Reflections on Discipleship – Taking up our Cross

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

 

‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?

Madero de Tormento.jpg

First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.

Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.

That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.

“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

File:Figures Pharaoh and His Host Drowned in the Red Sea (parted right).jpg

Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.