Take up your cross

by Philip Turner.

Though I attended my local Methodist Church at least twice each week as a child, I do not remember seeing a cross.  I saw organ pipes pointing upwards, casting a shadow over the raised pulpit, but no cross.  It was only later that a small wooden cross was rebelliously placed on the communion table under the pulpit.  It was only after that when, where once had been a flower festival display at the back of the chapel, a cross remained that flower arrangers decided not to dismantle, and the rest of us let it be.

I’ve often wondered why my childhood Methodist chapel was designed without a cross, and the congregation had, for many years, been content to leave it that way.  It is still a mystery, but this year I feel I may have some insight.

Since January, my church community has been steadily reading reading the account of the last few days and hours of Jesus’ life in Mark’s Gospel.  I’ve read this account many times, yet the impact this year feels different.  It isn’t because, unlike in my childhood, I now have a cross to look at: my church meets in a nearby coffee shop where there are no fixed displays of faith.  But reading Mark, and honestly struggling with what it means today, has presented a picture of the cross that has shaken me to the core.

This is because, in Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, no less than three times, that he must die.[i]  It is because Mark highlights, not so much Jesus’ physical pain, but how he is humiliated.  It is because Mark painstakingly shows how his so-called ‘disciples’ left him, his faith leaders disown him and the civil authorities make fun of him.  So far has popular opinion swung away from him, that not one single person casts a sympathetic vote in his favour.  Not even his mother, in Mark’ account, comes out in the support of her son.  And God remains silent.  The desolation goes even further.  On the cross, the last remaining thread of human dignity and and self protection is removed; Jesus’ body is shown as frail and completely exposed for all to see.  Yet, what is most disturbing is not what is seen, but the invitation we can still hear.  We remember that Jesus has said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.‘[ii]

Samuel Wells[iii] highlights, among other things, that 90 percent of Jesus’ life was obscured and hidden.  The remaining 10 percent was his recognised public activity, and a small percentage of that was his suffering and death.  The implication is that, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it might be reasonable to expect a similar outline for our own lives.  Yet, to what extent is that our expectation?

I work as a chaplain in my local acute hospital where I often meet patients and their families who are shocked by the realisation that this life is short and that they must, one day, die.  Fortunately, unlike Jesus, most of us need not experience pain: modern medication has almost eliminated that necessity.  However, it is beyond the ability of modern medicine to address the humiliation highlighted in Jesus’ experience.  Modern medicine can’t relieve the hurt we feel when people let us down.  There is no painkiller for the abandonment that we can feel. The reason, Frances Spufford assures us, is the Human Propensity to Mess things Up, which means that we should not be surprised when we experience human cruelty.[iv] 

I wonder whether those of us seeking to follow Christ often reach for the vision, but avoid the realism.  This might have been the reason for the absence of the cross in my childhood chapel, yet I suspect that the visual cue does not automatically lead to engagement with our own cross that Mark’s Gospel presents.  Certainly, I am both grateful and disturbed by the realism that my current church community has uncovered.  Yet, I also reach for the vision. Morna Hooker reminds us, ‘Jesus loses his life, and is saved by God; he accepts shame, and receives glory; and he expects nothing less from his followers.’[v]


[i] Mark 8.31; 9.31; and 10.33f

[ii] Mark 8.34

[iii] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p.24f.

[iv] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), passim and p.233..  He prefers the initials HPtFtU..

[v] Morna D. Hooker, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994), p.53.

16 thoughts on “Take up your cross”

  1. Thank you for this post.
    We have been discussing at work (I am an RE teacher!) the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection lots over the last couple of weeks, not least because of a Lent group that has been meeting across the school.
    We have been reflecting on Jesus being so alone at his death. One colleague shared about how she had found this strangely comforting over the last couple of years. She reflected on the final days and moments of covid patients who were not able to be with their loved ones, who were struggling to breathe, who must have felt so very alone. For her, she explained how it was a comfort to know that Jesus had been through the same thing. I found this a moving reflection….

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  2. The Methodist church where my husband grew up also did not have a cross when he was a child. He told me that some people thought they were “half-way to Rome” when one was eventually installed. I think it was all about a concern that any visual artefacts might become objects of adoration – idolatrous “graven images”.

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  3. The Methodist church I grew up in didn’t have a cross either and I suspect that was true of most Methodist churches at the time. I think Judy Ford’s explanation is correct and it is the same reason we didn’t ever see candles in Methodist churches…and candles are an even more recent innovation!

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  4. The cross is not an object to be worshipped in itself; it is a symbol of the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us, to show us the way of humility, forgiveness and grace, even in the most dire circumstances. Candles also are a symbol of the light that shines in the darkness. The Bible is there for wisdom, guidance and comfort; it’s not for bashing people into submission with! All these things are not essential for living a faith-filled life, but they can and do help some of us to focus on the one who is the object of our adoration and reverence. For me, the Bible and the cross are crucial to my faith.

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  5. In the Methodist church of my youth Holy Communion seemed to be a sort of optional extra for the very devout, once most of the congregation had left after the preaching service with anthem from the large choir.

    No doubt future generations will wonder about some of our present practices and the underlying theology thereof.

    Truth is always bigger than we can comprehend. Thank you for this morning’s insight.

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  6. I’m grateful for these comments. The thought about Rome may be true in some areas, but in my area of rural Devon, we were more concerned to distance ourselves from the Church of England. As that relationship thawed, perhaps we then became less anxious about placing a cross in our chapels? In any case, I remain uncertain as to the extent to which the presence of a cross has helped me get close to the desolation and the humiliation that Mark’s Gospel exhorts us to embrace.

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    1. It is through Jesus’ death on the cross that we get to share in his desolation and humiliation, and through his resurrection that we get to share in his victory.
      ‘To the old rugged cross I will ever be true,
      It’s shame and reproach gladly bear,
      And he’ll call me some day to my home far away,
      Where his glory forever I’ll share.’
      George Bennard

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Philip, your fourth paragraph is the most pwerful piece of theology I have read in a long time. In our town on Good Friday there will be a walk of witness, as I’m sure there will be in many towns. A group of Christians from all denominations will follow the cross in procession to the town centre, where there will be a short service at midday. Given the number of Christians in our town, it will be a small representation, because so many Christians have become ashamed of the cross and what it represents. I find it quite heartbreaking that, after all that Jesus suffered on our behalf, some of his followers find the cross an embarrassment. I will reflect on your words as I follow the cross on Friday. Thank you.

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  8. Thank you Philip not only for your own reflections but also for the the encouragement to others to reflect even if that is challenging (or may be especially as that is challenging).
    I do not recall whether or not there were crosses in the various Churches and Chapels I grew up in, which I suspects means there were. It was only much later I came across the idea that Methodist Chapels should not have crosses (or only one cross). There were not just crosses in the Methodist manses that I grew up in but a chapel with an altar on which I’m sure there were candles! We would no doubt be considered far more than half way to Rome, which I’m sure Judy Ford is right in suggesting was the reason for a ‘no cross policy’. Yvonne is spot on in acknowledging the danger of idolatry but moving swiftly on to the positive of a physical cross helping reflecting upon *the Cross*.
    The presence or absence of a cross, be that a matter of principle or because that’s the way it has always been, is probably not the significant point here. There needs to be the encouragement to reflection not just the opportunity presented by the physical presence of a cross.
    Might palm crosses be an excellent way to encourage reflection, particularly amongst those who only attend Church on a Sunday? They might spend a few minuets with the cross (by which I mean the physical palm cross helping them to be with *the Cross*) each day of Holy Week or particularly on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Then throughout the rest of the year it might encourage occasional reflection.

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  9. I find the theology and the meaning of the Cross deeply problematic. For me the Cross is not about glory and power, but a crushing defeat. The only way I can make sense of Cor. 1:25, 27-28 is to reflect that in and beyond the defeat, the powerlessness and weakness of the Cross, the unconditional love of God affects us deeply with the insistence of a call, a provocation and a demand – implicit in the Two Great Commandments – that bring a deep sense of meaning to the meaninglessness.
    It is easier to say what the Cross is not: Firstly, it is nothing to do with making a deal with God, an economy based on self-denial in exchange for “everlasting life”. This is trivialising the kenotic God who loves all people unconditionally, even if they do not make a “deal”. It is also illogical to assume we have one part of our “self” that can deny another part and presumably itself! Secondly, it is nothing to do with a strategy of death overcome by resurrection, like a magic trick, to confront the strong and catch them unawares. Thirdly, it is not docetism, in which the weakness, powerlessness and suffering are only apparent, behind which God is showing His power.
    I need to repeat this is me trying to phrase a difficult question. Reading about Martin Luther, he made a distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the Cross, and Deconstructive theologians say something similar, that make me feel I may be on the right track. But what is the right track? What is the meaning of the Cross?

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  10. ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God;
    All the vain things that charmed me most,
    I sacrifice them to his blood.’

    Like

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