May 4, 2000
 

 

by Brennan Manning

The Way of the Cross

The signature of Jesus, the Cross, is the ultimate expression of God's love for the world. The Church is the Church of the crucified, risen Christ only when it is stamped with His signature, only when it faces outward and moves with Him along the way of the Cross.

In my book, The Signature of Jesus, I have given my heart and my language to be what it is: crude and soft-spoken, blunt and compassionate, whole and stricken, honest and provocative -- drawn from the casks of life.

The prophetic word unfailingly summons the Church back to the purity of the Gospel and to the scandal of the Cross. In his numerous letters Paul confirms that to follow Jesus is to take the high road to Calvary. Littered along the Calvary road will lie the skeletons of our egos, the corpses of our fantasies of control, and the shards of self-righteousness, self-indulgent spirituality, and unfreedom.

The greatest need for our time is for the Church to become what it has seldom been: the body of Christ with its face to the world, loving others regardless of religion or culture, pouring itself out in a life of service, offering hope to a frightened world, and presenting itself as a real alternative to the existing arrangement. "The Church that is worthy of the name is a band of people in which the love of God has broken the spell of demons and false gods and which is now making a dent in the world" (Ernst Kaseman, Jesus Means Freedom).


We are all called to listen attentively to God's first
word to us. This word is the gift of ourselves to ourselves:
our existence, our nature, our personal history,
our uniqueness, our identity.



I want neither a blood'n'guts religion that would make Clint Eastwood, not Jesus, our hero, nor a speculative religion that would imprison the Gospel in the halls of academia, nor a noisy, feel-good religion that is a naked appeal to emotion. I long for passion, intelligence, and compassion in a Church without ostentation, gently beckoning to the world to come and enjoy the peace and unity we possess because of the Spirit in our midst.

The signature of Jesus, the Cross, is the ultimate expression of God's love for the world. The Church is the Church of the crucified, risen Christ only when it is stamped with His signature, only when it faces outward and moves with Him along the way of the Cross. Turned inward upon itself in bickering and theological hair-splitting, it loses its identity and its mission.

In the closing decade of the twentieth century, what separates the committed from the uncommitted is the depth and quality of our love for Jesus Christ. The superficial build bigger barns in the euphoria of the prosperity gospel; the trendy follow the latest fad and try to hum their way to heaven; the defeated are haunted by ghosts from the past.

And the victorious minority, unintimidated by the cultural patterns of the lock-stepping majority, celebrate as though He were near -- near in time, near in place -- the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed He is.

Fidelity to the prophetic Word will take us along the path of downward mobility (Henri Nouwen's famous phrase) in the midst of an upwardly mobile world. We will find ourselves not on the path to power but on the path to powerlessness; not on the road to success, but on the road to servanthood; not on the broad road of praise and popularity, but on the narrow road of ridicule and rejection.

To be like Christ is to be a Christian. Somehow we must lose our life in order to find it. Christianity preaches not only a crucified God, but also crucified men and women. "May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). There is no discipleship without the Cross. I am not a follower of Jesus if I live with Him only in Bethlehem and Nazareth but not in Gethsemane and on Calvary.

Are you called to a life of radical discipleship? To the poverty of Mother Teresa? To the prayer of the Desert Fathers? To the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? To the celibate lifestyle of Jesus? To a prophetic career? To full-time ministry on behalf of the down-trodden and disenfranchised? Am I?

As you think about these questions, you'll need both honesty and discernment. Not everyone is called like the rich young man (see Mark 10:17-30) to the radical renunciation of literally everything. As Walter Burghardt notes, "Jesus never told Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, to give up all they had. He did not announce to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea that they were excluded from the kingdom. Rich Zacchaeus proclaimed: 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor' (Luke 19:8); not all, just half. And still Jesus told him: 'Today salvation has come to this house...' (v. 9). Zachaeus's response is good enough to inherit the kingdom. This mirrors John the Baptist replying to the crowds: 'What should you do? If you have two coats, give away ...one' (Luke 3:11)" (Still Proclaiming Your Wonders).

There are varying degrees of discipleship. Shortly after my conversion, I began secretly to envy the generosity of spirit, the profound prayer, and the spiritual gifts of others in the community. It was an unforgettable experience of deliverance and liberation when, one day in prayer, my eyes fell on the words of the Baptist, "A person can receive only what is given him from heaven" (John 3:27).

Some of us have been so traumatized by life that simple survival one day at a time is our sole concern. Others have been so soiled by circumstances, scarred by physical and emotional disabilities, or bruised and battered by the vagaries of life that they are barely able to look beyond their own needs. For example, William Barry thinks of the man from whom a legion of demons was expelled. After the cure, "'As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with Him. Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you"' (Mark 5:18-19 italics added). The man apparently did not bemoan this 'rejection' as an injustice. Rather, 'the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed' (v. 20)" (Finding God In All Things).


All that we have and are is one of the unique and
never-to-be-repeated ways God has chosen to express Himself
in space and time. Each of us, made in His image and likeness,
is yet another promise He has made to the universe that
He will continue to love it and care for it.



Apparently, this man was not called to radical discipleship. Yet he was called, as we are called, to listen attentively to God's first word to us. This word is the gift of ourselves to ourselves: our existence, our nature, our personal history, our uniqueness, our identity. All that we have and are is one of the unique and never-to-be-repeated ways God has chosen to express Himself in space and time. Each of us, made in His image and likeness, is yet another promise He has made to the universe that He will continue to love it and care for it.

However, even when faith persuades us that we are a word of God, we may remain ignorant of what God is trying to say through us. Thomas Merton wrote: "God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself. A word will never be able to comprehend the Voice that utters it. But if I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to the thought in Him I was meant to embody, I shall be full of His actuality and find Him everywhere in myself and find myself nowhere. I shall be lost in Him" (Seeds of Contemplation).

With endurance and perseverance we must wait for God to make clear what He wants to say through us. Such waiting involves patience and attention, as well as the courage to let yourself be spoken. This courage comes only through faith in God, who utters no false word.

One of the stunning lessons of the Bible is God's free use of fragile human beings to accomplish His purpose. He does not always choose the holy and devout or even the emotionally well-balanced. The venerable Liebermann, a powerful nineteenth-century apostle and missionary, was a manic-depressive who could not walk across a bridge without a compulsive desire to jump off! "There is no way we can straitjacket the Holy Spirit no matter how much we would sometimes like to. The Holy Spirit is the bearer of gifts and these gifts are sometimes lavished in peculiar places" (Alan Jones, Exploring Spiritual Direction). God bestows His grace abundantly but unevenly. He offers no explanation why some are called to radical discipleship and others are not.


Even when faith persuades us that we are a word
of God, we may remain ignorant of what God is trying
to say through us. With endurance and perseverance
we must wait for God to make clear what
He wants to say through us.


Because we all are privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God's mercy, those called and graced to radical discipleship have no reason to boast. "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord'" (I Cor. 1:27, 31).

The gift of radical discipleship is pure grace to those who have no claim to it, for the deepest desires of our heart are not in our control. Were this not so, we simply would will those desires and be done with it. The courage to live as a prophet and lover is beyond human reach. Without the grace of God we cannot even desire God. Without the grace of God I cannot walk the talk of Christ and the kingdom lifestyle. All my goodwill and grim resolve could not keep me sober. In every A.A. meeting room in the country hangs the sign, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

This theme is powerfully illustrated in J. D. Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey. Bessie has been badgering her son Zooey to get professional help for his sister Franny. Zooey gives careful thought to the matter. Finally he says, "'For a psychoanalyst to be any good with Franny at all, he'd have to be a pretty peculiar type. I don't know. He'd have to believe that it was through the grace of God that he'd been inspired to study psychoanalysis in the first place. He'd have to believe that it was through the grace of God that he wasn't run over by a ...truck before he ever even got his license to practice. He'd have to believe that it's through the grace of God that he has the native intelligence to help his ...patients at all. I don't know any good analysts who think along these lines. But that's the only kind of psychoanalyst who might be able to do Franny any good at all'."


What Jesus longs to see in radical disciples is what
He saw in little children: a spirit of sheer receptivity,
utter dependence, and radical reliance on the power
and mercy and grace of God mediated
through the Spirit of Christ.


What Jesus longs to see in radical disciples is what He saw in little children: a spirit of sheer receptivity, utter dependence, and radical reliance on the power and mercy and grace of God mediated through the Spirit of Christ. "Apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

My book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, addressed the theme of radical grace: this one -- The Signature of Jesus -- addresses radical discipleship. Discipleship is our response to grace. Whatever measure of grace we have received and to whatever degree of discipleship we are called, every Christian stands under the Cross of Jesus Christ wherein we find salvation.

However hidden and undramatic your witness may be, I pray that you will be daring enough to be different, humble enough to make mistakes, courageous enough to get burnt in the Fire, and real enough to help others see that prose is not poetry, speech is not song, and tangibles, visibles and perishables are not adequate ultimates for beings signed with the blood of the Lamb.



Excerpted from "An Opening Word" of The Signature of Jesus*, by Brennan Manning.
© Copyright 1988, 1992, 1996 by Brennan Manning. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc., Sisters, Oregon. This excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.



Brennan Manning spends six months of the year on the road directing spiritual retreats and proclaiming God's unconditional love. He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, with his wife Roslyn. He has written a number of books, including Abba's Child andThe Signature of Jesus (see Featured Books).