READ : Luke 23:26-33
Jesus carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha, where he was crucified. If we want to be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him.
We are now approaching what for Christians are the holiest days of the year. In fact, we call the annual anniversary of Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection “holy week.” All over the world almost two thousand million Christians will be focusing their thoughts during these coming days on the same story. This story of how, after Jesus’ false arrest, trial on trumped-up charges and unjust condemnation, a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, sent him to be crucified. He turned him over to soldiers who amused themselves crudely for a while by mocking him. They dressed Jesus up in a purple robe, stuck a stick in his hand as a scepter, jammed a bunch of sharp thorns on his head as a crown, then had a good laugh at his expense.
After they had their coarse taunt with the prisoner, these guards led Jesus off to the place of execution, which was known by the appropriately gruesome name of Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull.” Here’s the account from Luke’s gospel:
As they led Jesus away, they took hold of Simon. Simon was from Cyrene. He was on his way in from the country. They put a wooden cross on his shoulders. Then they made him carry it behind Jesus.
A large number of people followed Jesus. Some were women whose hearts were filled with sorrow. They cried loudly because of him.
Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children.”
Two other men were also led out with Jesus to be killed. Both of them had broken the law. The soldiers brought them to the place called The Skull. There they nailed Jesus to the cross.
Luke 23:26-28, 32-33 (NIrV)
THE VIA DOLOROSA
There is an old street in the city of Jerusalem still known today as the “Via Dolorosa,” the “Way of Sorrow.” It is the route Christ is believed to have followed when he left the judgment hall of Pilate and made his way, under guard and carrying his cross, to Golgotha. Several things happened along this “way of sorrow,” the way of the cross. In later centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, pious Christians who wished to commemorate Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem elaborated on the rather sparse accounts of the four Gospels. Jesus fell three separate times along the way, it was said, and while passing down that street he met and spoke to his mother. A story also developed that a woman named Veronica took pity on Jesus and stooped to wipe his bloody brow. Immediately following an image of Jesus’ face miraculously appeared on her cloth.
Legends aside, what do we know about what actually occurred along the Via Dolorosa, the way of Jesus’ sorrows? Three of the Gospels give little or no information. John says simply that Jesus carried his cross out to the execution ground. The Romans customarily forced condemned criminals to carry their own crosses as both an added cruelty and a humiliation. Normally prisoners would not carry an entire cross, as we think of it, but only the horizontal timber. The vertical post was usually fixed permanently at the execution site. The first three evangelists all mention the role a man called Simon of Cyrene played in carrying Jesus’ cross for him. Apparently, Jesus, weakened by his all-night ordeal and by the loss of blood from his various beatings, wasn’t strong enough to make it to Golgotha with the cross beam on his shoulder. So the soldiers grabbed a man from the crowd to help him – a man who happened to be a bystander whose name was Simon, an African man from the city of Cyrene in Libya. The fact that Simon’s name is noted particularly in the Gospels and that Mark even mentions the names of his two sons (Mark 15:21) is an indication that this man and his family were known to the early Christians. Apparently, Simon, who only met Jesus when he helped carry his cross, somehow came to know him in a deeper way later on, and became a believer himself. Could it have been that what he saw on that Friday made Simon commit his life to Jesus Christ? It very well could have been.
Luke also reports another encounter Jesus had along the way. This one was with some women of the city. Moved with pity at the sight of his suffering and the thought of the even more awful torture that lay just ahead, these women mourned and wept for him. But Jesus made a strange reply to them. “Don’t weep for me,” he said, “weep for yourselves, and your children.” Why did he say that? What did he mean? Well, on one level Jesus was thinking of the horrors that lay in the future for the people of Jerusalem. He knew that Jerusalem and Judea were doomed. Jesus himself had prophesied the city’s destruction only a few days earlier. On that occasion he did exactly what he told these women to do – he wept over the city. On the previous Sunday, the day we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, with great cheers and honors from the crowd. But as he drew near the city, he paused. Gazing on it, he began to weep, and said, “I wish you had known today what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come when your enemies will arrive. . . . They will surround you and close you in on every side. You didn’t recognize the time when God came to you. So your enemies will . . . destroy you . . . (Luke 19:41-44, NIrV).
Jesus’ sad prophecy did come true. Within one generation an invading Roman army would completely destroy the city of Jerusalem and kill most of its population.
The deepest reason, I think, for Jesus’ sorrow over the city of Jerusalem is spiritual. He is weeping at what happens to people who deliberately reject him. These were people whom he loved, whom he wanted to gather to himself (see Luke 13:34). But they did not care about him. They didn’t recognize that, in Jesus, God himself was visiting them and offering them the gift of salvation. Nor did they understand that their time was limited. The time to respond was now! The time to accept Christ is when he’s present. You must respond to him in faith today, when you hear his voice speaking to you, calling you to follow him. You might not have tomorrow to decide.
“TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME”
Jesus’ words on his way to the cross remind us of the importance of putting our faith in him and committing our lives to him absolutely and unconditionally. There is a terrible price to pay for rejecting Christ. It ought to make us weep. As surely as Jesus carried a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, we must carry our cross after him. You know, that’s exactly how he once described what it meant to be his follower. Jesus defined real discipleship this way:
. . . “If you want to follow me, you must say no to yourself. You must take your cross every day and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for me, you will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world but lose . . . your very self?”
Luke 9:23-25 (NIrV)
Think about what that means. If you want to follow Jesus, you first have to learn to say no to yourself. Our human tendency is to interpret this command in such a way as to make Jesus’ demand less difficult, less radical. Christians must practice self-denial. But too often we think denying ourselves means giving up chocolate in our diet, or only buying one new outfit of clothing instead of two.
What self-denial really means, on the deepest level, is saying no to our self. That’s not something we’re good at. We much prefer to indulge ourselves, to give ourselves whatever we think we need or want to make us happy, rather than saying no to ourselves. Self-denial seems old-fashioned, out of style, even unhealthy. Nowadays we are expected to affirm ourselves, love ourselves, reward ourselves. “Be good to yourself,” we are urged. “That’s the secret of happiness.” Self-discipline? Yes, certainly – that makes you even stronger. That serves your self interest. But self-denial? Saying a stern and resolute “no” to self-centered ambitions and goals? That’s a foreign concept to most people. It does not appeal to us. Jesus says even more. Not only must we say no to ourselves, we must also take up our cross. “Take up your cross every day,” he said. The cost of true discipleship involves not just denying self; but dying to self.
“Bearing the cross” is often misunderstood as well. We think it means to accept our share of troubles patiently. “That’s my cross to bear,” we say, interpreting some difficulty. But Jesus’ image of a cross is much more shocking in its meaning. Everyone who heard him say “bear your cross” had seen people actually carrying or bearing their crosses. It was an all-too-common spectacle in first-century Palestine. The sight of a man walking along a road with a cross beam on his shoulder, escorted by Roman soldiers, meant just one thing. It meant he was a dead man; he was on a one-way trip to his execution. This is the Lord’s way of saying that we must die to ourselves if we’re going to be his followers. Here’s how the apostle Paul put it:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I that live [my ego], but Christ who lives in me.
To be a real Christian means to be living each day only for Jesus Christ as if I have died with him on the cross and now the only life in me is his life surging through me.
“Take your cross and follow me,” says Jesus. After those negative descriptions of discipleship, denying self and dying to self, he adds the positive – “follow me.” The reason we must so resolutely say no to ourselves is so that we can say yes to Jesus. The reason our egos which we cherish and serve have to die is so that Christ can come to live in their place. Discipleship means following Jesus fully. It means that we try to say what he said and do what he did, always endeavoring to walk in his footsteps.
Saying no to my self, to all my ambitions, taking up my cross each day as if I no longer had the right to live my own life – it all sounds harsh, painful and dreary, doesn’t it? But the astonishing truth is that this kind of life results in the most rewarding and exciting life anyone can imagine. Living as a committed follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t just make you holy. It will make you happy! It’s the most amazing thing! You might think that it would be all a grim sacrifice and suffering. In some ways certainly it does involve hardships. But, the suffering always seems to shrink in comparison with what you receive. Here’s a paradox that Jesus liked to draw attention to again and again. If you try to save your life – to live for yourself and for personal pleasure – you end up losing everything. But if you surrender your life for Jesus’ purpose, you get it back again with happiness thrown in for good measure.
In 1997, within the space of six days, the two most famous women in the world died. One of them was a beautiful young princess, Diana of Great Britain, who, humanly speaking, seemed to have everything in the world, certainly everything that money could buy. The other was a wrinkled old nun, Mother Teresa, who gave up everything for Jesus’ sake. Yet, which one of them was happier? Strange, isn’t it? Becoming a Christian doesn’t only mean going to heaven when you die. It means enjoying a life of real significance and satisfaction right here. Following Jesus on the way of the cross turns out to be not the way of sorrows but the way to joy.