Saturday, March 11, 2006

Carrying your cross (Mark 8.27-38)

From time to time, I find myself wondering about the so-called ‘third wave’ churches – the mega-churches that seem to be on such a roll – the ones that build worship centres the size of sports stadiums and think it’s a slow day if they only get 800 or so to Sunday worship.  And part of me thinks, ‘what are they doing right – what are they doing that is so attractive to people, and that maybe we should be doing as well?’  And I think there’s rather a lot, actually, that we traditional churches could learn from the third wave churches, rather a lot that they are doing right.  For a start, they are telling people that they are loved and desired by God, that God has a plan and a purpose for each of us, and that for us to respond to that love, to recognise God’s presence in our lives and get in tune with God’s purpose for us – that it unleashes joy in our lives, that it’s something to celebrate, to jump up and down about.  That Christian spirituality doesn’t have to be quiet and introverted, it can also be exuberant and extraverted, that the way of love and forgiveness is exciting and transformative.  And I think the success of the third wave churches in communicating that is something we all should celebrate.

But there’s also a major problem, and the problem is that human beings really like good news.  We really like to be told that we’re OK, and we like to find ourselves barracking for the winning team, we get addicted to the good feelings that we associate with success and we really want to be told that if we stick with this religion stuff, then we’re going to winners.  That’s the style of religion that packs ‘em in the aisles.  You’re going to be winners in the here and now, and you’re going to be winners in the hereafter.  But the trouble is that it’s not Jesus’ brand of religion.  It’s a message Jesus doesn’t seem to want to be associated with.  In today’s gospel Jesus is putting a bit of a dent in the bright gospel of success.  The sort of success I’m on about, Jesus is telling us, isn’t what the world normally calls success at all.  It’s the sort of success that only grows in the soil of what our world calls failure.

Just imagine, for a moment.  Jesus is at the height of his popularity, the ancient world’s equivalent of a wandering mega pop-star.  Wandering the villages of the rural backwater of Galilee, preaching a quirky new take on the ancient religion of Israel, opening the eyes of astounded peasants both literally and metaphorically, Jesus is finding himself at the centre of a new community, a new movement.  ‘Forgiveness’, he tells them, ‘is right here, right now.  God’s love is unconditional.’  You read the stories of this phase of Jesus’ ministry and you can’t help catching the mood of freshness and excitement.  Jesus, you’d think, was on the verge of success.  And to cap it all off, in this mixed community of Jews and foreigners he’s just performed a major miracle.  Everyone is talking about him.  The feeding of the four thousand.

But then a major argument breaks out.  ‘Well’, says Jesus.  ‘What’s the goss?’  What are they saying about me in the marketplaces?’  And so Peter gives him the summary – some say he’s Elijah or one of the prophets; others like the guilt-ridden King Herod think he might be John the Baptist returned from the dead.  But then comes the moment, half-way through Mark’s gospel, when a human being recognises who Jesus really is – you can almost see the light bulb going on for Peter – and he says ‘oh!  You’re the Messiah’ – which means, you’re the one who has been anointed like one of the ancient kings, chosen by God to save the people of Israel.

So, all the ingredients for a popular mass movement are in place.  He’s got the crowds, he’s got the reputation.  You’d think he’d be pleased.  But not Jesus.  Not only does he tell Peter off, and to keep that sort of talk to himself, but he says he has to suffer and to be rejected and killed.  Only after that will he be vindicated by God.  Not the sort of talk you’d expect from the one who’s been hand-picked by God for success.

And this is the one time in the gospel where Jesus calls the crowds, ‘listen’, he says, ‘gather round here, not just the disciples, all of you.  There’s something I’ve got to tell you.’  Most of the time he’s slipping out the back way to get away from them.  But here Jesus calls the crowds and he says if you want to follow this pop-star, there are strings attached.  Before he even gets started on his mass movement, Jesus seems to be giving it the kiss of death.  ‘Give up on any ambition of your own’, he seems to be saying.  ‘Pick up your cross and follow me’ – and they knew all too well what that meant because the Roman governor Pilate treated them to regular displays of it, the sad spectacle of condemned criminals forced to carry the cross-bars of their own gallows.  That’s what you can expect if you come along on my road-show.

But I think we need to be really careful how we hear this teaching of Jesus, because there’s a time-honoured way of interpreting it that’s deeply ingrained – and dead wrong.  For centuries, this teaching of Jesus about denying yourself has been misused by powerful people to keep not-so-powerful people in their place.  As the saying goes, ‘you’ll get your reward in heaven’.  Men have used this teaching of Jesus to keep women in their place, people living in poverty have been wrongly told that their oppression is somehow God’s plan.  It’s been used as a way of suggesting that we shouldn’t oppose injustice in our world, that we should wait for the hereafter for wrongs to be righted.  Well I don’t believe that, and I don’t for a moment think that’s what Jesus was on about.  And we only have to look at Jesus’ own practice – the way he shows compassion for the weak and heals those who suffer.  Jesus shows us in his own priorities that God’s will is never for people to be excluded or to live without the things they need for a full life. 

So what is he on about?  Why does Jesus say that following him means we have to be prepared to take up our cross, that we have to be prepared to suffer?

And I think the clue to what Jesus really means is in the phrase, ‘take up your cross’.  Of course, over the years it’s become just a saying, a metaphor we use for example when we talk about a chronic ailment as ‘the cross I have to bear’.  But for the people Jesus was talking to the cross wasn’t a metaphor.  It was a stark reality, it was what happened to troublemakers, to people who the Roman authorities saw as a threat.  And this gives us the clue as to what Jesus is really saying here – ‘hey, the reason I’m going to be rejected and killed is because of what I stand for, because God’s priority for justice and mercy is also my priority, because I stand for God’s kingdom which turns the status quo upside down.  The powers that in this world don’t stand for that sort of stuff.’

Which means that living as a disciple is not a really good career plan if you want worldly success.  Not if you live in a world that doesn’t really appreciate Jesus’ habit of attacking the status quo, Jesus’ uncomfortable insistence that the last shall become first and that God’s blessings are showered on the poor and the hungry and the meek.  The world of the 1st century and the world of the 21st century are alike in this.  Living Jesus’ way of forgiveness and peace means turning the values of the world we live in upside down, and that’s absolutely not a recipe for success.  Taking seriously Jesus’ insistence that the least and the last are blessed means swimming against the tide of a culture that denies the reality of pain, that tries to sweep disability and poverty and ageing under the carpet and anaesthetise itself with electronic images of youth and wealth and beauty.

 ‘So what’s the good news?’, you might be asking.  ‘Is there good news?’  Of course there is.  Because in Jesus, God is redefining what success means.  Success is not about competition any longer.  Success isn’t any longer about having more, or better, or shinier.  Success is choosing to live from a wider perspective than the narrow, self-serving point of view that our society teaches us to adopt.  Success is choosing to be Christ-like, to live the way of self-giving love even when that leads to unpopularity or financial insecurity. 

At the very least, this way of life is one that the world as we know it rejects.  If you live this way, you’ll find yourself – sooner or later – having to make the choice between the world’s priorities and the priorities of God’s kingdom.  Jesus is inviting us to live with realism and courage.  ‘If you follow me’, he assures us, ‘you will have to carry a cross of some description’.  There will be sorrow and there will be failure.  The impossible miracle of God’s love is that from this improbable soil will grow resurrection, and celebration and joy.