Sometimes I wonder if we comprehend in any meaningful sense just how radical Jesus' life and call are. Jesus' death was not an accidental outcome of his ministry. It was the climax of his ministry. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death was not a deliberate act on his part, it was murder. As was Gandhi's death, and Malcolm X's. Jesus followed his radical mission through to a purposeful death. This guy was nuts. And Jesus calls us to willfully take up our cross and follow him. Follow him where? To the cross? With our cross? Be willing to die for his cause? Be willing to die for this world and for the people who make it up?
I think part of why we have such trouble understanding is that we have no reasonable reference point through which we can make sense of his calling. Where else can we find an individual deliberately dying for a cause? It doesn't equate with anything in our Western historical heritage, save for a few bad experiments by Jesuit priests. Luckily, there are some pretty radical Buddhists we can look to in order to find a little bit of understanding. Before the Vietnam war, many Buddhist priests took to the streets to protest the discriminatory administration of South Vietnam. Some of the more fanatical among them performed what we call self-immolation. If that didn't click right away, they set themselves on fire, committing suicide. The incredibly dramatic example of these monks has inspired a whole slew of self-immolations around the world, from protestors in the former Soviet Union, to writers protesting the Catholic church's stance on homosexuality. Now that is radical.
So why did Jesus die? I think there are (at least) two major reasons, judging from church tradition. First, he died to demonstrate his love for the world. We, so pestered by sin, need no longer be condemned, need no longer be torn from eternity, need no longer suffer from endless shame. Second, he died to show us a third way, as Walter Wink puts it. And it is this way that he calls us to when he calls us to take up our cross and follow him. He is not idly drawing comparisons. Rather, very bluntly, he calls each and every one of us to adopt such a radical vision that we are willing to die for it, his vision.
I am not suggesting that we all go set ourselves on fire. I do not think God is calling us to symbolic suicide. But I do think we have underestimated the call of Jesus. Until we grasp the outrageous nature of God's call, we risk misrepresenting Jesus to the world.