The soldiers took custody of Jesus, and forced him to carry his own cross up to Skull Hill (Golgotha in Aramaic), where they crucified him. They crucified two others on either side of him, with Jesus in the middle.
There is nothing good about Good Friday. It’s everything that’s wrong, unjust, cruel, and ugly on display. It’s shock and awe. It’s what happens to those who dare to say that those in power are wrong. It’s what happens to those who dare not just to opt out of the way things are, but to lead others out as well.
The gospels hold this gruesome image before us and say, “This is what it takes.” With Jesus hang all the 3000 children around the globe who die of malnutrition and dehydration every minute of every day. The gospels hold up this man on a cross as a representation of all the suffering and dying taking place in every moment of every day, as if to say, “See!”
And having witnessed this evil, one remaining question is, Now that you have seen, and now that you know, what are you going to do about it?
He called the crowd and his students together and told them:
“If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns to follow me. If you’re concerned with saving your own skin, you’re as good as dead. But whoever dies for me and and for the sake of this mission will really live. What’s it worth to have the whole world if you’re dead? Really, what will you trade your life away for? Whoever is embarrassed by their association with of me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on – the chosen one will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.”
Taking up your cross is not putting up with your kids’ mess. It’s not having to chair the church supper committee because no one else will do it. Jesus doesn’t care about the mess or the church supper committee.
The cross was a punishment reserved by the Roman empire for a very specific crime: Treason against the empire by a non-citizen. In other words, for rebels convicted of trying to take down the empire. This was what Jesus was convicted of, and Jesus’ sentence: rebellion.
In that context what he has to say about “taking up a cross” makes sense in the same way as New Hampshire’s state motto coined during the American revolution: Live free or die.
What’s the use in living if you’re living as a slave? If you can’t be who you are really meant to be? That’s Jesus’ question. And having a lot of stuff doesn’t change the basic equation of life. People who have so much you’d think they should be overwhelmingly happy lead lonely addicted lives. Michael Jackson. Charlie Sheen. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. On and on it goes. The whole world eating out of the palm of their hand. And as good as dead.
On the other hand, there are others who don’t have much at all, who change the world. Mostly we don’t know their names. Because by nature they don’t tend to call much attention to themselves. Because they know it’s not about them. But every now and then we learn their names: Cesar Chavez, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa.
The point is what you’re ready to give your life for. You can’t keep it. So what will you do? What meaning will your short span of years take on? Jesus says that to follow him you can’t just go through the motions. You have to live. You have to be free. And you have to make a difference. Even if it means making some people – people who want you to “stay in your place and be quiet” – want to kill you.
Your choice: live free or die.
But Jesus would much rather you live.