One of my all-time favorite cartoons comes from the New Yorker Magazine. It shows two businessmen sitting in a bar, one clearly despondent. The unhappy one says to his companion: "I was on the cutting edge. I pushed the envelope. I did the heavy lifting. I was the rainmaker. Then suddenly it all crashed when I ran out of metaphors."[i]
Metaphors. They clearly play a significant role in our lives, don't they? Not just as linguistic tools--but as much more. Metaphors shape our thinking, convey philosophy, and even express theological concepts. Of course, metaphors, whether pithy and catchy or deep and extensive, are not simply a modern communication phenomenon. In fact, they are probably as old as human language. For example, we know that the master teacher, Jesus, taught in parables--sort of extended metaphors--beautiful symbolic stories that provoked contemplation and challenged the status quo. Symbolic language was prevalent in Jesus' teachings. "I am the vine, you are the branches." "I am the light of the world." And he tells us about the pearl of great price, the wheat and the tares, and the house built on shifting sand. Unlike our businessman in the New Yorker cartoon, Jesus never seemed to run out of metaphors.
So not surprisingly, across the centuries there has arisen dispute about metaphoric language in the Bible. Is it really justifiable to take the language of the Bible metaphorically, or does reverence for the texts require us to understand them as literally as possible? It's a controversy of real importance, I think, because what is conveyed in the Biblical language is so significant to us all. We do not want to miss a shred of the meaning intended for us.
So how would you understand today's text? Metaphorically? Literally? "If any want to become my followers," Jesus said, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
As Steve Garnaas-Holmes has said, "the cross in Jesus' day was not a logo or a metaphor...The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss and death. It was a real weapon: the only way to, 'take it up,' was to become its real victim."[ii]
When Jesus picked up his cross, it was to set himself against the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities, against the ideology of the world that oppressed and shackled God's people, and against everything that hindered the in-breaking of God's kingdom to come. He picked up the cross to go to his death, literally.
But when the writer of Mark's Gospel related Jesus' teachings on the matter, we see that something new was slipping into the meaning and implication of cross-bearing, because as Jesus told it, every one of his followers must bear a cross. Then, will every one of Jesus' followers face his same cruel and tragic death?
Well, in Mark's day the threat of crucifixion was still there. As this Gospel was being written some forty or so years after Jesus' death, conflict was everywhere. Social, political and religious instability were inescapable. Rome was appointing a new Caesar after Nero had died. The temple in Jerusalem was under siege and soon to be destroyed, while Jews were divided over supporting Rome or rising up against it. And the fledgling band of Jesus' followers were caught in the middle. Their beliefs neither persuaded them to fight Rome nor encouraged them to support it. Neighborhoods were divided; families were divided. It was a difficult, desperate, and dangerous time.
This line from Mark's Gospel about cross-bearing reminded Christ's very early band of followers of the cross' very literal potential to take life. Depending on the choices they made, indeed, it might take theirs. But, also, this line spoken by Jesus would have reminded them of the prospect the cross offered to help them gain everything.
I have a clergy friend whose grandfather knew a lot about crosses, literally. As my friend tells it, back in the 1950's his grandfather was a Grand Wizard of the KKK. On more than one occasion, his grandfather had led other men in erecting and burning crosses on public property and on private lawns. What motivated the use of these crosses for this purpose? Hatred, animosity, hostility, bitterness, ignorance--all these were driving forces in the life of my friend's grandfather. The implementation of the cross in expressing them scarred many innocent people for life.
My friend doesn't speak much about this horrific period in his family's past; in fact, only a few of his close friends know of its existence at all. But knowing something of it, one night I gathered the courage to ask him how he had reconciled himself to that portion of his family history. He smiled quietly and responded this way, "Well, you see, my grandfather went through a conversion experience in mid-life and the cross began to play a very different role for him. It had been for him an emblem by which he spewed hatred. But one day, my grandfather said, as the stories of scripture were read in his church, he heard the line about taking up his cross. He realized then that every cross he had picked up, he had misused. And so my grandfather said he knelt and prayed for a little guidance on the matter and God showed him what to do with his cross. My grandfather said he nailed his rage upon that cross and let it die there. And with that death something new came to life within him."
Then my friend went on to say that that decision had made all the difference in his grandfather's life, which was clear from what happened years later. "I had been invited to play the golf course located in my grandfather's hometown," my friend said. "A green van from the golf club picked me up at the airport along with several friends. The driver of the van introduced himself as Carlton. He picked up the golf bags and luggage, then off we went. Driving through my grandfather's hometown in that van, I told my friends about my own family history there--not the KKK part, of course--the rest of the story, my friend said. I even pointed out the downtown block where my grandfather had owned a loan company and pawn shops for many years.
When we arrived at the golf club, Carlton, the driver, walked around to the back of the van and began to unload bags. One by one, each of my golfing friends walked away until I was the only one left with the driver of van. When Carlton handed me my bags he said, "I knew your grandfather. In fact, after your grandfather's conversion, he was a changed man. If it weren't for him, many of my people would have gone hungry. He was always willing to give you money if you needed it...loaned it to you sometimes for no interest if you were really hard up. He was a good Christian man, and you should be proud."
How about that? From a Grand Wizard to a humble Christian with the heart of a servant. The power of the cross.
If I were to ask you if the cross still had its uses for your life and mine, what would you say? Of course, the cross it is no longer employed as the Romans used it in Jesus' day to put insurrectionists to their literal death. So powerful, so formative is the cross in Christian identity that its potential lives on, doesn't it? Now, in modern times perhaps we could understand the cross to be the place of our ultimate transformation...a place to hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness, our prejudice, our greed --and then let them die, so that something more eternally good and grace-filled and Christ-like may be resurrected!
So let me ask, "What do you need to hang on the cross this day?" Is there something within you or around you that should be hung there? Does something in your life need to die for something else more gracious, good, and generative to live?
Think of the hundreds and thousands of Christians who have trusted in the cross's power to change things, whether in their own personal hearts and souls, or whether a change was required because of a social condition, a political injustice, or a national disgrace. Let's make no mistake. Such cross-bearers often carry a heavy, heavy load, as they take their crosses up to follow Jesus. But they have done it time and again with the sure and certain conviction that the potential and the power of the cross that burst into the world when Jesus first shouldered it is now accessible to every Christian. The cross is now our means to grasp and enlist the transformative power which is capable of making God's kingdom more fully present among us.
Perhaps one of the most stirring examples of cross-bearing I know comes from the story of William Wilberforce. Few of us know his name, but we all see the result of his walk with Jesus and the cross. As observers have noted, in reading Charles Colson's book, Kingdoms in Conflict[iii], it all began in 1787 in London. London was prosperous in those days, but decadent. The Industrial Revolution was swinging into full gear, and tired children worked excruciating eighteen-hour work days. A significant portion of the economy was run by British ship captains who serviced the British plantation industry in the West Indies. Their cargo? Human beings. Human beings who were captured in Africa and auctioned into slavery.
In these tumultuous times when exploitation and unrest were rampant, few gave a second glance to the tragedy of black African slavery. However, Wilberforce felt the weight of his Christian convictions and could not deny them. The young politician, only 29 years old, introduced the first bill into Parliament in 1788 proposing to abolish slave trade. It was soundly defeated. So Wilberforce began a campaign with other Christian abolitionists. They distributed pamphlets, they spoke at public meetings, they circulated petitions, they wrote songs, they organized boycotts of slave-grown sugar--but public sentiment was not easily changed. Wilberforce was mocked in the press, humiliated in the halls of government, even challenged to a dual by one self-righteous plantation owner who felt he'd been unfairly maligned by Wilberforce's campaign to change public opinion on slavery. And yet, Wilberforce carried on unremittingly. Year after year after year bills were proposed. Year after year after year, those bills proposed to abolish slavery were defeated.
But finally, after many arduous years, Wilberforce saw the change he dreamed of. An abolition bill was again introduced to Parliament in the House of Lords and in the House of Commons. And just before the vote was called, one member rose to give a stirring tribute to William Wilberforce and his unwavering conviction to end an evil. Then the vote was taken: 16 nay and 283 yea. At last--the motion carried overwhelmingly, and Wilberforce sat quietly, head bowed, tears flowing down his wrinkled face.
What an impressive story. One man, one man who breathed like us, walked like us, thought and spoke and talked like us, accomplished the extraordinary because he did all those things in the company of Jesus. And while Wilberforce metaphorically shouldered his cross, all the while, he hung upon it the shame of slavery until it died there. And what happened then? Freedom literally came to life.
Crosses. Jesus carried one, literally. And his followers have been asked to shoulder them ever since. Does the cross play a role in your existence? To be quite honest, I don't expect many of us feel its crushing weight or bear its splinters in our hands. But if we are Christ's people, it should be something more than a vague memory and an empty metaphor. The cross, all it means, all the power it holds, all the transformation it enables, ought to stand central to our lives.
Auguste Rodin was a wonderful French sculptor who one day found an enormous, carefully carved wooden crucifix beside a road. Rodin bought that cross he so admired and had it carted to his home. But when it arrived he found that the cross was too big to fit inside his house. So what did he do? He knocked down the walls, raised the roof, and rebuilt his home around that cross.[iv]
Now isn't that a wonderful metaphor? What if the cross was central to our lives, to our homes, to our very being? What if we lived under its shadow every day? What if it stood so near that we could pick it up whenever its power was needed? What if we were poised to hang every evil on it, every injustice on it, every hardship and pain on it, to let the cross do its work as it has for millions of people for thousands of years?
Then, it would be more than an empty metaphor; it would still be doing its work. And what's more, we who are the agents that employed that cross, would be God's agents of transformation. We would be, metaphorically, the cutting edge, pushing the envelope, doing the heavy lifting, the rainmakers.
"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says. What greater call could we ever accept than that? Amen.
[i] The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, ed. by Robert Mankoff, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Inc., New York, New York.
[ii] Steve Garnaas-Holmes,"Fasting and Abstinence," ucanews.com, February 14, 2013.
i[ii] King Duncan, "There is a Lad Here" esermons.com, Proper 12, year B, quoting
Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
[iv] Best Sermons, Three, Harper and Row, 1990, Page 115.