Take Up Your Cross

We are continuing to look at the stories of Jesus found in Mark. Jesus is trying to figure out his role by asking the disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” We read this and “assume Jesus knows who he is and is testing the disciples to learn whether they know. If we read the questions as Middle Easterners, we will assume Jesus does not know who he is and is trying to find out from significant others.”[1] Peter responds by telling Jesus that he is the Messiah.

Once the disciples identify Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus claims that role. In the ancient world people were given a particular status at birth based on their parent’s status and that status did not tend to change over time. It was not anticipated that if you worked hard you could become more important. If you were poor you would always be poor. The culture assumed a limited amount of resources and goods, including honour.[2] So the disciples, in their claim that he is the messiah, have raised Jesus above his birth honour.

Jesus claims that role and begins to talk about what he sees as the direct consequence of his claiming that role. Jesus knows that if he steps into the role of messiah as described by the Hebrew prophets that it will lead to suffering and death for him and those around him. While the disciples identified Jesus as the messiah, they knew that Jesus’ publicly claiming that role would lead to the suffering he described. So Peter tries to get Jesus to back away from the role or at least be a bit more quiet about it. Peter tries to keep Jesus in his place. Jesus turns to Peter and said “Get behind me, Satan.” We often imagine Satan as a devil figure but this image might be more helpfully translated as tester.[3] Jesus identifies Peter as testing him and his willingness to follow God’s path. In this sense, anyone who directs our own attention away from God or discourages us from following our calling might be identified as a tester.

I have a strong sense of call to work for peace. Even as a child it didn’t make sense to me that we try to end wars by fighting wars. I’m not sure how or where this belief came from but it is something I have carried with me since elementary school. When I was doing my training for ministry, we had a guest speaker at one of our learning circles who had been with the Christian Peacemakers in Iraq. She talked about her experiences of putting herself in harm’s way in order to protect others. She talked about the risk of arrest or death and the ways in which her work transformative for people living with violence.

When it came time for me to choose a global exposure trip in the final year of ministry training I chose to travel with Christian Peacemakers. I wanted to better understand, in practical terms, what the work of non-violence looks like in places where violence and the threat of violence is an everyday occurrence. I travelled to Israel and Palestine to learn about that particular conflict and the ways in which non-violence is helping to create a new way of life. Roland worried the whole time I was away. Other people asked me, “Why would you go somewhere like that?” “Are you taking a gun?” “Do they give you bullet proof vests?” Others said, “but it’s so dangerous.” I see these as the testing questions. “Why?” “Are you sure? You realize what you are doing will be dangerous.” I knew that what I was doing would be risky. Intellectually, I knew the potential harm to myself and it still felt important to place myself in that situation.

The type of work that Christian Peacemakers does goes against our culture’s response to violence. We tend to respond to violence with violence. It can sometimes be a challenge to speak for non-violence in a culture where military response is considered the norm. But Jesus didn’t respond to violence with violence. He responded to violence in ways that transformed situations. Jesus can see the writing on the wall even this early in his ministry. He knows that challenging violence and structural oppression is going to lead to suffering and death for him and the people around him. He hears Peter question him and responds by explaining to the disciples that doing the right thing is not always the easy thing.

We hear this passage and have a tendency to spiritualize it. We all have crosses to bear. We all have things in our lives that are difficult. If we bear these things for Jesus’ sake God will reward us. This passage is often interpreted through this spiritual lens but that is probably not the original intent of the writers. We read this passage from a very individualist culture. We look after ourselves and our family but beyond that we have little responsibility for the welfare of the culture or society. The ancient world was a communal culture. Everything that one person did reflected on their family and community. If one person in the community was shamed, the entire community was shamed. If one person was honoured, the entire community was honoured.

In the Roman empire the cross was the method of execution for dissidents.[4] It did not represent a spiritual quest. It was not a symbol of anything holy. The cross represented the death of anyone who spoke against the empire and it was common practice for prisoners to carry the cross they were to be executed on to the place of execution. All four gospels tell of Jesus carrying his cross. When Jesus tells the disciples to take up their cross it “could have no meaning except as an invitation to share the consequences facing those who dared challenge…imperial Rome…Mark’s first readers could in no way have missed the terrible implications of such a saying.”[5]

Susyia Village (2)

Susyia Village, Palestine CPT November 2008

Mark continues to ground this gospel in the political realities of the Roman Empire. The gospel only has meaning for us if we can connect it to our own political realities. When I was with Christian Peacemakers we visited the Palestinian village of Susyia and watched as a farmer planted his crop in the valley.

Susyia Settlement (2)

Illegal Susyia Settlement – Occupied Territory, Palestine CPT November 2008

Across the valley is an illegal Israeli settlement. And in this illegal settlement are homes finished with wood imported from Europe, filled with books and pianos. Susyia village is made up of tents because the village has been bulldozed by the Israeli occupying forces. Settler attacks on farmers while they are planting and harvesting is common. As we stood and watched the farmer we talked about what we would do if the settlers came to attack the farmer. Some of us would take pictures. Some of us would go into the valley and stand between the farmer and the settlers. Someone would phone others to come and help. Some of us would observe and make notes so we could be documented for later court cases and police reports and shared online. We knew that the situation had potential for violence and that we could be hurt. It was scary to know that I was in a situation that could potentially escalate and commonly does result in violence.

Returning to my own everyday reality there are so many things that bother me about our culture and the ways in which we treat one another. I hear racism in our own community and within our faith community on a regular basis. Homophobia is alive and well in our congregation and community. Jesus work for justice led him straight to the cross. Jesus carried the cross for others and found himself carrying his own cross. Challenging racism and homophobia and other injustices in our own context may lead to our own crosses.

Crosses that continue to be carried and lead to death.
Crosses that continue to be carried and lead to death.

Sometimes I challenge these things but sometimes it can feel risky. When I feel like I’m outnumbered I’m more likely to remain silent or see if someone else speaks up. When I know that people are entrenched in a particular view I want to respond with anger and frustration and sometimes remain silent to avoid creating a confrontation which might actually make the situation worse. Sometimes I remain silent because I want to be liked and I don’t want to harm a particular relationship. I don’t always want to carry these crosses.

And Jesus reminds us in this passage that if we are going to be his followers we need to take the risk. He is quite literal in his approach. “If you are going to follow me, you have to be willing to risk crucifixion.” In our context, crucifixion is highly unlikely and yet being comfortable is something that often tempts us. Remember Satan from earlier in the passage—the one who tempts us away from God? Our comfortable lives, our pleasant social interactions—these can be tempters for us.

Lent is a time of the church year that intentionally invites us into reflection on how we follow Jesus. In the early church it was a time when new converts would spend 40 days learning, praying and deciding whether or not they wanted to take the risk of following Jesus. They knew that following Jesus would require something of them. It would require them to be willing to give up their lives. Lent continues to be a time for us to intentionally reflect on what kind of followers we want to be. It is a time when we can open ourselves to God’s spirit and change direction in our lives. Lent invites us to reflect on what kind of church we want to be. Are we a church that is simply a comfortable place for our members or are we a place that faithfully risks following Jesus?

There are many different spiritual practices which allow us to listen for God and strengthen us for faithful following. These include centering prayer and guided meditation, labyrinths, mandalas and many more.

We cannot follow Jesus without being grounded, nurtured and strengthened in the spirit. Lent is a good time to incorporate some of these practices into our lives and listen carefully for how Jesus is calling us to follow his path of the cross.

[1]. Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Locations 3869-3870). Kindle Edition.

[2].  Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Locations 3880-3882). Kindle Edition.

[3].  Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Location 3883). Kindle Edition.

[4]. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 245.

[5]. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 246.

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