What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does following Jesus look like? Following Jesus, regardless of when and where you live, will always look the same because it is based in God’s demonstration of love witnessed most powerfully in how Jesus died on the cross.
The cross points to what Jesus did for us and how we are to live in response.
How Jesus died provides us with a pattern of how those who follow him should structure their lives.
The First Dot: Jesus’ Cross
Embracing Jesus’ cross means receiving the salvation he provides. We identify with his death and participate in it by making it a posture that orders our lives.
Jesus told a group of people seeking to follow him that if they wanted to do so they would have to carry their own cross, which speaks primarily of identification and participation (Luke 14:27). As in baptism, we identify with Jesus in his death, participate with him and imitate his posture of sacrifice.
However, embracing Jesus’ cross is more than saying a prayer to have one's sins forgiven. To become a follower of Jesus demands not only embracing the salvation he provides, but embracing the posture presented in how he died as well. His death not only provides us with salvific benefits, but with the structure on how we order our followership.
Brian Zahnd once said,
If we make the cross entirely something Christ does for us instead of a pattern to follow, we will end up with a distorted Christianity.
We identify with Jesus by taking up our own cross in solidarity with him and allow that posture of solidarity to center and define our own witness. We look most like him and sound most like him when we take up our cross and follow after him. In essence, we continue in the discipleship tradition of cross-bearing. Personal identification and participation with Jesus marks the life of each disciple—past, present and future.
What does his death communicate?
Self-sacrifice and enemy love.
Jesus demonstrated love toward the least deserving, toward those whom he knew would more than likely not reciprocate his love.
The picture of Jesus hanging on a cross needs to become not only the place we go to have our sins forgiven, but the place we go to inform the way we follow him. Extending love to the least deserving has as its primary goal the good of that person. And it reflects the love God has for us: a love shaped like a cross.
When we love those who dislike us, even those who may see us as enemies, we intentionally reject the pattern of a world who extends love to others primarily on the basis of who will return it. Instead, we embrace the counter-story of Jesus, who demonstrated love toward those whom he knew would not return it.
When we embrace the cross as the model for what true love looks like, we are in that moment taking up our own cross and following the pattern Jesus initiated. Following Jesus is far more than accepting his forgiveness. It also forces us to embrace Jesus’ posture of enemy love—to personally identify with it and participate in it, as the way in which the counter-story of Jesus continues to find expression and extension in our lives.
The Second Dot: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
I read this quote from Brian Zahnd a short time ago and it deeply resonated with me.
If we fail to see the connection between the Sermon on the Mount and how Jesus dies on Calvary, we’ll end up with a distorted Christianity.
Jesus’ keynote address, the Sermon on the Mount, is deeply connected with Jesus’ death on the cross. It spells out what following Jesus will look like and what it will require from those who follow him (Matthew 5–7; Luke 6).
Early in his sermon, Jesus began with these words, “Love your enemies.” He then elaborated on what this looks like by using three real-life scenarios. All three scenarios demonstrate that followers of Jesus are to center their lives on the Jesus script instead of the script they were given.
Jesus’ story is based in love, and while it includes those who love in return, it also includes those who will not. To quote a Chris Tomlin song, a love like this, the world has never known.
Jesus not only spoke about this kind of radical love but showcased it throughout his public ministry, culminating in his death upon the cross—which proved to be the most powerful demonstration of his love.
The essence of his teaching, in both life and death, was this: We do not give in the same manner as we have received.
The Third Dot: Jesus’ Cross as the Pattern for Discipleship
The cross presents us with not only the means of forgiveness and reconciliation, but the pattern for life as well; a pattern born out of God’s own life, demonstrated throughout Jesus’ public ministry, revealed most powerfully as he hung on the cross, and showcased through his words, “Father, forgive them.”
Those who embrace Jesus’ cross are also called to continue in Christ’s love by embracing the pattern of life he demonstrated through it: a life of enemy love.
God is love. And, God’s love looks like Jesus hanging on a Roman cross, forgiving those who put him there, demonstrating how the world should live.
However, the world will see it first in Christ’s followers. And, only through them and through their enemy love, will the world catch a glimpse of what true love really looks like.
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
“Love one another.”
“Love your enemies.”
These three dots need to be connected if we are to better understand and live according to the alternative story of Jesus, a story that provides forgiveness of sins, but also demonstrates a posture of forgiveness and enemy love we all are called to embrace and imitate.