The notion of acting as if our Church buildings are the only place to encounter religion may be partly inevitable, but that perception misses out on a most important dimension of what Jesus was attempting to convey. If nothing more was required of us than we should care about those who care about us, attend Church on a Sunday and drink tea or coffee with our friends after the service, then to portray ourselves as carrying the cross and claiming to be a messenger in his name would become something of a nonsense.
Please do not hear me saying I have it right and many have it wrong. I freely admit although I try at least part of the time to be a Christian, even at best I am still one who, more often than not, has a desire to lead the peaceful untroubled life, and what is more, with a faith so levelled that I am untroubled by difficult texts. To be honest I can’t help suspecting that sometimes I have made sacrifices for other dimensions of my life that I might not have made for my faith.
Unlike those early followers of Jesus having never witnessed a crucifixion it is unlikely we would ever feel the full impact of what Jesus is reported to have said.
To understand what Matthew’s first audience might have made about Jesus introducing the phrase about carrying the cross we need to remember that when it was first written it would have had real bite. “….whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Perhaps we even need reminding that those first encountering these words would not necessarily have been thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion.
To understand why, we might remember the date of Matthew’s gospel is generally accepted to be shortly after the abortive rebellion in Jerusalem (66-70 AD). The contemporary historians of the time tell us crucifixion was part of the wholesale punishment of the Jews who were reckoned to have had 1.1 million killed during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans with a further 97,000 captured and enslaved. As part of this punishment, at one stage something like approaching 500 per day were reportedly crucified as a warning to anyone else who might have been contemplating rebellion. Josephus states that as part of the punishment the Roman soldiers amused themselves trying to dream up new ways of crucifying their victims in different positions. I suspect this phrase about picking up your cross and following might even have caused an intake of breath to a people who had recently witnessed such acts and for whom crucifixion was a grim and very real possibility.
That setting of Roman punishment and forced exile guaranteed the early Christians turbulent times and a most uncertain reception when they took Christ’s message to the roads. With terrified refugees fleeing a devastated Jerusalem, offering a Christian alternative to take attention away from the now weakened but familiar and supportive Jewish community would not have seemed a viable option and as a consequence, the apostles would have been met with suspicion and at times downright opposition from the Jews.
For non Jews trying to keep a low profile in the presence of the angry and suspicious Romans and for those anxious to avoid being seen as potential rebels, there would have been antagonism offered to anyone even hinting that the new faith being promoted was talking of Jesus being a possible Son of God, a title then currently reserved for the Roman emperor. Small wonder then that Matthew chose to record how Jesus had once asked for practical support for what he called the “little ones” which was shorthand for the new and understandably nervous apostles.
Certainly as far as we are concerned today, crucifixion (or whatever its modern equivalent would be), is now virtually unknown. We live in very different times and the challenges of the faith must change. This does not mean there is no hard edge to encounter for those who carry the gospel. Perhaps such problems need stressing. As with this reading this morning, we don’t normally find Jesus putting the priority on attendance at worship. If he had, there would be no chance of likening our journey with Christ to carrying the cross.
On the other hand the ethical imperatives of how to treat the stranger, how to deal with enemies, (think ISIS), how to act as a servant and how to discover Christ in the form of those who are normally rejected by society may well all be helpful to the wellbeing of society, but are also all likely to encounter serious opposition. For example those who follow the sermon on the Mount and oppose nationalism or insist tax dollars be spent in third world countries. Don’t forget those who are advocating pacifism are much closer to the teachings of Jesus than those dropping the bombs on cities. Pacifists are no more popular than those who insist on welcoming those who come as immigrants from places that do not share our culture and religion. Those who protest the wholesale destruction of tropical forests and get in the way of Western industrialists – these all will soon learn that not everything that Jesus taught is likely to have the support of the community.
Like it or not, giving attention to the poor, not reducing taxes for the rich is at the heart of much of Jesus’ teaching, but for those these days who insist that local and national government move priorities in line with the Gospel imperatives soon start to encounter resistance …. as those advocating such moves have always done.
Notice too, Jesus is not asking his disciples to simply stay on home territory mouthing the right words to those who are already friends, or even that we should only welcome those who come in his name with the customary platitudes. If there is a message worth sharing, Jesus’ thinking was apparently that we shouldn’t wait until the intended recipient of the message comes to us – we should go to that person. And what is more he seemed to be asking for practical hospitality of the sort anyone might offer, even as simple as offering a glass of water, rather than going through the charade of some religious dogma, when we welcome those who come in his name.
In today’s passage from Matthew we get a glimpse of a world now virtually unknown. This was an age where letters were often used as a means of communication, but there was no postal system. If the author of the letter was unable to personally deliver the message, an envoy would be appointed, and welcoming the proxy was considered the equivalent of welcoming the author of the letter.
The “sent ones” tradition was part of many cultures of the time and the Jews used the term shaliach to refer to such an envoy or “sent one”.
Similarly the word “Apostle” also meant “sent one” and the intention for the early Church was to have many who were prepared to take on such a task. Because of the natural tendency for those receiving the messenger to see the apostle as a proxy for the author of the message, there was of course a danger that the status of the Son of God would be associated with the one who comes in the Son’s place. Think for a moment about those religious leaders who throughout history claimed personal power – and even some of the more self centred religious teachers today who seek personal wealth and demand something close to worship from their followers. I guess Jesus was pre-empting this danger when he reminded his followers of the essential need to remember the cross that was to be carried.
For those of us caught up in Church leadership, we might check our own actions to see if we are still true to the intentions we brought as new Christians to our faith. Remember these days we go out into a very different world than the first disciples.
Clearly there are some through the ages who have forgotten this reminder. Those anxious to preserve their mystique as important people in a hierarchical Church have clearly missed Jesus’ teaching about servant-hood and we would be wise to remember that we ourselves risk a similar mistake each time we use the Church to reinforce our personal status. Can you think of any Churches where clergy enjoy special status
I suggested at the outset this was a demanding reading. In reality, with the best will in the world we cannot be certain in advance that when the chips are down we will be found amongst those who put Jesus’ teaching ahead of our personal relationships and inclinations. Nor can we know how welcoming we will be to those who challenge our consciences. What is more likely is that when we encounter those whose lives already reflect these principles we are likely to find there an integrity there that can inspire us in our own personal journey.
Because for most of us the serious challenges are uncommon we may still be unaware of how we will react when we too are asked to do the modern equivalent of carrying a cross.
If we need a reminder that Christianity is no protection against some grim realities, reflect for a moment on the recent disastrous fire in that apartment tower in London. Signing up for the faith is not a Talisman against future horrors in life. Those who risked life and limb to save neighbours in that fire would have included those who were not members of any Church, but at the same time have demonstrated Jesus injunction with their courage.
Perhaps it is human to look for compromises and comforts, but with the memory of that fire and the words of today’s text, at the very least, we should listen to what it says and ask the question of ourselves, to wonder if there might not be something there that might help shape our lives?
It probably sounds like the recent Americas Cup but perhaps the best we might do is to change the analogy and remember a wise comment attributed to Jimmy Dean when he said:
“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” (he forgot to say foils)
If we take the gospel seriously we have no way of predicting the difficulties ahead. Perhaps like those invited by Jesus to welcome the Apostles our task will be limited by circumstances and opportunity to supporting those who carry the hard edge of the gospel. Whatever is our lot, all we can do is have the determination to hold to the course, and trust that in some, perhaps mysterious way, that good might be served, if not for ourselves, then for others.