The crowded room buzzed with the voices of concerned citizens. Emotions were running high at the official hearing of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The conflict revolved around a 32-foot-high lighted concrete cross on top of one of San Francisco’s many hills. The cross had first been lit in 1932 by remote control from Washington, D.C. by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For decades it had been a beacon for wayfaring seamen. Now the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United were protesting its existence on city-owned land, and they were threatening a lawsuit to have it removed.
Christians, who valued the cross as a religious symbol for themselves and many other San Franciscans, wanted it to remain. Some secular-minded traditionalists also agreed that the cross should stay on the hilltop because it was an integral part of the city’s history. Others, however, for various reasons seemed to feel threatened by this Christian symbol and lobbied vociferously for its removal.
One man sputtered angrily, That cross is right behind my house. Every time I look out of my window I see it, and it turns my stomach. It represents a religion other than my own, and it makes me feel like I don’t belong. I’m an American. I pay taxes, and I don’t want to support someone else’s religious symbol.” The impact of his words lay not so much in what he said, but in the vehemence with which he said it.
Someone else retorted that if they removed the cross because it represented one specific group, the same logic would dictate that they also tear down the Japanese Tea Garden from the city’s Golden Gate Park and stop the annual lighting of both the Christmas tree and the Hanukkah menorah in the downtown business area.
After a heated discussion, they decided that the cross could remain because it was a respected landmark as well as a Christian symbol. If the lights were to be used, their maintenance would be paid for by donations from various groups, most of them local churches. At least for the time being, the civic dispute about the cross had been resolved.
The problem of the real cross, however, is not so readily resolved. The cross of Christ remains a source of irritation to many who do not believe in Jesus and do not want to be reminded of Him. Moreover, unbelievers are not the only ones who avoid thinking about the cross and its grim significance. At times even we who believe in Yeshua and rejoice at the redemption wrought at Calvary fail to regard the cross as Scripture indicates we ought.
We like to think that we honor the cross. We sing about “the old, rugged cross.” We use the symbol as jewelry and decorate our churches with it. We even preach sermons about Christ dying on the cross. Yet we seldom give serious thought to its real significance. At least we don’t act as though we do.
If we did regard the cross as seriously as we should, we would attach much more importance to Yeshua’s admonitions. He said, “…come, take up your cross and follow Me” (Mark 10:21), and “…he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38).
In Greek the word Yeshua used for “worthy” is axios. It bears the connotation of deserving. We usually do not think very much about being worthy, but we do think a great deal about what we deserve. We tend to assume that we always deserve as much good as we can get, but we seldom think that we deserve retribution for our wrongful attitudes or actions.
Worthiness is rarely discussed these days in or out of church, but in one way or another it is a continuing problem for most of us. The working man thinks that he is worthy of as high a wage as he can get; the employer, on the other hand, feels that the working man is worth as little as he will accept. Teachers feel that their students deserve to be graded on the quality of their work, while the students usually feel that they ought to be graded on a curve based on what others have or have not accomplished.
The Bible simply says, “…the laborer is worthy (axios) of his wages” (Luke 10:7). In other words, a worker deserves compensation for his or her labor.
Of course, in the context of salvation worthiness is another matter. Scripture states, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). We are all sinners in God’s sight, who without the righteousness of Christ would find ourselves eternally separated from Him. We deserve judgment because we have earned it. Not one of us can deserve the gift of salvation. The merit that allows us into God’s presence is Christ’s worthiness, never our own. Yet according to Yeshua’s own words, the only way we can follow Him (walk with Him) is to take up our cross—die to self. When we allow our old life and our old nature to be crucified with Christ, His new life in us takes over and enables us to have fellowship with Him.
Though believers love to talk about God’s great love and Yeshua’s death on the cross for our salvation, none of us really wants to join Him on that cross. We want God’s gift of forgiveness and grace. Yet we cling to many of our old attitudes and ways and keep our old, sinful selves very much alive.
In doing this we excuse ourselves as though God will grade our “eternal report cards” on a curve. That’s a mistake. God grades all according to the standard of Jesus. In our own righteousness we simply cannot make it. All of us have flunked Righteousness 101 in the School of Life. The only way to make the grade is to die to self, and gain new life through the New Birth. Then the Holy Spirit provides us with the power to follow Him.
We know that even Paul struggled with the old self. To the church at Rome he wrote, “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good” (Romans 7:21). But Paul found the victory as he took up his cross in obedience to Matthew 10:38. To the Galatians he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
As I contemplated this predicament of the cross and how we usually respond to it, I spun a silly daydream. It was about a cross merchant—maybe even a cross boutique in some fashionable shopping mall. I envisioned a sign over the door: Moe’s Emporium for New and Improved Crosses.
As you walk in, you meet the owner himself, Moe. He is smiling and well dressed. Your favorite music is being played to make you comfortable. Moe offers you a cup of coffee or a cold drink as he explains the features of the new improved models of the cross he is selling. They are not made out of wood anymore—not only for the sake of improved ecology, but because a wooden cross is scratchy. You could get splinters from it.
Instead, the new crosses are custom-made for each wearer out of flexible plastic. In fact, they are so flexible that you can alter their shape. If you prefer, you can twist your cross to look like a crescent and star which would allow you to be fashionable around Muslims. Or when you are around Jewish people, by folding and bending you can make your cross become a Star of David so you can fit right in with the crowd.
To insure that your cross will always stay shiny, it is coated with lacquer. And best of all, you don’t have to carry your cross. It carries you. You can sit on it using a pillow or a saddle, and it is motorized to take you wherever you want to go. Should you become drowsy, your new improved cross becomes a pallet or a hammock on which you can rest. And the newest deluxe model even has a food compartment so that you can have a picnic along the way.
“So,” says Moe, as he winds up his sales pitch, “if you must carry a cross and be worthy, get one of the new and improved ones that can carry you.”
A far-fetched, crazy fantasy, you say? Of course. Yet don’t most of us believers behave at one time or another as though we had found that new, improved, comfortable version of the cross?
There is no such thing as a comfortable cross. The cross not only represents redemption. It is a symbol of the ultimate realities of life and death. Reality is harsh. Sin is harsh, and the punishment for our sin that nailed Yeshua to the cross was harsh.
If we are to obey Yeshua’s words, we must settle for that harsh, secondhand cross. It is still as heavy as sin and troublesome to carry. Yet it is worthwhile because it is Jesus’ cross, and though it is far from comfortable, it is the only thing that makes us worthy before God.
As uncomfortable as that cross may be, when we take it up and die to sin and self, we find ourselves more alive than ever in Yeshua. And we have the assurance that we will continue to live with Him throughout all eternity.