Monday, 29 August 2011

Cross purposes

A sermon based on Matthew 16: 21-28
A number of themes present themselves in this piece. An important one is that just because you have faith doesn’t mean you always completely understand or are right about everything.  Peter went from being called the “rock” to being called “satan” within four verses.
And what did Jesus really mean when he said “some of you standing here will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom”. Best left for another time I think.....
But rather importantly we also have Jesus talking about “taking up your cross” if you really want to follow him and about “losing your life in order to gain it”.
These two phrases are linked and need a little explanation. As I wrote mid week “taking up your cross” had nothing to do with generalised suffering for which it is now taken for granted to mean. As in for example. “I have kidney stones. That is a cross I have to bear”
The cross was a specific punishment for those the Romans thought were challenging or undermining the state. The phrase could conceivably be an anachronism inserted into the mouth of Jesus years after his death or equally it could be that Jesus knowingly and pointedly understood his mission as being so controversial, being tantamount to sedition in the eyes of the Romans and their Temple collaborators that would almost certainly, as sure as eggs are eggs, lead to his execution by crucifixion.
It is worth asking why “the crowd” agitated by the Temple authorities in Pilates’ palace cried for his “crucifixion” – rather than in a more general sense, his death or execution. I also hear people ask why the crowd turned so much in one week – from welcoming him into the city on the back of a donkey shouting “Hosanna”  just a week before baying for his execution, but of course it wasn’t the same crowd.
The people shouting Hosanna were not the same people who then were calling for his execution a week later. The meeting with Pilate took place in the palace or “the courtyard of the palace”. Someone had to let them in. This crowd is best understood as supporters of the Temple authorities and their cosy arrangement with the Romans.  Anyone upsetting their arrangements and their power and status was an enemy to be disposed of in the harshest manner. An attack on them was an attack on the whole system.
The difference would be like addressing a crowd in rebel held Tripoli, or within the complex of Col. Gaddafi when it was still intact – completely different scenarios and very different people would be present.
The symbolism of the cross in first century Palestine is best understood as a punishment for those who displayed opposition to tyranny, opposition to oppression and injustice, opposition to systems that brutalise and crush the spirit, opposition to any system that uses violence to achieve its ends.
The Kingdom of God was in direct opposition to any of these worldly systems but particularly in Jesus’ context the Roman/Temple system that oppressed his people. In understanding this, we understand the political content of the message of Jesus. He was a threat to everything that Rome and the Temple stood for. He was the enemy and the leaders of the Jews knew he had to be treated like one. It is for this reason that Jesus was crucified.
Taking up our cross means being prepared to sacrifice ourselves for a principle, to oppose tyranny and injustice wherever it is, even if it leads to our persecution or even death. That is what “taking up our cross means.
With Jesus as our template, understood properly, the Jesus way is transformed from a quietist other worldly apolitical crutch neatly separate from real life issues of the day to being a radical voice fearlessly standing up for the poor, marginalised and oppressed, even though it might be to our own detriment. Exactly the sort of people Jesus mixed with. Not a retreat from the world but a radical transforming engagement with the world and its structures, its regimes and its inequalities.
These two different views of Jesus – one political the other apolitical – is modelled starkly in South American Roman Catholicism. The RC hierarchy has consistently either been very cosy or has actively supported every fascist regime the continent has ever produced. In contrast a huge segment of the RC laity and quite a few priests have discovered a different Jesus to the official version – the radical Jesus with a bias towards the poor and powerless and thus was born “liberation theology” much to the disgust of the Vatican who routinely denounce it as being Marxist. 
To say that Jesus and therefore Christianity is not political is I believe to completely misunderstand Jesus. He was executed by a political elite who saw his popular opposition, even while it was entirely peaceful, as a huge threat to themselves.  To follow Jesus is not a cosy religious duty done in the safety of a church but a rather frightening and bruising engagement with the social moral and political problems and structures of the day.  

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