If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Good Friday schools us in the reality that to become Jesus’ disciple, we have to learn to die.
In some circles, it’s popular to say that Jesus died on the cross so that we don’t have to. The statement is true enough. But it’s not the whole truth. The Scriptures speak of “being buried with [Christ] by baptism into death,” and being “crucified with Christ” and “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (Romans 6:4; Galatians 2:20; 2 Timothy 2:11). Even Thomas–that original doubter–got it right (though ironically) when he said to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
It’s not so much that Jesus died so that we don’t have to. Jesus died so that we can die–and rise to new life–with him. We die to sin, to our wayward dark impulses, to all that draws us from our identity cemented in baptism. Dying is a condition of apprenticeship to Jesus.
This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”1
Thus any thought we might harbor about the way of Jesus being safe, comfortable, and generally designed to help us avoid death will have to go. The cross stands at the heart of Jesus’ life and message, and following the way of the cross will mean dying with Jesus. There’s nothing safe about it.
“Be safe” is the limp platitude of our society’s contemporary blessing. You can say it to anyone, no matter what they’re doing, whether it’s moral or immoral or somewhere in between.
What is this safety? It can be the idea that we can somehow pass through life without effect or consequence, a wish that we can always bounce back, always have our cake and eat it too, because we’re nice, smiley, safe ghosts–and ghosts leave no footprints.
I want us all to live safely. My children look both ways before crossing the street (most of the time). I wear a bicycle helmet to protect my precious noggin. I buckle up.
But safe is not the Jesus way. Living truly is not the same as living safely. I don’t mean this in a reckless, rammy, throw-caution-to-the-wind sort of way, but in the way Jesus meant it: “if you want to save your life in this world, you will lose it.” The only way to truly live is to die to the world and live to Jesus.
Do we have the courage to live the Jesus way?
I don’t know. But what else can we do? Where else can we go? He has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). I’m convinced that Jesus shows us the best, most interesting way to live. It’s life that dares to virtue. It’s life that’s focused on something beyond the next paycheck, with a horizon that’s broader than retirement. I believe it. Every so often, I catch sight of it and take a few steps myself.
We aren’t going to get to our deathbeds and say, I wish I would have lived more comfortably. I wish I would have taken fewer risks. I wish I would have stayed safe. Maybe we should all have “die a martyr” on our bucket list.
David, the dancing prophet-king of Israel, showed us one take on “walking before the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 116:9). Sometimes, he pulled it off. Often, he failed. The way following God was not safe for David. It involved furious kings and wilderness and warfare. There was a giant. But David never stopped seeking the way of God. He sang, “You will show me the way of life granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever (Psalm 16:11, NLT).
Jesus shows us the way of that life, a way that passes unswervingly through the cross.
This Good Friday, may God grant us the courage to walk his way–and live.
1 The Cost of Discipleship, p.89