Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Sharp Edge and a Cross

Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 
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. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

The time of Lent is a time for sharp edges. It's not a time for fuzzy niceness. You can do that at Harvest.

The fluffy bunny style of theology says that all things are nice, people are nice, God is nice and we should be nice. Now being nice to people is fine. But God isn't "nice". God is not a fluffy bunny. God is portrayed in the Bible as in many respects quite scary. And that's not where the Gospel is. I knew an old preacher who told me he was going to "preach the Gospel", and preached an entire sermon on the Resurrection. He didn't mention the Cross - the thing that brought the Resurrection about - once. That wasn't the Gospel. It was nice, but it wasn't the Gospel.

Jesus is listing the people that he will be rejected by. The elders - so, the rabbis, the community leaders. The chief priests - the people at whose hands the sacrifices are made that mean people can come close to God. The scribes - the ones who understand and interpret the Law of Moses - which is the gift of God through whom the people of God can keep themselves holy. The full apparatus of local and religious life and institutions will be brought against Jesus. As a Jew, he will be a nobody. And the challenge Jesus lays out is - can you be like that?

Can you be cut off from the whole support structure of your family, your street, your religion, your community? Would you see your next-door neighbour rush inside the house rather than talk to you? Your former friends cross the road rather than be associated with you? That's where some of our brothers and sisters are today.

Would you consider the possibility that your relatives - yourself - might be raped, kidnapped, killed for the sake of Jesus? That's where some Christians are today. What would I do today, with the thought that my son could be tortured and murdered because of my belief?  I don't know. It's not the cross I'm carrying. And if I thank God for that, I also have to pray far more fervently for those that are suffering.

It's easy to troll through the history of the Church and find great saints to set before us as an example. But even that is not necessary. Two weeks ago, 21 Coptic Christians were murdered on the beach in Libya for the sake of Jesus. The last words of many of them were, "Lord Jesus".  The blood of the martyrs has flowed through the Roman empire, through the Reformation, through the atheist Communist atrocities of the 20th Century, down through the Islamist murders of this current one. Because it seems there is nothing Satan hates more than the people who follow the man of peace. Because a man of peace, and justice, humility and putting others above yourself - is the thing that Satan fears above all else.

The word "martyr" has been much-abused by Islamists - not Muslims, Islamists -  recently. I guess my take on it is this. When somebody blows up innocent others - and kills themselves - they're not martyrs. They're murderers. When somebody dies fighting to take away other people's liberty - they're not martyrs. They're failed oppressors. But when somebody dies simply for their faith - holding to what they hold to be true, whether they're Christians in the USSR, Muslims in Burma - an atheist in Bangladesh - they're a martyr. They've died witnessing to what they believe is true, and they've not done it at the expense of anybody else.

As Christians, we're called to follow Our Lord wherever he leads. It's not good news on a short scale, this one. When Jesus tells his disciples what's going to happen, Peter tells him off. Come on Jesus, this doesn't need to happen. You can keep being a preacher - keep on the behaving well stuff. Maybe lay off the "kingdom of God" theme. That's never gonna go down well with the authorities, bashing on about alternative powers, higher forms of government than they can call upon.

"Get behind me, Satan." Peter's looking at the short-term view. He's weighing up the odds for the next few years - but there's much greater weight in the scales than he realises.

Jesus sees a cross - a short time of death - and beyond it, an open tomb and a new hope for the world. He knows that the easy route - Peter's route - leads to a life as a much-loved prophet, audiences with Herod, tea with Pilate - dinner with Annas and Caiaphas, discussing how Jesus's movement can best be channeled into raising funds for the Temple. This is why Jesus says "Get behind me Satan" - he's echoing the approach of the Dark One in the desert. Take it easy, do your magic, draw the crowds - you can be on the gravy train for life.

But Jesus's choice is starker than that. If he takes the easy, cushty route then he's leading his followers down the primrose path to hell. He'd be saying that belief is about sitting round, feeling good, thinking how great God is... everything except the thing he's come for.

And what he has come for? Is to set out God's priorities. That the poor, the child, the weak, the oppressed come first. That the rich, the so-called grown up, the strong, the one with power comes last. That power over another may be strength in this world - but on an eternal scale it's a disaster. .Because power, money, strength - they are delusions. They exist for a while, but they fade. Or you die and they're gone. And then you have another set of rules to deal with.

The Church goes wrong when it allies with those with power. It always has. When it sides with vested interests - whether the king and the nobles in medieval England, or the power of capital in the United States, or the dictatorships of South America. On either side of a division between power and weakness, you will always find Jesus on the side of weakness. Because a man nailed to a cross can't side with power. He knows it all too well for what it is. This is not to say that money is bad, or power can't be used well. But weakness is the side that Jesus is on.

Remember the moment when Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel? She's the elf-queen, the mighty one. He is a three-foot gormless berk with a mighty artifact he can't control. He says to her take it. Her response
"And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
'I pass the test,' she said.'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'"
Galadriel has a choice we all have. To use the power we have for good - or evil - or to give it up. Jesus would have made a very good, wise teacher, stayed alive, worked his way round the powers-that-were: done everything but been the Messiah of God. But he chose to go another way. To align with the weak, to preach good news to the poor, to declare that a world order was turned upside down and the strong would not have it their own way forever.

Because the cross is a sign of weakness, a sign of failure. A sign that power hates humility. That the very thing that the dark one fears is one who willingly gives himself for others. We are not called to pick up a sign of victory - or not as the world knows it. We pick up a sign of slavery, of oppression, of defeat. And in siding with the weak and defeated we side with the God who loves the weak and the poor.

I don't know what your cross will be, or is, specifically. But I know that it's the point at which you give up your rights, your strength and your power - and suffer for the Kingdom. For most of us - not the People of Christ in the Middle East - it won't be a literal cross. But the reminder is there before us all the time. If even the King of the Ages was nailed to a cross, what rights do we cling on to? If the one who made the stars is hung naked before a baying crowd, how do we dress up our own ambitions and desires? It sets the things we prize most, and the things that matter most, in sharp contrast - an edge on which we can fall either way.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but lost
and pour contempt on all my pride.


  1. Amen. This is powerful - spoke directly and painfully to the heart of my current situation. It was my provision for the day yesterday, and is again today...

  2. Powerful: in a cross shaped way. Thanks.

  3. Oh yes ... a good, powerful wee preach. Love it (and I'm a bit jealous).


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