Discipleship as Following Jesus to the Cross

Dr. Jack Kilcrease

As a liturgical season, Lent is frequently described as a "journey to the cross." Through the designated readings for the Lenten season and Holy Week, Christians are invited to trace Jesus' journey to the Jerusalem and eventually to his death on the cross. Nevertheless, as important as our focus on Christ's Passion is during this particular time of the year may be, in a larger and more significant sense, the Christian life of discipleship throughout the whole year must be seen as a journey with Jesus to the cross. As Jesus himself said: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16:24-25).

But what does it mean to follow Jesus to the cross? Throughout Christian history many people have thought that taking up one's cross primarily meant adopting a particular lifestyle that might make them more like Jesus. For example, in the Middle Ages, many people saw that the Gospels portrayed Jesus as one who was poor and suffered a great deal. Therefore, they sought to live a life of poverty and suffering in order to imitate him. The major problem with this view is that Scripture never tells us to imitate Jesus' poverty or sufferings. Even worse, by these make-believe good works people sought earn something that Christ had already won and given to them freely.

When thinking about the life of discipleship it is most important to center our hearts and minds on what Christ has done for us, not in any sense on what we believe that we can do for him. Hence, the cross we follow Jesus to is not primarily where we find out what good works we must do, but the place where Jesus manifests his love and promises us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

We come to this cross of love and promise through the Word and the sacraments. Therefore, Luther in his Large Catechism emphasized Paul's teaching in Romans 6, that Baptism is the means through which we entered into Jesus' death on the cross. In Baptism, we are united with Christ's death. Through water and the word of promise, God executes his judgment upon the sin that dwells within us through the application of the merit of Christ and by giving us the Holy Spirit. As a result, we grasp the gospel's promise of forgiveness and live a new life of holiness in faith.

Our entrance into Christ's death and resurrection is complete and final in our Baptism. Nevertheless, prior to our earthly death, we live a life of endless tension between what we simultaneously already are through baptism into Christ and what we remain due to our birth as sinful sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Therefore, the life of discipleship means daily entering again to into Jesus death. This occurs when we recognize our sin and repent of it, while at the same time trusting in the promise of forgiveness found in our Baptism into Christ's death.

Likewise, dying to sin also means being resurrected into a new life of faith. Faith trusts in God's word of promise, and therefore out of gratitude seeks to offer up our lives as a "as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1). In loving our neighbor and obeying God's law, we follow Jesus to the cross by dying to our own selfish needs and desires for the sake of others. This act of imitating Christ is a response to what Christ has done for us. It is not the condition for Jesus' love and acceptance of us.

Therefore, in the season of Lent, it is important for us to focus first on how Christ has sacrificed himself for us, receiving His gifts in the daily remembrance of our baptism, hearing His Word and receiving His Supper, so that we may in turn sacrifice ourselves for our neighbor in the service of love. In doing this, we follow Jesus' command to take up our crosses and follow him.

Dr. Jack Kilcrease is a member at Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Created: March 9th, 2016