If you contrast what Jesus was saying in this reading from Matthew about carrying your cross with what all too often passes for the practice of standard Christianity today, the contrast could not be more marked.
Jesus appeared to be very deliberate in accepting what must have seemed to what many of the disciples to have been seen as a doomed path. Taking up your cross in this context was a very vivid way of saying: become so committed to Jesus’ cause that you are even prepared to face death of a particularly nasty kind rather than surrender your commitment to his teaching. We should not place too much insistence on the exact wording of Matthew’s account because when Luke refers to the same conversation he has Jesus saying “take up your cross daily” but this in no way lessens the impact of the intended meaning.
Either way it remains harmless rhetoric while the prospect of death is remote, but if you remember when Jesus spoke it was a time where the people were not only under foreign military rule but also at a time where any form of civil unrest provided an excuse for military reprisal. It was not good to rock the boat. Taking on the authorities is one thing – but Jesus was speaking at a time when the authorities had every reason to condemn all critics and rebels and to treat those who might teach things that could potentially lead to rebellion with severe retribution.
To the disciples this must have seemed more and more likely to end badly. The civil authorities in this case were virtually synonymous with church authorities and Jesus had been in effect accusing these of not being true to what he referred to as his Father’s faith. From the authorities’ point of view they not only had to protect their own name, they were under pressure to not be seen as allowing any form of dissent. We can understand Peter being extremely uncomfortable with Jesus knowingly endangering himself in this way.
Jesus’ analogy certainly seemed to take on new meaning for those in the early church who were indeed under constant danger of genuine repression and sometimes death. Matthew with presumably much more biographical material on Jesus than he actually used, may here have selected this passage for the express purpose of helping the resolve of those who would have been facing the threat of persecution at the very time he was was writing.
We, at least those of us in the West, now live in more settled times, yet we who claim to follow Jesus are always coming up against an awkward truth. Colin Morris, himself a battler for justice and for the poor, reminds us that the American poet Archibald Macleish said “there are only two kinds of people, the pure and the responsible”. In that division, says Morris,
the Church always stands amongst the responsible rather than the pure; the engaged rather than the detached; and amongst the red-blooded reckless rather than the anaemically dignified. And this because we follow Jesus who plunged into a Jordan soiled by a thousand bodies, lived amongst publicans and sinners, died alongside criminals and rose again out of a cemetery of decaying corpses. (from Mankind my Church).
If we are truthful, in our local churches I suspect many of us have a strong urge to disengage from the responsible cross carriers and in our weaker moments do everything in our power to dissuade other Church members from any signs of what we like to call extremism and instead guide them towards standing well back from the action in the front line, standing instead with those we like to think of as the pure.
Strangely enough this urge not to get too involved in following through on Christ’s teaching then tends to lead to confusion about what being a Christian actually stands for. By contrast I am quite comfortable wearing my Rotary badge because Rotary history is very straightforward, as are the sorts of activities Rotarians get involved with. Similarly I used to wear my JP’s badge (until I lost it!) because the Justice of the Peace activities in witnessing documents and other minor law related activities are well proscribed. I am not so sure that claiming Christianity is quite so clear cut.
Think for a moment about the different ways Christians set about carrying out their responsibilities as Church members within the huge variety of different denominations with distinctly different claims of belief and you may get my drift.
I may be alone and I suspect I will irritate my colleagues in saying this, but I am a little uncomfortable about wearing those nice little trinket gold plated crosses. I would prefer to be more certain that first I am genuinely prepared to carry a cross. The sort of cross you can wear as a decorative badge whether it be metal, greenstone, carved bone, plastic or polished wood may be a convenient label or even for some a status symbol in some perverse thinking but unless it is associated with a fairly single minded intent to follow the main teachings of Jesus at all costs it may not come close to what Jesus meant when he talked of taking up your cross.
You may have come across Kosuke Koyama’s ‘No Handle on the Cross’ [SCM, London, 1976, p.7] where as he puts it: “There is no convenient way to carry a cross….if we put a handle on the cross to carry it as a businessman carries a briefcase, then the Christian faith has lost its ground. Jesus didn’t say ‘Take up your lunch box & follow me’”.
Yet perhaps on reflection it is not so much the wearing of the cross which is the problem because after all this can at least indicate to the observer with which group you wish others to know you associate. However where it might be criticized is if we wear the cross yet make zero attempt to stand for something or indeed anything significant, regardless of the cost. In this case the trinket cross loses its meaning. And worse, because other too see the hypocrisy, in the same way as the Child molester priest undermines the position of other priests, the one whose badge is associated with hypocrisy makes it harder for others wearing the same badge to convey the intended message.
Because not everybody has their faith tested the same way I think it may be unwise to assume that when the chips are down we should be confident of our response. We read that Peter, identified by Jesus as the rock, backed down and denied Jesus … and in the same way more than one confident and gifted Church leader has fallen massively from grace when genuine temptation comes their way. How often do we read of some Church leader or elder accused of fraud or immoral behavior. If such people can fall from grace perhaps the best we can do is to resolve to face whatever life throws our way and attempt to hold true to our chosen path. Whether or not we will manage the form of the cross we are asked to lift cannot be decided in advance.
Every now and then the faith starts to live again when someone steps out from the crowd and makes a brave stand on a Christ type principle. I think of those brave pacifist ministers who spoke up against the First World War because they felt it was not in line with Christ’s teaching. In New Zealand one preacher was actually pulled from the pulpit by angry parishioners. Other Methodist pacifists went to prison or were forcibly taken to the front where they were ridiculed. I read one historical account where some of those pacifists were stripped and tied to posts in the snow. We may not agree with such a stand – and where you take your stand will differ…because Jesus’ teaching affects many different issues. But for those of us who have been Christian for a number of years it is worth pausing to think, asking ourselves on what issues we have already made our individual stand? And what issues are so important to us that we will be prepared to risk everything should the need arise?
And here is another question. What issues does our Church currently raise on our behalf with the public and with the Government so clearly that everyone knows where our Church stands. Now I have to tell you I know of some in the Church who are doing just that. I know one minister who raises issues of welfare and unemployment with the government and I know another who advocates for the homeless. I know another who is advocating fiercely and well for Pacific Island interests in the community. I know another – and some of you will know him too, who advocates for the plight of missions in the Pacific and tries his best to have us consider working with those of other faiths… but when I say the Church, that is not just our leaders…. it is also you and me. If we can’t hear the Church speaking up on those Christ inspired issues we think are important, the uncomfortable question becomes where is our voice? We too are in the Church.
There is an element of self deception if we focus too much on hierarchies within the Church. Those for example who find as many superlatives as possible to describe Christ may have missed his emphasis on servant-hood. By overly stressing the divine nature of Jesus there is an implied trap whereby we are saying in effect it is up to this divine Jesus to sort out and look after the dilemmas we face. It is not how well Jesus carries the cross for us which defines our personal Christian journey. Similarly if we look to the bishop or priest or minister to act on our behalf there is a risk that we will become minor bit players and mere observers of the Christian walk.
Where we are in this journey may be reflected in the issues that take our main focus. If the parish council or leaders meeting starts to become inwardly focused so that the meeting members are only raising issues which concern our congregation well being and gives minimal attention to questions of justice and moral issues as they concern our love for neighbour, can I suggest that is not taking up the cross.
It is also unrealistic to see ourselves as caught an inevitable cycle of martyrdom. History teaches that only in certain places and at certain times will belief be brought into direct opposition to circumstances. Not all Christian stands of self sacrifice will involve protest. I know a couple in one of my two congregations who for many years have insisted on taking meals to the shut-ins and another who regularly volunteers for Citizens advice bureau. Another takes the elderly shopping. Those are some who inspire me. This is a long way from steadfastly facing the torturer or executioner. Yet the thing that these volunteers share with those forced into martyrdom is that they have given themselves wholeheartedly into serving where their heart leads.
There is also an underlying paradox. The notion of giving and self surrender is one dimension – but in the event it is not as negative as we might expect. The other dimension is that in giving we find our true selves.
There is a theological issue here that must be squarely faced. Many put the emphasis in Christianity on waiting for the second coming. If we turn to what Jesus actually was reported as saying, there is a strong implication that whatever is experienced does not need to wait for some distant second coming. For to those both treating Jesus as infallible and yet expecting a second coming of Jesus in our near future there is also a rather odd bit in this small cameo scene that is a source of discomfit . Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
If Jesus is correct in his teaching and in the truth of this prediction, that actually seems to mean that Jesus can be experienced when we throw ourselves to the task of carrying the cross. In science, when we are presented with a testable hypothesis, the next step is to carry out the experiment to test what has been theorized. Can I suggest that in this instance the scientific approach suggests the real test is one that we must try for ourselves.