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Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but perhaps we have also sanitized it from its original scandalous context.
What I have been pondering in relation to the cross are Jesus's words to his disciples, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34, NRSV) What does it mean to take up your cross? In the midst of mulling over this question, I awoke one morning to find a Lenny Kravitz song running through my mind: Are You Gonna Go My Way? Here are some of the lyrics:
I was born long ago
I am the chosen I'm the one
I have come to save the day
And I won't leave until I'm done
So that's why you've got to try
You've got to breathe and have some fun
Though I'm not paid I play this game
And I won't stop until I'm done
But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way?
Kravitz's commentary on the song is enlightening: “I’m singing lines like ‘I was born long ago’ and ‘I’m the chosen I’m the one’, but obviously it’s not about me,” he clarifies. “It’s about Christ, and it’s coming from the Jesus Christ Superstar kind of place. I’m singing in role, y’know, as if it was a musical, and the question means: are you gonna go the way of love? Let’s think about what Christ really said. His methods were all about love. So the question is, are you gonna continue to live in this way, full of hate, or are you gonna live in the way of love? Are you gonna go my way?” – Interview with Lenny Kravitz in Classic Rock Magazine (2011)
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According to the gospels, going Jesus's way means denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. So let's take a closer look at these three aspects. First, the context. Jesus addresses his disciples with these words after he performs a miracle of feeding thousands of people, after Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering, death, and resurrection to come (which his disciples can't comprehend), after Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things, and after Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to stand in the way of what God is doing. It seems that being a follower of Jesus required some clarification, because even his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant to follow Jesus.
Deny yourself means to refuse to recognize the self as source. In some way, we disown the self. In other words, it does not own us or call the shots. Take up means to lift something up to carry it, and the implication is that one must first put something aside (the self) in order to be able to take up something else (the cross). The cross refers to the actual physical cross-beam that was carried by a condemned person to the site of their execution. The cross, originally a symbol for suffering and disgrace, became a symbol of infinite love and sacrifice when placed on the shoulders of Jesus the Christ. The word follow comes from the Greek akoloutheo and it joins two words: unity + road. It means to be going in the same way as someone (as Kravitz sings). Perhaps one reason Jesus felt he had to spell this out to his disciples was because they were confused as to what going the way of Jesus looked like.
In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson contrasts the way of Jesus with the way of several high profile leaders of the time. His points help us understand how radical Jesus's way was and why Jesus's followers (and you and I) find it hard to comprehend and embrace the counter-cultural, counter-self-interest, counter-power structure, counter-control way of Jesus.
Herod vs. Jesus: Peterson observes that Herod was impressive. Herod was effective. Herod was successful. He got things done by importance, bigness, and power. No one did kingdom better than Herod. But Jesus lived as if Herod barely existed. "Jesus ignored the world of power and accomplishment that was brilliantly on display all around him. He chose to work on the margins of society, with unimportant people, giving particular attention to the weak, the disturbed, the powerless" (Peterson, 204). Jesus chose to forgo the pursuit of importance and power. Instead, he focused on relationships which reflected God's love and heart for reconciliation.
Pharisees vs. Jesus: Thousands of years ago, in the face of great pressure for the Jewish people to adopt Greek civilization (laws were passed forbidding Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, temple sacrifices, etc.), the Pharisees rose up to preserve and reinforce the Jewish identity. They did so not only by pushing back against the governmental laws but by also implementing new rules and customs meant to keep the Jewish identity sharp. The Pharisees were passionate protectors, protesting anything they perceived as a threat to their way of life, but they got stuck in protect and protest mode. Jesus did not take his cue from the loyal intensity of the Pharisees. He was not obsessed with purity and precision or rules which defined and defended and regulated. His way was personal and relational, inviting participation from perceived outsiders. Instead of emphasizing purity, he showed people the love and mercy of God. Instead of protecting himself from threats and dangers, he demonstrated trust in God and talked about a kingdom which is greater than any force on earth.
Caiaphas the High Priest vs. Jesus: Peterson characterizes Caiaphas as impatient with being a servant of God and impatient with God's people. As a result, Caiaphas took control of things. He set himself up as a manager of God's business, doling out salvation and damnation, collecting taxes, and becoming a power player by cozying up to the governing Romans. In this way he was able to enjoy wealth and influence during a time when most Jewish people were outcasts and second-class citizens. However, we must remember that the way of Jesus is not a path to privilege. When the cross-beam landed on Jesus's shoulders, it meant he was headed for death and disgrace. Most of Jesus's disciples eventually walked that same path: they spent their lives discipling others, preaching the good news of the Messiah, healing the sick, and dying horrible deaths because they followed Jesus. Peterson writes: "[Jesus] said 'Follow me' and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn't after the best but the worst. He came to seek and to save the lost" (Peterson, 219).
Zealots vs. Jesus: Zealots have great courage and determination, going to any lengths to aid their cause, even violence. When the opposition is identified (and labeled as evil), they will use force, bullying, manipulating, and even killing in order to gain the victory for their side (which is labelled as good). When faced with unfriendly treatment, two of Jesus's disciples (James and John) asked Jesus, "Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Jesus rebuked them. His way was to overcome evil with good, not by using force or violence or retaliation. Sadly, church history recounts wars, killings, and devastation incited by zealots who fought in the name of Jesus. For the medieval Crusaders, the cross painted on their shields was not a symbol of sacrificial love, of giving their lives for the sake of others, but a justification for the taking of lives, particularly those deemed heretics. It is easy to condemn the mistakes of the past, but we are guilty as well. "Men and women in our Christian nation are still killing others in the name of Jesus, sometimes with guns, sometimes with words. Do we forget so easily that Jesus equated word-killing and sword-killing (Matt. 5:21-22)?" (Peterson, 260). Jesus showed us a merciful and loving God, not a zealot God.
The question, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" is one that Jesus asks each one of us who would be his followers. Will we unseat ourselves as the centre and source of our lives? Will we refuse to take on the role of protectors of purity and align ourselves with the suffering in the world? Will we offer healing and hope to others through the sacrifice of loving action? Will we stop seeking after importance and power and begin to cultivate relationships with the poor, the needy, the broken? Where we are prone to defensiveness and protest, will we join ourselves to others in a way that demonstrates vulnerability and humility? Will we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?
 Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007).,