One of the starkest realities of Easter is how badly EVERYBODY missed what Jesus was doing. That people recognized something “special” about Jesus is obvious from the crowds that gathered to see and hear him. Even the opposition that formed against him demonstrates the formidable nature of his life. But when Jesus dies, nobody seems prepared, even though he had plainly said that he would go to Jerusalem and die on several occasions (Mt 16:21, Mt 17:22–23, Mt 20:17–19).
The people were waiting for the “Christ”, that is, an anointed and appointed king from God who would rescue them from oppression and establish an everlasting kingdom. Dying prematurely isn’t typically part of the royal equation—least of all dying as a humiliated criminal on a terrible Roman cross! As a result, they missed the Messiah. Had you and I been in Jerusalem during those days, we must admit that we would have missed him, too.
The reason I can be so sure is that we still miss Jesus today, albeit for different reasons. The majority of us aren’t looking to be rescued by a Messiah like the ancient Jews, leading an army to overcome our political oppressors (although contemporary partisan politics might have something to say about that).
Instead, many of us are looking to be rescued from a boring, meaningless life. We’re looking for deliverance from a bland existence that conforms to everybody else. In other words, we’re looking to become the best and truest versions of our authentic selves. As a result, we turn following Jesus into a lifestyle choice, like Adidas vs. Nike, veganism, or where we take vacations. Jesus influences our tastes and choices on the journey to becoming everything we want to be.
Wanting to be the best version of yourself isn’t wrong, just like the problem in ancient Israel wasn’t that they were waiting for the Christ. The problem is how our expectations have been disfigured away from the truth revealed by God. Jesus was and is the Christ, but in an unexpected way. And Jesus was and is the way to our most authentic self—but in an unexpected way.
Just as the cross was a stumbling block for those who were expecting a conquering king, the cross is a stumbling block to those whose idea of the good life is one tailored to our own tastes and preferences unashamedly put on display for all to see. If death is unfit for an ancient, everlasting king, then it’s also unfit for a modern, self-creating individual.
But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In fact, you don’t have to take Bonhoeffer’s word for it, you can listen to Jesus himself (Luke 9:23).
The cross is essential because it is the place we find our identity given to us as a gift. When we look to the cross, we find that our best and truest self is not something we manufacture by willpower. It is something received by faith. It is our identity as children of God (John 1:12), inheritors of his promises (Gal 3:29), with our created identity restored through the forgiveness and reconciliation made possible by Christ on the cross (Gen 1:27; Heb 1:3; Rom 8:29).
It is only when we receive our complete best-and-truest identity that we can stop spending our lives on our projects of self-creation. And it is only when we cease from our projects of self that we are truly free to serve one another. It is only when we look to the cross to find our authentic selves (unholy sinners saved and sanctified by a holy God) that we can live the cross-shaped life (laying down our lives for the good of others) that God desires.
Choosing Jesus means everything I should ever be has already been supplied. Which means I’m free to live my life, not with the unrelenting pressure of always having to create myself, but with peace that passes understanding (Phil 4:7).
The very first Easter, everybody missed what Jesus was up to. They were looking for a king, but what they got was a cross. This Easter, in the year 2021, we know that our king comes on a cross. And we rejoice that the cross is followed by an empty tomb. But let’s not miss the fact that the call to follow Christ is indeed a call to follow Christ. And the cross of Christ gives us the means to take up our own crosses with gladness.