Let's reconsider two Biblical thoughts from our favorite-to-quote-bucket–“take up your cross” and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39)–and see if we can save them from the pile of Christian clichés.
We should pay closer attention to the narrative context as we read the text from which these two are found, before we make application: that is, hearing the significance, then making application.
Taking up one’s cross is often used devotionally to move Christians toward obedience; and, losing-finding one’s life is often used toward the nonChristian to draw them to Christ. Not bad things (or outcomes), but rather than a general (privatized) application of these–which, by the way, these are toward Christians for faithful perseverance and endurance in the faith, which is the context, e.g., “. . . the one who endures to the end will be saved,” 10:22b–and, thus, a more specific application is warranted.
First, the context is specific:
The immediate paragraph context is the strain and conflict between believing and unbelieving household members. Household conflict in general would have threatened heir legitimacy (the reason for the household in the first place in Greco-Roman culture and social construct, to produce and protect a legitimate male-citizen heir), the passing on of wealth and family social standing, and would have put at risk one’s survival . . . so literally one “saves” one's life through the family/household and “loses” one’s life apart from family (that is, a household under a patriarch, male-head-of-household). This was the Greco-Roman way (in the time of New Testament).
This makes better since of Jesus’ words: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). And, so, taking up one's cross (v. 38a) is related to what happens when following Jesus puts one in a place, “for Jesus’ sake” (v. 39b), where one can no longer count on the social construct available for life (literally for survival).
So, the significance of this text and these “clichés” is, following Jesus (which this text is about; v. 38b) means to die to (i.e., no longer count on or trust) the ways in which our social constructs and cultural norms provide identity, security, and worth. The Christian’s identity, security, and worth is located in Jesus and his cross. This is the gospel. This is truly Christian discipleship, that is following after Jesus. This is losing one’s life (i.e., giving up, abandoning, rejecting, not trusting in such social norms--again--for identity, security, and worth) to find real, true life through following Jesus.
The question would, then, be what social constructs and cultural norms give us identity, security, and worth? These we need to die to in order to have real, true life. This is what it means to actually follow Jesus.
“The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30).
Was struck this morning in my daily Bible reading concerning the phrase “tax collectors and sinners.” If we, that is the church (the body of Christ) that is now the presence of the ascended Jesus (that is his body in a place), how is it that we (not as individuals, which is a wholly modernist and ‘merican notion of church applied to the nature of the Christian life, i.e., replacing “wēs” with “I”) are not at a place--in a space--where we are accused of “eating and drinking” (there’s the idea of meals again) with “tax collectors and sinners”?
Instead, we are safely tucked into a building designed and with habits to distinguish who's in and who's out, where all leveling is errased, and we have power over guests; a place where we can escape being aligned with the “Son of Man” and being maligned as a gluttonous group and drunkards, friends “with tax collectors and sinners.” And, gathered in a space that is, in many places, not at all welcoming (easily accessible by design and by default) to “tax collectors and the sinners” to come near to find Jesus and to listen to him.
Now such association with the likes of these people and populations, that is the equivalent to “tax collectors and sinners,” is relegated to church programs outside of the practise (i.e., worship) of the body, to specialists and volunteers, and carefully guarded and designed events. (Don't get me wrong, I know it is important to have worship time—but the early church met in homes that allowed for a mixture of believing and unbelieving to be present.) I am impressed, however, with the idea, amid the wider reading of the New Testament, that this is a church problem, not a volunteer or scheduling problem.
These texts (and way too many like them, e.g., Matthew 9:9–13) are ignored as texts to be applied to the body of Christ (local). How does the body of Christ, not individual Christians apart from the body—on their own time and amid their own convictions and conscience and resources—but, the church be Jesus in this way so that “tax collectors and sinners” are seated at the table in his midst? Perhaps, then, we will, once again be accused of eating and drinking and associated with the marginal and despised, tax collectors and the sinners.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.