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If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24 (NIV)

At first, I thought this Sunday’s essay would be easy. A missionary reflecting on Jesus talking to the twelve disciples about following him, what could be easier? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ into the mission field, locally or globally: It writes itself.

But as a friend recently reflected, sometimes our writing comes too easily. Another reminded me to really wrestle personally with every biblical text.

The murders this year of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, George Floyd in Minnesota, and too many others going back to Emmett Till in 1955 and beyond, together with this week’s shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, have all given this text a new context for me and other readers in 2020. I was also inspired by two recent posts at The Twelve by Melissa Stek, “Refuse to be in Denial” and “Who Will We Choose to Be?

In Matthew 16:24 Jesus asks his disciples to do three things: deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This is a call to radical discipleship, a total commitment, even unto death. It starts with being willing to “deny ourselves absolutely” (The NIV Study Bible). We follow Jesus instead of seeking “comfort, fame, or power, and even the instinct to preserve our own life at all costs” (The Reformation Study Bible).

As Peterson puts it in The Message, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.”

What does it mean for us to take up the cross today? As many others have noted, the cross was a state instrument of torture. Instead of the nice familiar crosses hanging in our churches or from a necklace, we should picture an electric chair, a lethal injection, or maybe a lynching tree, as Clarence Jordan did: “If a man wants to walk my way, he must abandon self, accept his lynching, and share my life” in The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan (New Win Publishing, 1970)

The cross was an offensive way to be killed. It was an image of terror, not of salvation. So, James Cone wrote The Cross and the Lynching Tree in 2011 and this year Rev. Otis Moss III titled his powerful sermon “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery.”

Following Jesus is going with him to the end, to Jerusalem, hanging on a cross at Golgotha, The Place of the Skull (Matthew 27:33). Following Jesus means “suffering like the Master” (The African Bible). This put a damper on the twelve disciple’s Messianic enthusiasm (see Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in 16:23 and of James & John’s request for seats of power in Matthew 20). It should damper our Christian triumphalism as well.

How should we be following Jesus today? I agree with Melissa Stek that those of us who are white in the church must start by admitting that we have a problem, the problem of institutionalized racism and white privilege. White privilege just means you don’t always have to think about your race, don’t worry about being pulled over by the cops, etc. (For more examples, see “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosch, 1989.) I have used my white privilege, consciously and unconsciously.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, they began a process of truth, justice, and reconciliation. It starts with telling the truth about what happened in the past and what is still happening today. Then we need to make amends, to do justice and love mercy, before we can really walk humbly with our God, carrying our cross, all the way to Golgotha, publicly identifying with Jesus and all those he would stand up for.

We who are privileged must humble ourselves, learn from our siblings of color about how we have hurt them, and confess our complicity in these unfair systems. Then we can repent and change the way we live. To restructure our life together going forward, put Jesus (himself a person of color) in the driver’s seat, not us. If we follow Jesus, he will show us how to lose our life so we can save it.

Rowland Van Es, Jr.

Rowland Van Es, Jr. is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who has served in Africa since 1983, beginning with Christian Reformed Church World Relief (now World Renew) in Sierra Leone and Malawi. In 2000, the Reformed Church in America sent him to The Gambia and in 2004 to Kenya. He and his wife Jane have two daughters, both born in Malawi.    


  • Jim Brink says:

    Rowland, the truths you touch on appear to me to be so self-evident. Thank you for your plainspoken piece. Another aspect of white privilege in this case seems to be that it gives us the option of turning toward the truth or turning away. I pray that I and others will choose the first.

  • mstair says:

    “Instead of the nice familiar crosses hanging in our churches or from a necklace, we should picture an electric chair, a lethal injection, or maybe a lynching tree…”

    … still a real possibility … do not neglect our daily petition, “but deliver us from evil”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rowland, for the sound Christian advice of following Christ. Indeed taking up our cross, an instrument of torture, will not be easy. I’ve most often thought the answer to racism, if practically there is one, will take all parties involved. I’m hearing a lot what it will mean for for Whites to follow Christ, such as in this article. But I’m hearing a lot less, if at all, what it will mean for Blacks to follow Christ. I’m hearing more about demands from Blacks, and less about the sacrifice of following Christ. Following Christ is good for all.

  • Helen P says:

    “In Matthew 16:24 Jesus asks his disciples to do three things: deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This is a call to radical discipleship, a total commitment, even unto death.”

    Sadly I don’t think most white Christians know what radical discipleship is…or would be willing to die for their beliefs.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rowland, You are saying what all people should be saying. We are all children of God. We are all blessed by him. Now we should act like that.

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Hello Rowland

    Thanks for the essay and the realistic interpretation of Matthew 16:24. I based my first seminarian sermon on that text in 1969 and did a mediocre job at best. Taking up our crosses didn’t appear to have much influence on the life of the local church or our small family of three at the time. White privilege was “not an issue” in Boca Raton, Florida where we spent that warm summer, one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Florida. At that time, the CRC was more interested in following comfortable, generally silent and certainly non-confrontive ways to follow Jesus. Our move to West Africa where near total poverty was endemic, where child mortality and chronic hunger were accepted as “normal” and where two African wars killed over a million people (and almost us) taught us a bit of what suffering meant. To be peace maker is not easy. For Christians, silence and comfort are not earthly goals but temporary relief from the often painful job of doing what Christ told us to do.

  • Mark Zietse says:

    it is clear that people still fail to, or don’t want to, understand what black lives matter is all about. To say ‘all lives matter’ is basically an effort to whitewash any protests. All Lives Matter cannot be true until we recognize that right now many people and those in power do not acknowledge that black lives matter, do not acknowledge the systemic racism, do not acknowledge the difference in enforcement of laws, do not acknowledge the difference in police profiling & brutality (not all but obviously a problem in our police forces), do not acknowledge the efforts to minimize black voter turn out, etc , etc. Until black lives matter not all lives can matter and it seems like many cannot even acknowledge there is a problem.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thanks for being on the right side of the BLM movement, Rowland.
    Unlike the present administration in D.C. Best to you going forward.

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thank you. What is the origin of the statement about white privilege in the red box? It’s a powerful idea that i’d like to share, but I want to give credit for it.

  • Harris says:

    I am a bit confused here. Can the question of systemic racism be solved by individual cross-bearing as the last sentence seems to have it? Logically, no. The systemic is not determined by the individual, but is more like a principality or power. Likewise, if the reason for personal change (our cross-bearing) enables us to be more supportive of calls to address racism, that is, that it changes the individual to become part of a whole or a movement, then how is that different from the Christ and flag synthesis we saw from vice President Pence?

    If we turn to Clarence Jordan (and we should), bear in mind that cross-bearing there meant not only acting for justice but also acting for reconciliation with the Klan. This dying to self is richer, thicker, more robust than our politics; it must, since it frees us for our neighbor. And our world.

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