“Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” Luke 9:23
When someone in the ancient world hears taking up a cross, there was nothing sweet, symbolic, or spiritual about that image. The cross was the harshest instrument of capital punishment. As Plutarch, an ancient historian, noted, “Every criminal who is executed carries his own cross.” So, what would it mean when the crowd that day first hear taking up a cross? Part of it seems like nothing more than a simple but deadly-serious warning. Follow at your own risk. This is a warning Jesus doesn’t reserve for a select few, but everyone listening that day.
But Luke’s telling of this story adds one word that Matthew and Mark don’t have, a critical concept that enhances and completely reframes the meaning. Do you know what that word is? Daily.
This verse has never just been about extreme risk. It’s about everyday rhythm of life. Or I should say the everyday rhythm of death and life. You can only die the dramatic martyr’s death once. But we can die to selfish living every day so that we live in ways that lift up others and lift up the love of God. Baptism happens in one special moment where, as Paul says in Romans 6, we participate in the dramatic story of dying and rising. But while baptism happens in a beautiful moment, the baptized life is rehearsed and relived every day in little moments throughout the day.
We can die to our need to have the last word in every argument, the need to be right every time even when our insistence that we are right is wrecking our relationships. We can die to greed that only cares about our bottom line and doesn’t care when others can’t get by. We can die to tribalism that only shows compassion and concern to our circle, however we draw that circle—economically, ethnically, politically, religiously.
And with every little death to the destructive parts of self, we make room for God to raise us up to new levels of life and love and purpose and peace. That’s the real paradox of walking in the way of Jesus. Gaining everything usually leads to losing the core of who we were made to be. But when we let go and loosen the grip on the life of our own making, we actually find life to the full.