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Threat of the Cross

Luke 9:18-27

So, I walk into a meeting for JCTCS staff on Friday afternoon and find three policemen, EMS, and security from the Louisville campus. I knew it was a session on responding to live shooters in a school building, which is a good idea. But then I figure out that we’re there to experience more than the video and the discussion. We’re going to do a live shooter drill. And the instructor, who is to be the shooter, encourages us to throw things at him, but “please don’t hurt me.” And he’s giving us the password to stop the event if it gets out of hand. OK. It’s right there that it occurred to me that my expectations for teaching and the real world of teaching were in conflict. It’s hard to believe that any teacher in America got into classroom teaching with the hope of facing a gunman. But that is now part of the experience of teaching in America. I am making adjustments.

Threat of the cross

Expectations are at the heart of the faith and our struggles with faithfulness, and Jesus is usually readjusting them when they are out of line. Rarely is this more evident than in Luke 9:18-27.

Let’s begin with 9:18-20: And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples went with Him, and He questioned them, saying, “Who do the people say that I am?” They answered and said, “John the Baptist, and others say, Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again.” And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.”

The great news is that the disciples confess him as Christ. But it is precisely because he is confessed as Christ that they need to hear what Jesus is about to say about the Christ. Their brains were undoubtedly packed with expectations of the Messiah. They undoubtedly expected the High and Holy: Messiah as General over a sovereign Israel and Messiah as Lord of the Temple. But they undoubtedly had their Low and Unholy expectations, too: Exalt the Jew, kill the Gentile and exalt me, judge my enemy. And as we would expect, the disciples’ jockeying for a place near Jesus is a sign that they expected the safest and most promising place to be as close to Christ as you could get. And so these troubling words in verses 21-22: But he warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.”

Here is our first identity crisis in the Christian faith: God is not going to save Jesus. Now, we know that the “raised up on the third day” puts all things in perspective, but they do not see this in real time. There is no way they expected the suffering, the rejection, and the death of the Christ. And while they waited and waited for God to step in, God did not step in. Not only would the disciples not save him, Jesus would not save himself. Even as Christ’s death is a salvation event, it does not mean that everything and everyone gets saved. In fact, for God’s will to come forth, some expectations, and in his case some people, have to die.

Which is important to remember as we read the sober warning that follows in verses 23-27: And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of Him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God.”

If the cross in Jesus’ life was a problem for the disciples, the cross in their own life was going to be even more of a crisis. Just as they would learn that God was not going to save Jesus, and Jesus was not going to save himself, so they must expect that God is not going to save them from all crosses. Suffering for the sake of the kingdom was also to be their story. And that is bearable. But it was the next idea that may prove the most difficult. Just as Jesus did not save himself, so they were are not to save themselves.

This is the language of identity. As for the disciples, the language of the cross intruded on no few points of identity—like living without pain and living for as long as possible. It also intruded on their sense of respectability, for crosses were for the worst criminals. It also intruded on their hope of a future that had less, not more, denial of wants. Maybe the idea of following intruded on their sense of being responsible men with businesses who were used to leading. Whatever the case, Jesus tells them that the only way you find salvation is to quit trying to save yourself.

And that is the key word. Or words.

“Your self.” That is, the struggle within a relationship with Christ is coming to grips with what Christ asks from us and the conflicts this creates with the identity we have built for ourselves. We are creatures of family and culture and time and gender and age, and we are highly committed to being the person we have worked so hard to create. At the heart of it all, we are trying to save ourselves. We are trying to save ourselves from pain, from loneliness, from poverty, from rumors, from tumors, from unemployment, from conflict, and from surprises. These are not sins. But we must confess that at the heart of who we are and why we’re trying to save ourselves from denial and cross-bearing, we are trying to save this other self. We are trying to save ourselves from certain reputations—like being too religious, or a pushover, or a fool. We are trying to save ourselves from unpopularity. We are trying to save ourselves from any feeling of insecurity about finances. We are trying to save ourselves from being alone. We are trying to save ourselves from anything that gets in the way of the plan, the story, or the dream that we’ve been working on for a long time, thank you very much.

The cross is a threat to the Me that I value. The cross is a threat to the religious, respectable image of Me that I have built, projected, and guard. But the cross also threatens the secret Me: the impatient Me, the covetous Me, and the greedy Me. Just as in Acts we see that Jesus calls for the disciples to drop what the disciples thought were their best traits—the Jewish ethnic card and the Mosaic Law card—so Jesus asks us to drop what we feel so critical to our identities. Quit trying to save yourself, he says.

*A friend called me recently about a conflict in his relationship and upcoming marriage: “I come home after an eight hour day, I have other work I want to do on projects, and she wants me to sit and talk to her.” We had one of those marriage expectations conversations. His were a bit off. What was hard for him to see was what there was to gain by releasing the Me and following Jesus into Us.

I feel confident telling you that the outer actions are by far the easiest to manage in following Christ. It is at the point of identity, leaving long-held prejudices and entitlements, that pose the biggest threat to a lasting relationship with Christ. Do not try to save your Self. There is only loss if you get to the end and exude Me above all else.




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