I’ve been thinking about death, lately. And about suicide.
I want, in this posting, to get you to thinking about it, too.
One thing Jesus said that captivated his followers but has been unfortunately domesticated by tradition was that we must take up our cross to be worthy to follow him. What in the heck? For one moment, scrape away all the stuff you know from 2000 years of doctrinal development. Scrape away all the Christology of the established church.
Stand there, one hot and uncomfortably humid day, in your dusty-sandled and calloused feet, adorned in your piously tasseled prayer shawl and your traveling cloak, and listen to what he says. Puzzle through it. You don’t know he’s going to be crucified. You don’t know the Nicene Creed. You don’t know he’s the “only begotten” or “of identical substance” with the Father.
You just know he’s magnetic, compassionate, and wise. You just know there’s something about him that draws you to him, and that he has some connection with God that you want. You just know that to get that connection, you’ve got to follow him.
And now you know that you—what?—have to take up a cross?
You shade your eyes with your hand, gazing down the long Roman road you’ve been traveling with Jesus this past week. There was this uprising last month, and they’ve all been crucified down the road, to remind potential insurgents to keep in line. Sometimes the stench has been unbearable. Always, the sight is unpleasant. And the walk itself has been horrible, for Jesus refused to keep the distance required by Torah. You figure it’ll probably take a year of sacrifices to make up for all the impurity you’ve taken on this past week with him. To be near death is to become impure, which means to be alienated from God. God is the God of the living, not the dead.
Jesus said we had to take up a cross. To choose to associate with death.
It gets worse. Crosses are Roman, not Jewish. They’re unclean, pagan, heathen. They are used to demonstrate the authority of the Roman Empire, which is opposed to Jewish sovereignty. To take up a Roman cross would be to, in some way, acknowledge the Roman government. To accept the subservience of Israel, to acknowledge the death of Jewish independence. This isn’t being forced to carry the cross, but to take it up, willingly!
So Jesus said that to follow him, we have to willingly do that which is impure, that which Torah tells us will alienate us from God.
You stare, squinting into the sunset. Jesus has gone to share some laughter with the women, who, like you, he’s so scandalously treated as friends and peers. And you wonder at what this aphorism means. To break the law to draw near to God? This goes against everything you know. Against everything you were ever taught in synagogue. To be with God, to enter God’s house, one must be pure. But this?
Take up a cross? No, that’s not right. Take up your cross, he said.
Wait. That means that—-no, it can’t be. That means you have to willingly take up an unclean thing that will be used to kill you. You have to die? God is the God of the living, not the dead. What can this mean? And to willingly take up a cross—that’s in essence to commit suicide. To choose death. This is even more bewildering than it first seemed. One must be willing to commit suicide, to die, and to do so in a way guaranteed to make one impure, in order to follow Jesus such that one can be near God?
So death is life? It must be. But how? Surely he doesn’t mean literal suicide. Most of what he says is revolutionary, sure, but has some deeper meaning. So what is this, to die, perchance to live, to choose to be impure, in order to be forever with the Holy One?
Like I said, I’ve been thinking of death lately. And suicide. And what it means when Paul says to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I kinda think Paul was taking a leaf from Jesus’ book, and speaking on more levels than the obvious. So what is this humiliation, this choosing death, of which Jesus speaks? To what exactly has he called us?
Now I’ve got you thinking of it, too.