Proper 17A – Jeremiah 15: 15-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Rev'd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 31st August, 2014

The cross is perhaps the world’s most popular fashion accessory. You will find crosses on necklaces, rings, pendants, bracelets. Moreover, crosses come in two forms, the cross proper and the crucifix. The cross is the simpler of the two, with vertical bar and crossbar. A crucifix is the same cross with the body of Jesus (known as the corpus) depicted on it. Overall, Protestants prefer to wear the cross, while Roman Catholics tend to wear the crucifix. Most people wear the cross without understanding its religious significance. You may be familiar with the story of the woman who went to the jewellers to buy a gold necklace cross as a Confirmation present for her daughter. After explaining her predicament to the sales-assistant, the sales-assistant smiled and replied, "Oh, yes, we have thousands of those. What kind do you want: plain, or one with the little man on it?"

Someone has likened the wearing of a cross or crucifix to wearing an electric chair around one's neck. Crucifixion is a hideous form of execution technique. I use the present tense advisedly. Even now, Syrian and Iraqi Christians are being crucified at the hands of the jihadi forces currently holding sway in that region. Crucifixion is thought to have begun with the Persians. In the year 519 BC, the Persian Emperor Darius I is reported to have crucified 3000 of his Babylonian political opponents. Nearly 200 years later, Alexander the Great is reputed to have executed 2000 survivors from his siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre, in modern day Lebanon. Crucifixion was taken up by the Romans with gusto, perhaps the most famous example being the crucifixion of 6000 survivors of the army of the slave rebel Spartacus along the 120 miles of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. The Christian Emperor Constantine out of deference to its most famous victim eventually abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire.

In the ancient world, crucifixion, as well as being grisly, was widely regarded as a particularly degrading form of execution, usually reserved for slaves convicted of robbery or rebellion, hence Spartacus' followers. According to NT and other authority, before the crucifixion, the victim was scourged, involving significant blood loss, often inducing a state of shock. The victim was then required to carry the transverse beam (known as the patibulum) to the place of execution, where he would be nailed to the cross through the hands and feet, from which a wooden peg protruded to support the body. Crucifixion was particularly reviled by Jews who regarded as accursed anybody killed hanging on a tree. This is what made Jesus' crucifixion a 'stumbling block' or scandal for Jews, as well as 'foolishness' for Greeks.
Therefore, what precisely has Jesus in mind when he exhorts his disciples: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?" What precisely is Jesus demanding of his disciples here? What is Jesus demanding of us? What possible connection has this apparently extraordinary demand with the daily lives we lead?

Some focus on the absolute or unqualified nature of the discipleship demanded, admittedly encouraged by the verses that follow the exhortation, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it".

However, what do these stringent verses amount to in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves?

There is danger is that they can encourage a kind of 'grand gesture' discipleship. This focuses on the particular form discipleship takes rather than the content of that discipleship. We might, for example, move to the inner city in order to live and serve there, or undertake missionary work abroad, or choose to embrace to the monastic life, or, dare I say it, enter into ordained ministry of one sort or another. Of course, God could very well call us to these forms of life, and of course, these forms of life can entail real sacrifices and forms of self-denial.

Another danger is that these verses can be understood as an encouragement to self-abnegation of a destructive kind. For example, you might think that in order to be a true disciple, you must be prepared to put up with unacceptable or unreasonable behaviour: "it's the cross I have to bear, you know".

I don't think that embracing a particular form of life or a particular for of martyrdom is where the real challenge of discipleship lies. The challenge that Jesus throws down is finer-grained than that? We need to ask ourselves, what kind of denial is involved here? What kind of Cross is Jesus asking us to take up, in order then to follow him?

Self-denial is not, in my view a mortification of the self or the flesh. Self-denial is principally about discipline, focus and commitment. When you commit yourself to a person, or a task, you foreclose all the other opportunities that might otherwise have been open to you. Take marriage for example. Have you ever thought of marriage as a form of self-denial? Marriage vows are closely associated with monastic vows with their emphasis on chastity ("forsaking all others"), poverty ("for richer, for poorer", "all that I have I give to you, all that I am I share with you"), and stability ("till death us do part). Self-denial, in this context, isn't so much about "giving things up". Rather, it means a spiritual discipline or training in which we discern our higher priorities and submit our lower ones in service of their service.

To take up our Cross is not simply to imitate Jesus' death, to follow a tramline to Calvary. It also means imitating him in his life and mission. As disciples, God's calls us to his work of implementing his kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness in the particular life circumstances within which you find yourselves

There is a great deal you can do to that end right where you are. For example, you can stand up for somebody who is being mistreated at work. You can complain to your local MP about the fecklessness of government policy towards persecuted minorities, including Christians, in the Middle East. You can be a reconciler between friends who have fallen out. These may sound very ordinary, but they are meant to There are as many ways to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and to follow Jesus as there are individuals. Because our particular situations and concerns are unique to us.

Promoting God's kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness right where you are can be a very costly business. in extremis, it can cost you your job, your friendships, and perhaps even your freedom. As disciples, we are called to a holy non-conformity. This is the force of the extraordinary exchange between Jesus and Peter, whom Jesus calls 'Satan' and a 'stumbling block'. And extraordinary reversal. Peter wanted to reduce his Messiah-ship to what was popularly expected, and subverting it entirely in the process. Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, but it is for this world and as disciples, we have a crucial role to play in transforming it.


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