To Take Up the Cross

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Mark 8:34-38
34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 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.”

This passage in Mark, is one of my favorites. I have mulled it over for many years, coming to different interpretations as I have grown in my ability to understand scripture and matured in my spiritual life. As a result, I have come to the belief it is an important passage because in it lies a key to understanding our veneration of the cross and what Jesus has called us to be.

I am a member of the Westar Institute, a group of theology scholars who study the scripture to find our theological history and discover the true words of Jesus, often called the Jesus Seminar. Not that I do any of that, but I do attend meetings and follow the findings of those who are much better scholars than I am. This past March I attended a lecture by Dr. Arthur J. Dewey at Westar’s Spring Meeting. Dr. Dewey’s lecture was on how the Death of Jesus was remembered. His studies of the crucifixion added a new piece to my understanding of the paradox of the cross. In fact, it changed the way I interpret Jesus’ death on the cross.

First, we must remember Jesus was Jewish, he was not Christian, he was not a Roman, and he wasn’t a gentile of any kind. What He was, was a good, a very good, practicing Jew. And, he knew the meaning of the cross. In the Roman world the cross was a tool of execution for those who defied Rome in some way. It was an instrument of humiliation, torture, and a means to wipe the condemned-out of memory, out of history. After all who would want to admit they knew or were related to someone who died on the cross.

Jesus knew all that, because wherever he went he would have seen the cross with its victims hanging from its arms, big billboards that said; ‘stay in line or this will happen to you.’ Jesus knew if he preached a radicle way of life, a life that would completely change how we live in the world, he would die on that cross. Oh yes, Jesus understood. The Gospel writers knew because they wrote their Gospels to give courage to those who risked their lives by following The Way.

Throughout our church history we have been taught Jesus’ death on the cross is our salvation. We are saved from sin if we believe Jesus died for us on the Roman cross. We are told if we bear our troubles with bravery, confess our sins, and accept that Jesus took those sins away by dying on the cross we will be saved from Hell and its horrors. It is in the power of the cross to save us. What if I told you that is most likely not what Jesus meant?

It is believed Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke copied Mark for their Gospels. What I first found interesting in each of the versions is that Jesus is telling the disciples and the crowd if they want to follow him they must take up a cross, embrace the cross. And, if they denied him and tried to save their lives, they would end up losing their life.

My first inkling that there is more to the scripture than we have normally understood was when I realized that in the synoptic Gospels Jesus doesn’t carry his cross to Golgotha, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service the minute Jesus is escorted out of the Roman Garrison. In addition, there is a fifth Gospel not included in our cannon, which we have only fragments of, the Gospel of Peter. Fortunately, what did survive was the Passion of Jesus. Dewy and John Dominic Crossan both believe that the Gospel of Peter was written before Mark and represents the earliest beliefs of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They also believe Mark used the Gospel of Peter in writing his Gospel. As the Gospel of Peter tells it, when Jesus is led from the Garrison he is made to ‘run’ to the place of the cross and if he is running he could not have been carrying the heavy beam he was to be nailed to. Mark, and subsequently in Matthew and Luke, follow Peter by not having Jesus carry the cross. So, if in these 4 gospels Jesus doesn’t actually “take up” his own cross what are we supposed to do with the cross? What is the meaning Jesus is trying to make?

Jesus was a teaching a radicle way of life, one that had the power to transform peoples lives and the entire world, if only his disciples were brave enough to follow him. Charles Hambrick-Stowe says:” There is no great theological meaning in martyrdom for an ideal or in death that otherwise results from force, injustice, misunderstanding, or accident.” If the cross doesn’t mean, we will be saved because we carry our burdens like a cross or die because we believe it brings our salvation then it must mean something else.
Ched Myers, in Binding the Strong Man, a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, offers 3 meanings that have changed how I understand the cross.

1) “deny yourself;” This isn’t a call to spiritual reflection, this is a call to stand in court, accused of sedition, and not saving yourself from death. It is not denying Jesus, but our own self-denial, we willingly risk our own lives. And, to save our lives we must lose it in the name of Jesus and the Gospel.

This isn’t a self-emptying, this isn’t a spiritual awakening, it is taking up the “cross” and walking to yours and my crucifixion to right injustice. This is not a theological understanding, rather this is a radicle political stand where we put ourselves between the other and danger. It is being in a court of law and given the choice of saving your life or going to the gallows in the name of Jesus. Jesus puts this in economic terms. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but loses his soul.” To renounce Jesus in or to try to redeem one’s life would be a “bad investment”; for even if it showed a ‘return’ of the whole world, it wouldn’t represent a profit; rather it would be a dead loss; double-jeopardy; fidelity to Jesus has no price.; Everyone has a ‘price,’ everyone that is except Jesus. Jesus revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to follow Jesus will risk the test of loyalty under interrogation by state authorities. If self is denied, the cross will be taken up, a metaphor for capital punishment on grounds of insurgency.

2) “take up the cross;” “here Mark’s subversive narrative bursts into the open.” This is a political statement, there is only one purpose for the cross and that is public execution and the total humiliation of its victims. The way Mark writes this phrase is to invite the disciples and those who follow Jesus to share the consequences of the audacity of challenging Roman authority. The Cross symbolizes shame for the convicted and his family. It served the purpose of wiping out the person from memory. Mark’s readers would have understood the implication of Jesus’ words. They would have seen people on the cross, some, if not most, would have had family members or acquaintances crucified. The cross isn’t a representation of salvation, it is symbol of resistance.

3) “follow me;” To follow Jesus means a self-denial that puts our earth-bound lives at risk while saving our souls. This isn’t by being pious, rather it is by getting down and dirty in the trenches of Justice. When we take up a cross it only appears to be a defeat, a triumph of government and their supporters, but actually it is our vindication and their Judgment. We either stand with Jesus, deny ourselves and loose our lives for his sake and the gospel’s or we stand “ashamed” before Jesus and “the angels.” By resisting our fear of losing our lives and pursuing the kingdom of God even at the cost of death, we are contributing to the shattering of the powers’ who reign death over us.

The faith we profess is not a faith of inaction, Jesus told his disciples he didn’t come to bring peace he came to bring a sword. That sword is our bodies standing for the defenseless and speaking and writing for speechless.

These passages in Mark, Matthew, and Luke are not calls of salvation, they are calls to action. We are called to stand between the victims and victimizer. We are called to defend what is right and resist injustice, hate, and cruelty all in the name of Jesus. Jesus knew death on the cross was inevitable, but he did not deny his Father, he refused to back down when it came to overcoming injustice. That is what the call of the cross means. We hold the cross up as a symbol of fighting against injustice, stand for compassion, love, and mercy. The symbol of the cross in today’s world is not passé nor is standing between the voiceless and accuser. Today people are arrested for trying to protect immigrant children and their parents. They are defending women, immigrants, members of LBGTQ community and people of color who are under attack. People are lifting up their voices in a chorus demanding that our rights be preserved. You are those people, I know many of you have marched, spoken up, and cared, for the defenseless. We are a community that has heard the call and have responded, young or old we stand up to be counted.

Today, our world continues to be torn apart by those who would have us believe that the defenseless have no rights, we must continue to choose to take up our own crosses, in whatever way we are able to. We must be willing to defend the undefended, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, provide homes for the homeless, and welcome the strangers who come to us. To spread the word that injustice has no part in our world by writing, speaking, marching, and screaming if we must. We must act despite opposition by those who in denying Jesus and his call continue to harm the defenseless and the voiceless and dismember the freedoms we have gained over in 250 years.

Jesus did not teach us a faith of only contemplation, it is also a faith of rebellion. None of this is an easy choice to make, but choosing the radicle life Jesus lays out for us has never been easy, otherwise our world would be a very different place. In the last 2000 years only a few have had the courage to accept that challenge. All of them met death knowing they were faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

We too have challenges to accept and while we won’t me hung on a cross, and hopefully not face physical death, we could be destroyed financially or socially. The good news is every time someone accepts that challenge we get closer to be the community we were meant to be. Yes, contemplation is very important, without it we would be unable to hear God and Christ give us the strength to carry on. But contemplation without action is a withdrawal from the world, of saving only ourselves and a denial of the ministry given to us.

Ruth Jewell, ©August 8, 2018, To Take Up The Cross is adapted from a Sermon I preached at Queen Anne Christian Church, July 15, 2018

Dewey, Arthur J.; Inventing the Passion, how the death of Jesus was Remembered, Polebridge Press, Salem OR, 2017
Myers, Ched; Binding the Strong Man, a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2008, 20th anniversary edition

BEGINNINGS

Photo by Anders Jildén, Stockholm, Sweden, an Unsplash photo
Photo by Anders Jildén, Stockholm, Sweden, an Unsplash photo

Matins, night

darkest night when fear slides in
lost, lost I have lost the way
fear fills me, all hope has flown
death’s grim voice speaks,
“better to die than face your fear alone.”
has it come so far? Is my life worth anything?
how often have I screamed into the night, “WHY,
why, help me, have mercy, DAMN IT
do you hear me,
hear me before I surrender to the dark, surrender
to the dark

can I take my own life? Yes,
yes I can for in this darkest night it is only death
who welcomes me with open arms,
“come I will take you to where there is no fear,
no darkness, come, let’s end those fears, end your terror filled life” . . .
. . . DAWN BREAKS
out of the light of dawn God speaks,
“I will walk with you out of the darkness,
take my hand.”

Lauds, dawn

I was falling, falling, now caught, held,
lifted up, restored, re-membered, reborn into life
I am awakened to new light a new day, fresh,
never before seen or tasted
ah . . . to be held
in the arms of God,
to feel safe after terror
there is no description of the sweetness,
delight, astonishment at the dawn of re-birth,
to be resurrected by sacred love
for as sure as the crocus pokes its head through
the cold earth each spring, I have been embraced by the light
of dawn, warm golden light, green
growing light, giving new hope, new life, once dead
now tasting the first sweet breath of air

Terce, mid-morning

mornings . . . clean slate, fresh, calm, empty
of the past and filled with
promise of the future
mornings . . . opportunities not yet seen, waiting
to unfold, challenges to grow on
knowledge to gain, to be rolled in,
gathered in and absorbed,
time to learn the tools of life
so begins the journey
I put on my cloak of courage, and
grab my staff of knowledge
learn to walk with new legs, see
with new eyes, hear with new ears, touch
and be touched, revel
in the new sensations that run up my spine
discover new ways of being holy, of being with the holy.
learn to share newly given grace,
grace given you over and over
received over and over, a gift
given again and again
see the world as I have never seen it
bright with vibrant colors, sparkling
waters, perfumed air . . . learn to spread
my wings and fly on the breath of God

Sext, noon

to walk full of energy, riding
the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster,
work that leaves arms tired, eyes drooping
taking what life has given me and
give back, sharing the graces of
knowledge, faith, love, and justice
using the joys of success as
nourishment and the tears of failure
as water to grow new grace
life upon life, all mixed
up with trials and joys that strengthen
and grow more life

None, mid-afternoon

Joy in a life being well lived
yet learning to let go of those
dreams limited by age, health, and time
no sadness (well maybe a little, transitions are hard after all),
joy at guiding the other beginning life’s journeys
learning it’s ok to let others
run the show, to lead
Oh I’m not done yet, I still
have work to do, things to accomplish
now is my time to be the encourager, the
mentor, the teacher of life’s lessons, to
teach others to lead
Now is my time to find
my peace with who I was, who
I have become and who I will yet be

again the Spirit takes my hand and
leads me on my journey

Vespers, evening

ah, to kick back, to
let go, to relax, day’s
work is done, time to sort
those old memories that
have piled up in my head
to find there a stillness
a being and . . . letting
stillness come in and fill my being
time to pass the torch to those more
able than I, those with more energy,
more time, more life
my place is cheerleader, advisor
and kisser of bumped knees
I am the repository
of life’s joys and sorrows
the keeper of the tales of
adventure and miss-adventure, all to
be passed on so the old ones
will not be forgotten

Compline, night

night, the time of endings, conclusions, laying down to rest
the memories of past loves, fears, angers, joys, and conflicts fade into the darkness
only one light now shines with a blinding brightness
I reach with one hand back in, to
the fading darkness of this life, and
with the other hand I reach out into . . .
the unknown light.
I am torn between leaving and staying,
I am between two worlds, my . . .
fingers slip through the hands of those I love

but, the time has come to be whole again
My time in this place is done, time
to let go, time to lead the way
one . . . last . . . time.
I have no regrets as this life fades,
the past made me who I am
and I am satisfied
the chrysalis of this life is breaking apart,
the butterfly is ready to emerge,
to spread her wings and fly

Ruth Jewell, ©July 2016

GOD SAID

Sunrise, Edmonds WA September 2, 2013 Ruth Jewell
Sunrise, Edmonds WA
September 2, 2013
Ruth Jewell

I have been trying to make sense of the events of the last week. The deaths of two black men at the hands of the police, the Dallas Police targeted and killed, and the bombings in Iraq and Turkey. And, just today a new shooting in Michigan. My heart is filled with sadness and tears and I could only cry out to God “Where Are YOU.”

“God where were you . . .
when suicide bombers chose to end their lives and take the innocent with them?
Where were you when 29 men and woman
enjoying a night out were used as target practice?
Where are you when cops shoot people,
when people shoot people,
when cops are targeted,
When people die, the good and the bad?”

God where are you . . .
when we are filled with emptiness by shooting after shooting,
when bombings and assaults become common place?
Where are you when we turn the news on and
another child has died, another cop is killed,
another person of color, differing abilities, or characteristics is assaulted or killed?”

“Why Oh God do you not answer?”

God said “I am there . . .
Holding the bodies as they bleed,
I am there leading the survivors’ out of danger.
I am there, holding the victim’s family’s in my arms
I am there in the broken hearts of witnesses, law enforcement.”

“When the darkness is greatest
I will sit with you, and listen to your sorrows,
I will hold you in my arms when you are weary.”
All I can do is lead the dying home to my arms,
to comfort those left behind, if they let me.”

“When pain and grief grip you
I will be there to tell you everything will be alright.
When you scream into the night,
I will come and comfort you,
I will dry your tears, and wrap you in my embrace.”

“I will be there when you are weary and in pain,
I will be there to lift you up, and comfort you,
All you have to do is call”.

God said, “I cry when you do not hear my voice, and
I cannot stop you from harming each other,
that choice is yours alone.

“All I can do is encourage each of you to stand up for justice and mercy.
All I can do is hope your hearts will soften
and let the love I have for each of you awaken your love for each other.
All I can do is wait for you to choose the path of justice, mercy, love and peace
between your selves and all that is created.”

God says “I gave you the choice of right or wrong,
It is up to you to choose. I will not make that choice for you
nor will I force you to choose one path over another!”

“You asked for freedom, it is your responsibility to choose.
Choose to use that freedom wisely.”

Ruth Jewell ©, July 11, 2016

 

To Be a Blessing – Prayerful Tuesday

Be generous: invest in acts of charity.
Don’t hoard your goods; spread them around.
Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night.
— Ecclesiastes 11:1a, 2, The Message

Mom and Pippin, 1988 bMy Mother 1988
Steven F Austin St. Park, TX
©Ruth Jewell, 2016

A recent meditation had the following journal question “If you knew you were dying what would you write or say to your children or grandchildren?”  That question stopped me cold.  What would I say to grandson and granddaughter, Liam and Amelia?  How would I describe my love, and fears, for them?  How would I tell them of my life lived with my own loves, fears, and regrets? What would I say, what would you say?

During this Easter season I have been writing about the ways we express our feelings of the resurrection, and the many ways we witness to others our faith in the resurrection.  Sharing ourselves with the next generation is also a witness to our beliefs in the resurrection. The question above is an important one, challenging us to inspect our past and present lives and how that information could impact the lives that follow us.  I thought long and hard about what I would, will, say to my grandchildren and all of it wasn’t bright flowers and sunshine.

What might say, well I would of course tell them I love them very much, how grateful I am for having them in my life, and I will miss them.  I would ask for their forgiveness in my part for leaving them a world that is wounded and in pain, and a political system that doesn’t function.  I would tell them that no matter what they do in life their parents and I would always love them from wherever we are.  While their future is impacted by the world I leave behind it is still their future to make into what ever dream they reach for.  Following those dreams may not be easy, or always fun, but are worth the effort if they truly believe in them.  I would also tell them it is OK that they don’t believe in the Divine as I do, but, discovering their own pathway to something greater than themselves is important in finding their moral, loving, compassionate lives.  I would want them to stand up against injustice even when it is hard to do so, to see the good in people and all creation even when the night is darkest.  I want them to climb their most difficult mountains and to not be afraid of the challenges because I will be right there beside them cheering them on. I want my grandchildren to be fearless in the face adversity, to be strong when everyone else is weak, and to be gentle when touched by beauty.

What I want most for my beloved Liam and Amelia is to live a life that is not self-centered but other-centered. I want them to live a life that sees the best in the worst, the beauty in the ugly, and love in what is hatred.  I can’t leave them with much but when I make my final passage from this world to the next I want them to know I cared about them, and want them to be the best at whatever they want to be.

So that is some of what I would tell my grandchildren, what would be in your letter to your children?  We live in and uncertain world and we never know when our last day in this world will arrive.  We all too often leave too much unsaid to those we love the most.  So my journal question to you this week is: “If you knew you were dying what would you write or say to your children or grandchildren?”

May you find the words in your heart for those you leave behind.

Ruth Jewell, ©April 26, 2016