and grieving these days. Is it any consolation to imagine that dealing with all of this may, in some way, be helping us practice Christian discipleship?
At the same time that Jesus predicts his own crucifixion, he calls for his followers to take up their own crosses. He says that doing so is absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to follow him. Peter, the most outspoken of the twelve men who Jesus has gathered around him, finds all this crucifixion talk unacceptable. It seems obvious that he is horrified at the thought of Jesus’ shameful suffering. It is also probable that he is frightened by the thought that Jesus’ end will likely bring his own. Nobody wants to suffer.
Is our current suffering a form of cross-carrying in this COVID season?
On the one hand, the suffering is real. None of us is merely imagining this. But on the other hand, the suffering that we are experiencing is nearly universal. There’s no place on earth that hasn’t been touched by this virus and many people (most of whom would not identify as followers of Jesus) are suffering in more profound ways than we are. So human suffering per se isn’t necessarily cross-carrying.
What’s the difference?
It might help if we step back and take a look at why it is that Jesus willingly takes up the cross and spends so much time talking about it. He does so for at least three reasons:
First, he takes up the cross out of obedience. The cross is his father’s will and, though it brings real suffering, Jesus’ trust in the Father goes beyond the suffering.
Second, he does so because there is joy to be found on the other side. The cross is endured because it is a means toward a greater good.
Finally, and most importantly, he does so for love. He takes up the cross, not to bring his followers into suffering but because the whole of creation is already being consumed by it. Jesus’ cross is the means by which he practices solidarity with creation. He does so out of love and somehow, this act of solidarity/love in suffering becomes the undoing, not only of suffering, but of death itself. It’s a mystery, there is no explaining it. Theologians have tried to come up with theories of how the cross of Jesus “works”, but it turns out to be many contradictory things all at once and the words fall short.
We can, however, catch beautiful glimpses of the mystery in our own experiences of sacrificial love – given and received. These days have required tireless expressions of solidarity from all of us. All of our best practices in the face of this pandemic, including this week’s decision to go completely online for classes, are not intended just to keep us safe – statistically, many of us on campus are under no lethal threat from this disease. We’re taking these steps for the sake of others. Most of the things we’re giving up are not for our good, but in service of our neighbor. They are not acts of self-preservation. They are acts of love and as such, they are crosses that we gladly bear.
In the name of Jesus.
March 3, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as University Pastor at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions.