He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me“. Mark 8:34
What did that mean….“Take up your cross and follow”?
Unfortunately those words are often distorted in our minds by a fragmentary grasp of Church history. Well is that fair criticism? For most of us I suspect, the only cross we now think of is Jesus’ cross, not our own. Many times until it became part of our thinking we have been told that for some hours on the cross Jesus suffered and died – then wasn’t there some magic and somehow everything was put right? The New Testament, perhaps understandably, made such a feature of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ that it is hard to think ourselves back into the minds and experiences of those to whom Jesus’ words were addressed.
So what might those listeners have been thinking? Crucifixion was of course a barbarous punishment that the Romans had designed for trouble makers. What we tend to forget in thinking about Jesus’ death is that his was only one of very many. In 4 B.C. for example, (around the suggested time for the birth of Christ), a good number of nationalistic Jews used the death of Herod the Great as an excuse to rise in revolt against the Romans with the idea of driving them out for once and for all. The Romans predictably struck back with venom. When the thousands rebels fled into the country, the Roman general Varus hunted them down. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells it this way:
“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. (Antiquities 17.10.10)”
Two thousand of your fellow countrymen crucified at one time! Now that would provide a vivid set of memories. Remember too that the Romans used crucifixion as a means of quelling rebellion in advance and made a great show of the public humiliation and pre-crucifixion torture – it is only in religious art that those on the Cross were allowed the dignity of clothing. The crosses of potential or actual rebels would be placed alongside public roads where the naked bodies would continue to hang for some time as a visual warning.
Sometimes the number crucified was considerably more. Remember Mark was writing shortly after the total disaster of another failed rebellion. Something like 70 years after the first post-Herod rebellion, in Jerusalem and nearby Judea, thousands upon thousands rose in revolt against the occupying Romans. Initially with numbers on their side it looked as if the rebels would prevail. Rome sent an army, beat them back and then besieged Jerusalem. Hundreds attempted to escape and were shown no mercy. The historian Josephus claimed that 500 a day were first whipped then tortured in the most public fashion and finally crucified outside the walls of the city. The Roman general Titus, perhaps sickened by the systematic cruelty continuing day after day, at least expressed pity, yet clearly believing that only an extreme example would totally extinguish the rebellion, he allowed it to continue to its inevitable conclusion. (Jewish War 5.11.1)
Put yourself in the position of those to whom this was still a vivid memory and ask yourself what they might then have been thinking when asked to take your cross and follow. We should not pretend the metaphor would awaken the same feeling for us today. At times the Church has even taught a theology that says that since Jesus has suffered on our behalf all we have to do is to accept what he offers. Because potential suffering is not part of the easy deal we can almost hear the echoes of what Peter was saying in today’s evangelism. Yet Jesus would not let Peter get away with the easy option.
I suspect many would have great empathy with Peter on his response to Jesus. I even wonder if many of us would have made exactly the same mistake. Jesus’ earlier question to Peter had been very direct. Who do you say I am? With the wisdom of all our Church teaching I wonder how many of us in reply to that question would like Peter have said something like: –“ Well Lord you are the Messiah…. we can see that”. But instead of wondering with the wisdom of hindsight why Peter couldn’t see the obvious, how then might we have answered Jesus if he had followed up with the equivalent of “Now I have to suffer – even die for what I teach”? I wonder how many of us would have been tempted like Peter to try to talk him out of that bit. Even today asking those who support him to be prepared to pick up their cross is at variance with what is all too often offered in the name of the Church – namely the easy realization of the dream of a better life. Indeed at first glance it almost appears that the Church has watered down the part of the gospel to avoid credible challenges on issues of justice and morality and so downplayed the sacrifice attitude that what now passes for Sunday observance would scarcely raise an eyebrow from the authorities, still less raise fully fledged religious persecution.
Jesus insistence on taking up of the cross is probably the opposite of good marketing but it still represents a truth which has played out many times in the history of his followers.
What Jesus was calling for showed deep understanding of the human psyche. Surely what traditionally motivates all of us in a biological sense is regardless of our public exterior, we have a clear intention to put ourselves first along with the social group we relate most closely along with the interests of those on whose support we depend. Jesus was in effect by his example, insisting that to follow him meant widening this circle, putting those seen as traditional rivals and even enemies as legitimate priority for our concern. Think about it. No wonder so many get angry when someone tries to change what people believe to be their right.
We have the perfect example right now with ISIS. Yes of course we object violently to the belligerence of the ISIS followers beheading innocent kidnap victims. But reacting by cheering the West for destroying them along with innocent bystanders with all those bombing raids is not Christianity – particularly if we are not then prepared to go in and restore the towns whose bombing we supported. Is it surprising that few are insisting we help the victims? It would not be popular.
Following conscience issues which interfere with entrenched views is seen as undermining existing authority and status. We are pre-programmed to hold on to our nations hard won riches and not share them with the needy… which is why our government gives such a small percentage of GDP to International Aid programs.
And despite its many worthwhile features, even the Church is not exempt. Should this surprise us? A modern day Martin Luther saying the Church is no longer following Christ in its actions – or a Bible scholar showing why current theological teaching is based on a lack of understanding of what careful scholarship reveals, these may no longer result in public torture and burning – but that only because there are now more civilized ways of achieving the gagging of the trail blazer.
Think for instance of David Fredriech Strauss who in 1835 published a ground breaking book The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed. His discoveries about the Bible would seem commonplace today but because in his day he threatened tradition, he was simply removed from his university position and blocked from ever teaching again. Closer to our time this was very similar to the fate that awaited the Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson who explored some doubts in 1963 with a small book Honest to God. He clearly offended the established Church and was in effect publicly pilloried, blocked from promotion and given a very minor teaching post until his death in 1983 without even the status of University lecturer at his previous University of Cambridge.
Clearly there are few scholars whose work is significant enough to enrage the church but we all live in a world where privilege and discrimination are enshrined in policy – and where nations construct policy with personal advantage very much in mind. Speaking up or focusing on the needs of the disadvantaged is not a formula for personal advancement but it is hard to see how we can pretend that such a course of action has nothing to do with following Christ.
As long as we take what Bonheoffer used to call the cheap grace option where we leave it at a few token prayers for our enemies and the patronizing prayers for the less well off we inflame no passions. But start insisting on genuine action – altering immigration policies to let more of those of other cultures and races in to share our advantages, raising overseas aid quotas to match UN recommendations, raising minimum wage packets, putting environmental concerns ahead of the wealth of multinational shareholders and then watch the anger levels rise. In the Church the cheap grace option is to put peace for our local congregation ahead of the need to get down and dirty where the real problems of the community confront our preferences.
Paul Tillich understood the heart of the problem when he said that when the Divine appears in its depth it cannot be endured…. It must be pushed away by the political powers, the religious authorities, and the bearers of cultural tradition. In the picture of the Crucified, we look at the rejection of the Divine by humanity.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer spelt out what he meant by cheap grace. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”(p 47)
And then real or costly grace
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”(P. 47)
The original meaning of the word Lent was that Northern hemisphere time between winter and spring when the thaw began. Its religious meaning suggests it is also a time of self examination … the 40 days of wilderness reflection when we prepare ourselves for Easter. It is true that we can avoid the pain of self examination but to do so is evading Christ’s challenge to shoulder our cross. It may just be that the analogy of melting that which is frozen has something to teach us for this time of Lent.