Accept no substitutes: approaching the cross today

Text: Matthew 16:13-28 (“take up your cross and follow me”)

What can we do to guarantee our own salvation?

Many churches argue that good works are central. If we care for the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry, and welcome strangers, then we will escape the fires of hell, or so Jesus says in Matthew 25.

Other churches argue that beliefs are central. When John the Baptist first sees Jesus, he says “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1). God will grant us eternal life if we agree to believe John’s statement, many say.

Or is it personal behaviour? If we respect our parents’ authority, live clean and sober lives, and go to church each Sunday, then we’ll be saved. Or at least, this is the impression I got in Sunday School as a child.

Finally, there is Jesus’ statement in today’s Gospel reading:  “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very selves, take up your cross, the instrument of your own death, and follow my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it; but if you would lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

Yikes! Jesus calls us to follow him to Jerusalem not only to witness his crucifixion and resurrection, but to be crucified ourselves. Compared to this last option, the other three paths of good works, right belief, and ethical behaviour look easy.

So which is it — ethics, belief, behaviour, or self-denial? All are biblical, so perhaps all four are required for salvation. Perhaps we have to live pure lives, work for social justice, believe that Jesus died for our sins, and deny ourselves to the point of personal crucifixion in order to avoid the flames of hell.

Personally, I choose none of the above. I believe that nothing is required to be saved. Salvation is guaranteed regardless of our beliefs, behaviours, or sacrifices.

However, if I had to choose from the four options, I would choose Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross, which I see as a call to wake-up to the truth that God’s grace is woven into the very fabric of reality.

All individuals and human institutions are mortal. As Bob Dylan put it in the 1960s, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Though painful and scary, death frees us from our egos. This side of the grave, we can taste the joy of a love free from ego, as, for instance, after the death of an illusion. And we are confident that each of us will merge into this boundless love at the end of life.

But as faithful Christians, are we allowed to choose our own understanding of healing and salvation?

On Friday, I watched a 2012 Canadian documentary film on Netflix called “Hell-bound?” which examines the range of opinions on hell in the church. Some church leaders don’t believe in it. Others think that almost everyone is tortured in hell. Others believe, like me, that God’s Love saves everyone.

These opinions are a choice, the film shows, and these choices are based on one’s image of God. If one sees God as a vengeful judge, then Bible passages that imply that most people burn in hell make sense. If one imagines God’s Love to be boundless, then one chooses to focus on quite different passages.

Our images of God are not static. Today, we live in a culture dominated by science and among people from many different religious backgrounds; and these facts change how we imagine God.

Because of today’s context, many of us trust that everything in the cosmos is the product of natural history. Unlike our ancestors, I don’t think of “God” as a word that refers to Being who causes all events. For similar reasons, I can no longer maintain vengeful fantasies that God will torture my enemies in hell or the foolish wishes of childhood that my ego will magically survive my own death.

Today’s context also leads me to reject teachings that rest upon the specific details of any one sacred story. The Gospel stories given to us by our parents jostle alongside other sacred and secular stories. To say that we must believe in hell because of a particular passage in the Bible – say, Matthew 25 — ignores the arbitrary and violent history that has transmitted the books of the Bible from the past to the present. But we know this history, and we cannot un-know it.

So, we imagine God differently from our ancestors even as we continue to live within the church and relate to its Holy Scriptures.

We cannot know for sure if Jesus told his followers to take up our own cross and follow him. What I do know is that this call strikes a strong chord in me and helps me to continue down God’s path of faith, hope, and love.

As children, we come to the shocking realization that all individuals are mortals. Despite this awareness, we often forget about it or deny it. And so on many days, we may forget Jesus’ call to take up our own cross.

But whether we acknowledge it or not, mortality remains. The good news is that rebirth follows death. From bitter and gracious experience, we know that life and love continue after loss. From bitter and gracious experience, we know that after the pain of confronting an addiction, we sometimes accept unwanted facts about ourselves and so experience joy.

These are moments of Grace, moments of being born again into the truth that Love is all and Love is everything. Such moments might be fleeting, but they give us confidence that the dissolution of our egos at the end of life will lead to rebirth within the heart of Love. This is the Source whom we call God, a place where all pain and desire are extinguished.

God does not throw people into hell. Happily, given all that humanity now knows, we no longer need this belief. The image of God as a cruel judge has died in many of us, and this allows the God who is Spirit, Truth and Love to shine brighter.

Illusions die. Empires and countries die. Individuals die. But something bigger and more essential lives on, which is the God who is Love. Trusting in this Grace is why I give thanks for the path to which Jesus calls us.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe taking up one’s cross does mean self-denial to the point of martyrdom. Maybe God will reject us if we do not lead pure lives. Maybe Jesus will cast us into the lake of fire if we don’t act with sufficient commitment to justice. Maybe we have to believe in a God who tortures most people for all of eternity in order to be among the small elect who avoid this cruel fate.

But although many church leaders still make such statements, I am confident that none of them are true.

This is not to argue against pure living, the struggle for social justice, or religious belief. Rather, I see these phenomena as the fruits of accepting God’s Grace and not as requirements for receiving Grace.

Accepting Jesus’ call to the cross, opens us up to Grace. Doing so can help us live sober lives; to throw ourselves into struggles for justice; to care for our family and neighbours; and to believe that whatever the word “God” refers to, it is as large as the cosmos and as dear as the love of our closest friends.

Grace requires nothing, but it facilitates everything.

We won’t always be able to take up our cross and follow Jesus into the heart of life. But when we are able to do so, we experience right here and right now the eternal truth that in losing our lives, we are saved.

Thanks be to God.


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