I used to find the message of the cross totally off-putting. The idea that God would suffer and die for me was bizarre enough, but far scarier was the implication that I was called to imitate Jesus’ suffering and death. It’s one thing to be nice to other people, but loving my enemies and blessing those who curse me? What kind of crazy religion is that?
During his three years of public ministry, Jesus pointed out time and again that most would not be able to handle his message. In the end, even his closest friends deserted him rather than suffer his fate. They had expected a victorious Messiah-King, not a resolute prophetic witness who bore all the hatred and violence that the system could muster.
The resurrection changed everything, of course. Suddenly, the once reluctant disciples were filled with boldness. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began to share the good news of Jesus throughout the ancient world, and many more became disciples. Yet, even in these early years of growth, the message about Jesus and his cross was still a stumbling block for many. The apostle Paul explains that the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are wise by human standards. It’s always a hard sell to invite others to come and die.
The truth about the gospel is challenging enough, but today we also face countless other stumbling blocks to faith: Emotionally abusive religious communities have made untold millions afraid to approach God. National leaders make war in the name of Christianity. Historical atrocities justified by religion – such as the Crusades – are remembered vividly and held out as evidence that Christianity is a religion of death rather than life. In many cases, Jesus has been deeply discredited by those who claim to follow him.
The message of the cross is hard enough to accept on its own terms without my own failings providing an additional reason to disregard it. With so many factors pushing my friends and neighbors away from the good news, I feel a responsibility to examine myself closely: Does my life radiate the kind of love and joy that makes others curious? Do my speech, body language and lifestyle communicate openness, acceptance and hospitality? I can’t control how others react to me, of course – but am I doing everything I can to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus? With God’s help, I know I can do better.