The Subversive Kingdom within the Cross

Image: Michael Peligro

Image: Michael Peligro

“We use the word cross in our hymns, in our piety, in our prayers, and in our pastoral language. But we use it too cheaply. We say that a person has to live with some sort of suffering in life: a sickness that cannot be cured, an unresolvable personality conflict within the family, poverty, or some other unexplainable or unchangeable suffering. Then we say, ‘That person has a cross to bear.’

Granted, whatever kind of suffering we have is suffering that we can bear in confidence that God is with us. But the cross that Jesus had to face, because he chose to face it, was not—like sickness—something that strikes you without explanation. It was not some continuing difficulty in his social life.

It was not an accident or catastrophe that just happened to hit him when it could have hit somebody else. Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in; the cross that he chose was the price of his representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life. That is what he called his followers to do.”—John Howard Yoder, Radical Christian Discipleship

If you’re carrying a cross,
you’re going to die

This Yoder quote is both profound and troubling. When Christ says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he’s saying something decidedly more profound than “be devoted to to me, even when you go through difficult times.”

Jesus’ whole message throughout the gospels was, in essence, “Behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The incarnation was about so much more than propitiation for sins, it was a revelation of God’s true character and the introduction of a grass-roots revolution to topple an old kingdom with a new one.

Jesus was put to death because he carried with him an authority and power that undermined the world’s kingdoms—even the religious ones.

His call to carry our cross and follow him isn’t about some abstract “death to self.” It’s about a death to our conformity, our fit, our willingness to use kingdom-of-the-world tools to meet kingdom-of-God objectives. We are left with the distinct call to live out the life of a new kingdom in the midst of an old one.

More than behavior modification

We are citizens of earthly countries but bound to something profoundly higher. As an American, I’m not called to romanticize capitalism or the Bill of Rights in areas where they conflict with my call to subversively live out the peace-making, subversive Kingdom of God.

Carrying my cross means that I am not trying to live within the cognitive dissonance of embracing the God’s kingdom and embrace everything that the American dream has to offer. It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive, but their pursuit is.

I’m not just striving to become a better version of Jayson with less swearing and regular quiet times. Christianity isn’t about presenting a wrinkle-free, unblemished glittering image for people to admire; it’s about drawing people into a community of love where they can be accepted and given the grace needed for God to do his work in their lives.

The church is only an inviting presence when it demonstrates the sermon-on-the-mount-like glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. If the church isn’t making people curious about the distinct difference in the way we do life, we’re not going to win them over with our piousness.

Victors at the world’s mercy

Jesus promised that the world would hate those who followed him. It isn’t supposed to be because of our heavy-handed approach to people trapped in the world’s kingdom. They’re not supposed to hate us because of the guilt and shame we lay on them. They’re not supposed to hate us because we try and enact laws to control their behavior.

Like any predator, the kingdom of the world is supposed to hate us because it sees us as weak. Helpless. We carry a message to those the world discounts, discredits, and brushes aside that they’re worthy of the same value as the rich, strong, and powerful. The world should want to devour us because our behavior shames the power structure of the sword and the dollar.

Like Jesus, the world should flock to us because it sees the church as an antidote to the machinations that leave them hopeless and struggling.

We don’t compromise. We don’t concede. But in the kingdom of God, compromise is allowing the leaven of authority, power, and violence as a tool to meet our ends. We are led like lambs to the slaughter, and even in that we are a signpost for a higher and more glorious kingdom to come.

We are aliens and sojourners here and within that truth, we find our cross.

“The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of the path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Muntzer’s or Zinzendorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross, an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.”—John Howard Yoder

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