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If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose heir life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:24-25
by Trygve Johnson
When I was young, I had baseball coach whose daily mantra was “play with passion.” This was his key to our success. If we played with passion, it would give us an edge. Passion was the needed ingredient of confidence to perform well, make our mark, to win! I took this to mean playing the game with intensity, emotion, and visible enthusiasm. This is the romantic notion. Passion was something within, a subjective feeling that I needed to generate to play authentically. I took my coach’s advice to heart. I wanted to play the game, and more, to live with a defining “passion.” I still do.
Or do I?
Do I really want to live with passion? What does this passion mean as a Christian? What does it look like to leave it all out on the field of faith as a follower of Jesus?
In this sketch of Jesus Carrying the Cross by Otto Dix, I find my youthful notions of playing with passion confronted by a sobering realism. In this scene, Jesus with swollen face has passed through the gate of the Temple, and is bearing his cross as he walks up the slogging path to Golgotha. He is struggling for every step, reeling as he walks, with the swelling mob, all agog with curiosity, following after him. Leashed like a dog, Jesus can’t stand, or bear the weight of the cross, because his body is already bleeding out, as the flesh of his back is ripped open by a whip laced with shards of glass and serrated rock. This is a horrific scene of human torture. This is a picture of Jesus’s passion.
Now, I have to ask myself, do I really want to live “play with passion?”
The season of Lent is preparing us to enter Holy Week, or, in what some traditions is referred to as Passion Week. Christ’s Passion is the Christian theological term used for the events and suffering – physical, spiritual, and mental – of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. The etymological origins of the word derive from the Greek verb πάσχω (paschō), means to suffer.
As a Christian, “to play with passion” means to live a life that suffers. This is not easy medicine. Nothing in me wants to suffer like Jesus. In fact, I go to great lengths to keep suffering at bay. Modern dentistry is more than enough for me! But Christ shows us that a life of passion is a willing entrance into selfless vulnerability, not selfish protection. It is a passion defined not by romantic subjective enthusiasms, but by an objective act of physical and emotional suffering for and with others. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Dix’s image is a reminder to live our life with a defining passion. But this passion is not about getting worked up in the locker room. Christian passion is not a pep-talk intended to motivate us to win a competition. Or even to be a better version of yourself. The passion to “take up our cross” is an invitation to a new life of passion where we enter into the suffering of others, and of ourselves, without fear, avoidance, or self-protection.
This kind of passion is to be the defining quality of life together in Christ.
The good-news is that Christ’s passion on the cross means he is suffering with us. In taking our humanity, Jesus heals all humanity. God does not leave us alone to ourselves in the loss, the grief, the pain. Whatever we carry today, Christ is carrying it with us. He who began a work will see it to completion. Which is why Jesus’s passion is the power to redefine our relationships, our conflicts, our politics, our imaginations, our notion of success itself.
Today as we go into worship, trust that Christ’s passion – his suffering – has redefined our reality filled with new possibilities. You will sit by others. They may be suffering. You may be suffering. Don’t avoid the pain – don’t look away – instead enter in – make eye contact – and carry the pain all the way to Jesus – the Son of God – who refused to look away by entering into our lives with a defining passion.
This will hurt. It may even scar. But we may discover a God who is already there, suffering with us, and in him our capacity to live with passion is enlarged, as we discover a confidence that we can never lose, because in the cross of Christ, we have already won.
Trygve Johnson is Dean of the chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.