Rev. Bror Erickson
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” = Matthew 16:24 (ESV)
Another Stanley Spencer painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” echoes El Greco’s famous illustration by the same title, but with more narration as it shows Christ willfully, almost cheerfully carrying the cross through Spencer’s hometown of Cookham in place of Jerusalem as the people absent mindedly follow Christ by going about their own business of carrying their crosses of vocation. The carpenters carry their ladders go to work as Christ goes about his work.
When the Tate Museum applied the title “Christ Bearing His Cross” Stanley explained his displeasure with the title saying it conveys “A sense of suffering which was not my intention. I particularly wished to convey the relationship between the carpenters behind him carrying the ladders and Christ in front carrying the cross. Each doing their job of work and doing it just like workmen… Christ was not doing a job or his job, but the job.” (Source: gresham.ac.uk)
Perhaps this isn’t always what we think of when we think of picking up our crosses and following him. And yet there is in this a profound understanding of the meaning of Christ’s cross for the Christian life. It’s not about you and what you do for him, but about him and what he has done for you. Christians are often dissatisfied with this sort of thing. It belongs to the core of our sinful nature, the Old Adam within us that we want to make Christianity about us. For instance as Rachel Evans talks about what the Millennials want from the church, “We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers (Source: religion.blogs.cnn.com)
This, however, is not how the Christian becomes holy or lives a holy life. Rather it is Christ who sanctifies us, that is makes us holy, in the washing of the water with the word. (Eph. 5) Our holiness is not about a challenge, but the fruits of forgiveness, it is the new life that comes when we are resurrected with Christ to walk in the newness of life that comes in baptism. (Rom. 6:4) Then our crosses are not found in self chosen works of monasticism, self-denial, social activism or eco-tourism. No, our crosses are found in the midst of our vocations, doing the work God has called us to do in the midst of the communities in which he has placed us. Our work as fathers and mothers, as children, students, professors, carpenters and auto mechanics is the holy work God has given us to do, the crosses we bear in which there is no glory to be seen or beheld, the pain of the cross often nothing more than the mere tediousness of the ho hum work, and yet by virtue of Christ doing the job this work is blessed by God who works through our hands to take care of his creation often as hidden in these crosses as Christ himself is hidden behind the cross in this painting.
Of course, there are times in life when perhaps one is blessed to feel the pain of his cross more acutely than at other times. Jesus promises us that this world will give us tribulation as it gave him tribulation. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matthew 10:25 (ESV) Yet, there is no promise here that the tribulation a Christian experiences will be any different from that which the world will give to all, either. But at these times the Christian is given opportunity to take heart in Christ who has overcome the world, who carries the burden of the cross willingly and bids “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)) We don’t have to make life harder than it already is, in order to be good Christians. We only need to let Christ do the job.
Pastor Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Farmington NM.