Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me

I'd say that for about two years now, I've been mulling over Jesus's statement in the gospels that we must take up our cross and follow him. For example:
Matthew 16.2-26
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
What I've been ruminating on is how this would have sounded to a first century audience. We come into the text with so much theological background that we struggle to connect with how Jesus's contemporaries would have taken this call to "take up your cross and follow me."

Roman crosses littered the landscape. The Jews regularly watched their countrymen "take up their crosses" as they walked to their place of exposure, mockery, torture, and death. And in that context Jesus says, "take up your cross." What could he possibly mean?

They wouldn't have had a moralistic or spiritualized take on the saying. No one in the audience would have thought, "Oh, I see, he's speaking metaphorically. By 'cross' he means the daily struggles I have to face."

Their minds would have turned to Roman persecution. Something like, "Follow me, as your Messiah, into the maw of the Roman death machine." But the trouble I have with this interpretation is that it basically is a call to throw your life away.

What I think Jesus was getting at is a call for fearlessness in the face of the Roman death machine. Jesus was basically taking the greatest fear of their lives--the prospect of crucifixion--and saying, "Don't fear this." Because it was that fear that allowed the Romans to have complete control over you. That was the whole point of crucifixion, control through terror. So if a person was liberated from that fear, could "take up their cross," then a spiritual and psychological emancipation would occur. An emancipation that would allow the reign of God to come fully into your life.

Basically, the degree to which the Roman cross had a psychological footprint in your psyche one could not be truly free and available to the kingdom of God, God's rule in your life. You might want to follow God, but the threat of the cross would always be there to psychologically bully, intimidate, and coerce you. A person who was willing to "take up their cross" to follow Jesus, by contrast, was free from this threat and terror. So the call wasn't to throw your life away, it was a call for fearlessness in the face of Imperial threats.

Jesus's audience were captives to terror, and his call to "take up your cross" was taking that terror head on.

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