Wearing the Cross – and Bearing the Cross: A sermon for Good Friday

by Kim on April 6, 2007

I was sitting in Costa Coffee, just outside the Quadrant, having a Medio Cappuccino (with an extra shot!) and reading. At the next table were a couple of young women; looked like they were on their lunch hour. One of them was wearing a large, jewel-encrusted cross on a necklace. I admired it and said, “Nice cross. Are you a Christian?” “No,” she replied, “what makes you say that?” “The cross, ” I said, pointing to it. “Oh,” she said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” And then she added, “It’s just a bit of bling: it’s the fashion.”

It’s easy to mock. But people wear crosses for all sorts of reasons. Remember back in October when a British Airways employee was told to remove the cross that she wore to work? The following day the Independent did a vox pop of cross-wearers. One person wore hers because it was her granny’s. Another said that she takes her cross more seriously than a style-statement or a family heirloom: she wore hers, she said, because it warded off evil. And no doubt you have seen football players kiss their cross as they run onto the field, or after they score a goal – which sounds like superstition (though don’t be so sure). But, again, it’s easy to mock.

Especially if you’re a Protestant. Protestants, traditionally at least, aren’t into wearing crosses, let alone crucifixes. We’re not as benighted as Catholics, we think, let alone Sloane Rangers or credulous athletes. But then what does the cross mean to you, in your personal life I mean? Here’s what I’ve learned from nearly twenty-five years in the ministry: we tend to talk about “the cross we’ve been given to bear.” It may be the cross of a broken marriage, or a wayward son or daughter, or the tiresome job you’re stuck with, or a severe or terminal illness, or a sorrow that won’t go away – or that American minister you’ve had to suffer for over two decades! Toll any bells? Isn’t that right? Isn’t that our common usage? And don’t we think we’re being “religious” when we use it that way?

Well, if it’s easy to mock others, it should be just as easy to mock ourselves. So let me tell it to you straight, and no doubt upset some people – but then if a preacher doesn’t upset you on Good Friday there is something wrong with him: a Good Friday without disturbance is a bad Friday altogether. The thing is this: in the New Testament at least – and presumably you do want me to interpret and apply the New Testament for you – in the New Testament the cross has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with bearing the cross in the ways it’s usually taken, as some form of suffering, even terrible suffering, that we happen to be enduring – a person, a sickness, a sorrow. For what do all these so-called crosses have in common? They are all quite natural – terrible perhaps, but natural all the same. They are things that everyone is liable to suffer, will suffer, sooner or later. They come with being human. The point being that there is nothing specifically Christian about them. And that’s why they have nothing to do with the cross in the New Testament. In the New Testament the cross is a specifically Christian phenomenon: it is associated not with being human but with being a disciple, with being a follower of the crucified Jesus.

Moreover, the cross is not something that just happens. Nor is it something we just have to endure. At the hinge of Mark’s gospel, at Caesara Philippi, when Peter has confessed the Christ – and then demonstrated that, in fact, he doesn’t have a clue as to what Christhood is about – and after Jesus has called him the devil and told him to go to the back of the class, what does Jesus say next? “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Mark 8:34). Did you get that? “Take up their cross.” The cross, evidently, is something you decide, and something you do; it is not only a choice, it is an action, a deed of obedience. And it’s not an added extra, it is the very heart – the bleeding heart – of discipleship.

Now consider these three further things. First, in telling them to bear the cross, Jesus commands his followers to do something quite shameful. You know when Paul, at the programmatic beginning of his letter to the Romans, says that he is not ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16)? Ever wonder why the apostle says “ashamed”? Why should he be ashamed of the Good News? Because of the cross. Because the cross was not only an excruciatingly painful form of execution, implicit in its horror was the fact of humiliation, a death sentence reserved for the underclass and enemies of the state, the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, who would be stripped naked and hung up for all to mock and spit at – just like Jesus. So Christians, it would seem, in bearing witness to Jesus, will be seen in the eyes of the world to be involved in an embarrassing, humiliating activity. But when is the last time anyone scolded you for being a Christian, and said, “You ought to be blushing, you ought to be ashamed of yourself”?

A second thing is to emphasise that, yes indeed, we are talking about a shocking method of capital punishment here: not death by natural causes but death as a sentence handed down by the courts, by the judge, by the state. When Jesus called his followers to “take up their cross”, this was no metaphor, Jesus was telling them, quite literally, that they were to live like those who would appear in the courts, give their testimony, hear the fateful verdict, and then be marched to their own public execution, their death at the hands of political authority.

And that is the third thing: that bearing the cross is an inherently political act, that political witness isn’t a sideline for enthusiasts but the vocation of all Christians. But how often do we identify discipleship with getting in the face of authority, with, if push comes to shove, acts of civil disobedience, with going to jail, with, in extremis, martyrdom? We’re a long way here from the weekly floral rota, Christmas pantomimes, jumble sales, and summer fêtes. Or with the kudos of being church leaders, or respected and admired members of the local community. Or with a therapeutic discipleship that makes us happy, as we sing our jolly worship songs and expect our faith to be useful and advantageous, such that suffering becomes a problem rather than an expectation, a wound we nurse rather than a badge of courage.

Yes, it’s easy to mock others. But what about ourselves? In his spiritual classic The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “cheap grace”. “Cheap grace,” he declares, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” And further: “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but for the sake of Christ.”

That is what bearing the cross is about. Which is why the title is apt for David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Martin Luther King: Bearing the Cross. For King, like Bonhoeffer, picked up the cross and carried it – bore it – all the way to assassination or scaffold – and for (need I add?) their politics, which was inseparable from their discipleship. But then was not Jesus killed for a crime against the Roman state? And yet some folk will continue to talk the theological nonsense, the heresy, of keeping faith out of politics. But I tell you that whoever is silent over whoever happens to be our own Pilate’s lies, or violence, or fear-mongering, or scapegoating, whoever in their own way does not, like our Lord, speak truth to power and risk the consequences – they have no idea of what it means to bear the cross. Granted, “What consequences?” you might well ask in our own rather privileged context, when being lampooned or patronised is about as severe a persecution as Christians are likely to experience. But need I add: at the moment?

So I conclude with a parable – a true parable. The kingdom of God is like this. “In November 1989 a special unit of the El Salvador army forced its way into the Centro Monsenor Romero and shot dead the six theology professors who were living there. They also murdered the housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter.

“One of the murdered men was Juan Ramón Moreno. For reasons which cannot be discovered, a soldier dragged his body from the inner courtyard into the professors’ living quarters and put it in the room of the famous liberation theologian Jon Sobrino (who was abroad at the time). In the process a book was knocked off the shelf; it lay in Juan Ramón’s blood.

“This blood-soaked book can now be seen in a little exhibition devoted to the memory of the murdered Salvadorean Jesuits. It bears the tile El Dios Crucifado, the Spanish translation of Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God” (Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, adapted).

Wearing the cross – on a necklace, or on our sleeve – is one thing. Bearing the cross is quite another. The martyrs are our mentors. But the word “martyr” means, simply, “witness”. And witnesses to the crucified God we are all called to be.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Rick O'Donnell 04.07.07 at 2:57 am

Thought-provoking as pretty much always, Kim. I often wonder when I spy a large or garish cross dangling on someone’s chest. I think it’s time to start asking folks why they’re wearing them…

I do wear a small one of gold. It’s been there since 1992, a simple affirmation of faith as well as a reminder of the One who has set this captive free.


kandy 05.26.07 at 8:50 pm

I am a catholic but have been studying with a jehovah’s witness and she is telling me that it is wrong to wear a cross. She told me that God would be jealous of it. I am so confused! How could wearing a cross be so wrong.


Pam 05.27.07 at 4:51 pm

Kandy, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was crucified on a stake and not on a cross. This is due to their translation of the Greek word in question. They believe that crosses are “idols”.

The Jehovah’s witness movement was founded on the idea that they could predict the Second Coming of Jesus by searching the bible. The organisation has predicted the Second Coming numerous times throughout their existence and they have been wrong each time.

As a Methodist, I strongly advise you to retain confidence in your Catholic faith rather than what you are told by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If necessary, speak with a Catholic friend or a friend of another mainstream Christian denomination who you trust.

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