Learning to Die on the Way
August 30, 2020
Reverend Matt Skinner
Matthew 16:21-26; Romans 12:1-2
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed in 1945 by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, is responsible one of the most memorable sentences in all of twentieth century European Christian theology. He wrote:
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.[i]
We can update Pastor Bonhoeffer’s words:
When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.
Admittedly, inviting people to their own death doesn’t come across as an attractive marketing slogan.
But it’s the message the church sends with every cross we display—whether on a roof, over a door, on a table, or in stained glass. Every person we baptize goes, symbolically, into a cold, dark grave with Jesus. Every communion service remembers a broken body, spilled blood, and the night he was betrayed. We cannot genuinely talk about Jesus Christ without talking about death and the claims that his death makes upon us, and about us.
But with Jesus, we’re talking about a particular kind of death. We don’t talk about death in general. We talk about… crucifixion.
We repeat an old, old error if we treat Jesus’ death as generic or an abstraction—or worse, as a required transaction. That is, it’s a mistake to overlook the specificity of Jesus death, exactly how he died. Jesus was executed. Humiliated. And justifiably so, from the perspective of the authorities who were responsible for law and order and who safeguarded the privileges that the Roman system guaranteed for some. To anyone who would have come across Jesus and the malcontents killed with him, the cross branded him a loser. A threat to the status quo. Expendable. Forsaken. Strung out in public view as a means of discrediting him and saying his life does not matter. His cause does not matter. His suffering does not matter.
“Tell me how you die,” wrote the poet Octavio Paz, “and I will tell you who you are.”
And so we need to update Bonhoeffer’s words again, to make them conform better to Jesus. So we remember who Jesus is. And also so we can be clear about what Jesus means when he says that to follow him, each person has to deny themselves and take up their cross.
When Christ calls a person, he bids them come to be crucified.
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Today marks the end of Westminster’s summer sermon series called “Learning on the Way.” What have we been learning during this journey?
It doesn’t feel like we’ve traveled far this summer. It seems we’re stuck in the same old morass. Death demands our attention now as much as ever.
Experts estimate well over 200,000 Americans have died so far from Covid-19. Many in our country have decided that 1,000 deaths per day is a normal, acceptable number. 29-year old Jacob Blake has seven bullet holes in his back and may never walk again. Two protesters were gunned down in the streets of Kenosha and a third injured. The national guard visited Minneapolis again. Portland experienced deadly violence last night.
What does a faith that takes its bearings from Jesus’ death on a cross have to say in our current season, when the deaths of so many people—mostly people you and I have never heard of before—have changed our lives?
What does it mean to respond to Jesus’ command to deny ourselves, take up a cross, and follow him? What does it mean to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, as the Apostle Paul put it?
Let’s pause for a moment and note that we need to be careful here and acknowledge that the church and other Bible readers have not always used these ideas well. We don’t want to be cavalier about death, especially while a pandemic rages, wildfires burn, hurricanes come ashore, and George Floyd’s cries continue to reverberate through the Twin Cities. These verses do not legitimate anyone’s victimization. There is no innate glory in suffering. Our memories about Jesus tell of him delivering people from oppression, not teaching them to be content with abuse.
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When Jesus tells his friends to take up their cross and follow him, they probably stop frozen in their tracks. The road he is walking to Jerusalem is not going to end in the triumph they might have expected. It’s heading toward degradation. Waste. Shame. Crucifixion, you see, was a political strategy. It was a public spectacle of contempt, it was socially engineered to erase a person’s humanity. To take up your cross was to have your body used to broadcast the message that there are no worthy values other than Roman values.
“Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.” Well, what does this death tell us?
British writer Francis Spufford describes it like this:
“Like a tragedy, [Jesus’s crucifixion] stirs up pity and terror in us. Like a tragedy it requires us to contemplate the world’s darkness. Like a tragedy, it draws attention to waste. It shows us a life that need not have been extinguished being extinguished, without particular malice, by the normal processes of the world. It shows us that accident, injustice, spoilage are all standard, all in the pitiably usual course of things. Here it’s important that Jesus’s death was an obscure one, when it happened. He’s not an Oedipus or a Prince Hamlet, someone falling from greatness. His death belongs beside the early cutting-short of the millions of lives of people too poor or too unimportant ever to have been recorded in the misleading story we call history; people only mourned by others as brief as themselves, and therefore gone from human memory as if they had never been. Jesus dies like a migrant worker who suffocates in a freight container, like a garbage-picker caught in a slide, like a child with an infected finger, like a beggar the bus reverses over. Or, of course, like all the other slaves ever punished by crucifixion, a fate so low, said Cicero, that no well-bred person should ever even mention it. Christians believe that Jesus’s death is, among other things, a way for God to mention it, loudly and with no good breeding at all, a declaration by the maker of the world, in pain and solidarity, that to [God] the measure of the waste of history is not the occasional tragedies of kings but the routine losses of every day.”[ii]
Precisely because Jesus dies on a cross, we understand his death as an act of divine solidarity. God does not die an honorable death but the death of someone deemed disposable. The point isn’t to gin up sadness and sympathy; it’s to declare that that’s who God is.
James Cone, the father of Black Theology, puts an American accent on the significance of Jesus’ death, when he explores the connections between Roman crucifixions and American lynchings, past and present. He writes:
“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured…. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power…. One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy…. Salvation through the cross is a mystery and can only be apprehended through faith, repentance, and humility. The cross is an ‘opening to the transcendent’ [Mircea Eliade] for the poor who have nowhere else to turn—that transcendence of the spirit that no one can take away, no matter what they do. Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness.”[iii]
When you see a cross, sing about a cross, make the sign of the cross, wear a cross, know what it is: a declaration from God—a declaration of God’s solidarity among those who suffer imperial violence. God does more than notice the disempowered, rejected, and discounted elements of human society. God becomes bodily present among them. The cross is a statement of God’s commitment to bless those whom our societies curse.
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This summer at Westminster we have produced a video series called Big Questions for a Changing Church. The fourteenth and final installment will be next Sunday, and if you’ve missed the series you can binge-watch the previous thirteen on the church’s You Tube channel, at youtube.com/westminstermpls. If you have been watching the series, you may recall that some of our guests have called us to pay better attention to what we learn from Jesus’ crucifixion. Raj Nadella told us that Jesus’ death on a cross compels Christians to give the benefit of the doubt to those who receive the violence that our society sanctions, either legally or as a matter of course. As followers of a crucified savior we must learn to be suspicious of the common narratives about who has worth and who deserves what. We must be skeptical of “the way things are,” because “the way things are” were once responsible for putting God to death.
In another interview, back in June, Margaret Aymer emphasized the importance of Christians declaring and protecting the dignity of all people. She reminded us that when our commitments to human dignity start to waver, and when we start to allow the possibility that some lives don’t matter as much as others, then our Christian faith justifies bad politics. And we Christians remain complicit in the sin of white supremacy and we prop up the racist ideas that keep inequity baked into our systems.
In other words, don’t consider the crucifixion of Jesus as the noble death of a good martyr, a model of nonviolent resistance, or a horrible mistake. It was, as James Cone put it, a revelation.
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I mentioned that Jesus’ friends must have stopped in their tracks when Jesus told them to take up their cross. They knew crosses weren’t tokens of influential world-changers but of people who have failed … or so it would seem.
What does that call to “take up your cross” mean for you among us who suffer or who live always under suspicion in this society? In part it means finding comfort in the solidarity God shows to you and your plight. It’s to discover that God is well acquainted with grief and able to heal broken spirits. No circumstances, no shame puts you beyond God’s embrace.
And what does the call to “take up your cross” mean to others—to those among us who are relatively comfortable and privileged? To we who find that the system works pretty well for us? Cross-carrying is renunciation. At one level it’s a move away from respectability and a move toward embracing an unconventional and maybe revolutionary appraisal of my neighbor’s value and dignity.
For me, and perhaps also for you, Jesus’ instructions are reminders of my own need to put myself, my resources, and my efforts in those places where God is—among those with whom God has declared solidarity. Maybe most important, Jesus’ instructions about a cross lead me to recognize my own inclination to ally myself, not with Jesus, but with the Roman soldiers in the Good Friday drama.
The cross isn’t just a sign revealing God’s determination to repair things that have gone wrong. It’s also a sign revealing the lengths that humankind will go to in our efforts to resist and discredit God’s vision of a just society and a restored humanity.
The death of Jesus therefore beckons different people in different ways. Of course, few of us are only one kind of person or the other. God comes alongside all of us in our despair, be certain of that. We all benefit from divine solidarity sometimes. Perhaps we sense that better now, when we all recognize our vulnerability a little more acutely than we did six months ago.
At the same time, however, Black Americans are dying from COVID‑19 a rate more than double the rate of white Americans. Some lives have been made more vulnerable than others. That’s more than a lesson to re-learn or something to feel bad about, it’s part of a culpability that demands the church’s repentance.
Take up your cross means making a radical reorientation. Jesus will meet you there.
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When Christ calls a person, he bids them come to be crucified.
The really odd thing about this is: taking up your cross looks like loss but it’s gain. It’s not servitude but freedom. In handing our life over, we find it.
Dying with Christ is not the final destination. It’s not the end of the road. It’s actually where each of us begins the journey on the way.
The trail that we cross-carriers are on is about learning how to keep on dying as we live. Paul told the believers in Rome to consider themselves “living sacrifices.” That expression’s an oxymoron—an apparent contradiction, like freezer burn or working vacation—since the typical job description for a sacrifice is to die.
Living sacrifices go beyond remembering Jesus’ teachings and enjoying communion with him. They follow the counterintuitive logic of the example Jesus set, renouncing dominance to bring about new life and a beloved community.
As followers of Jesus, we die daily.[iv]
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This is not the last pandemic that the modern world will experience. Public health officials tell us it’s actually a harbinger of worse ones to come. And we still don’t know if we are halfway through this current one—or a quarter of the way? Just a tenth?
What’s happening to us in this current cultural moment of disconnection and outrage? What’s happening to Christianity? To American Christianity? To white Christianity? To Westminster Presbyterian Church? We are changing. Perhaps we are learning to let some old ways die. Perhaps we are learning that our vulnerability is not an impediment to encountering God. Perhaps we are learning something about the difficulty, the struggle—and the necessity—of resisting the systems of this world that are polluting us and twisting our professed values. Perhaps we are learning what true solidarity might look like … when it looks like a crucifixion.
Yes, we are still on the way. Just as the risen Christ retains the wounds of his crucifixion in the Easter stories, so too we never escape his call to take up our cross. That’s where the way leads—not in self-extermination but in solidarity. The solidarity we discover, in learning how to live as people who have been called to die, is not about normalizing the death that surrounds us right now. It’s to find strength to fight it collectively. It’s to be transformed by that “transcendence of the spirit” that God provides—together.
I’ll lose my way if I have to travel on my own. I don’t have the resolve to let go of what I need to let go of. I doubt I have the courage. I can’t always muster the hope. But I believe we can get there together, sometimes carrying those who need assistance, and sometimes being carried by those who grasp that divine presence and crucified solidarity better than we can.
May God make it so.
[i] Here is the quote in its wider context: “As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), page 89.
[ii] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (2012), pages 160–61.
[iii] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), pages 26, 156, 157-58.
[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:31.