Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me!

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me!
Shared Word, Community of St. Martin. 3/12/06 by Steve Clemens

Mark 8: 31-38
Jesus began to teach them that the Human One must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. Jesus spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

Jesus summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny oneself, take up ones cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save ones life will lose it, but whoever loses ones life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit ones life? What could one give in exchange for ones life?

Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."

It is interesting that this same text is almost identical in all three synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all saw this passage as essential to the understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught.

I wonder what Pat Robertson has to say about this text today? After publicly calling for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this summer, we should note that this is NOT a call to arms but rather a call to risky nonviolent discipleship. Ever since Constantine took up the cross and proclaimed “in this sign we conquer”, some Christians have grabbed the cross by the top and sharpened the bottom to a point to make it into a sword.

I’m reminded of the old sign they used to have at the entrance to Fort Benning in the 90’s when we gathered there for the witness against the SOA- it was a dagger shaped like a cross, placed on a shield with words above it: Follow Me! In the 1980’s a small group of candlelight vigilers would take a second sign which we placed next to it which was the identical shape, size, and color but had a cross instead of a dagger. Above both signs we placed a larger inscription: CHOOSE.

My Dad has part of this scripture printed on his personal checks – the part where it says ‘for what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? I can tell you that made an impression on me as I was growing up. It was one of the ways my dad “witnessed” his faith. Of course the word witness in the Greek comes from the word we today use for martyr so it, in spirit, is close to Jesus command to “take up one’s cross” and follow him. The Anabaptists used the German word Natchfolge as a central element in their understanding of the Gospel. Natchfolge meant to “follow after”. It was how the Anabaptists defined “discipleship”. When Jesus stated: If anyone wishes to come after me, Jesus means to “follow me” … or it could mean if anyone wants to come along with me. If anyone wishes – it is something one chooses to do.

Deny oneself
When the Early Christians were arrested, they were tempted to “deny Christ” to save their lives. Polycarp, among others, was given the choice to denounce Jesus and live - or be brutally executed.

Feminist theologians have wrestled with this and other texts which have been used to keep women subservient and to endure suffering. Women have frequently been told to “deny their very selves”, especially in relationship to men in the Patriarchy of both the church and society. In today’s society, the basic unit of society is the individual self. However, when Jesus spoke his “deny yourself”, it was understood more likely as renouncing one’s kinship unit. Other Gospel passages about taking up one’s cross include the admonition “whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Denying oneself could mean to be willing to leave the comfort and security of one’s kinship unit.

This is one of the texts that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to talk about “the cost of discipleship.” Bonhoeffer talked about the difference between cheap grace and costly grace, citing frequently Jesus’ call to “take up the cross and follow me.”

Clarence Jordan, founder of the Koinonia Farm Community used to speak around the country. Once, in the early 60’s he was proudly shown around a large church facility with a fountain serving as the baptismal fount. Then the person giving the tour proudly pointed to the steeple and boasted “We paid $10,000 for that cross!” Clarence wryly responded, “Use ‘to be Christians could get one of them crosses for free!”

Luke’s version adds “daily” to the admonition to take up the cross. Some preachers have used the cross as a metaphor for dealing with inconveniences, sickness, having to put up with a nasty co-worker, … But the Gospel writers are not lumping all “suffering” together or even self-sacrificing in these texts because taking up one’s cross refers only to one specific type of suffering. For Jesus and his disciples, the cross was a cruel reality, not just a metaphor. The equivalent today would be to “strap yourself into the electric chair” if you want to follow me.

Jesus is saying, let the disciples take up the position of someone already condemned to death, carrying the crossbeam of ones cross to the place of execution. In those days, the upright pole of the cross was often reused many times – the crossbar is what the condemned would carry to the place of execution.

Paul picks up this theme when he writes in Galatians 2:20:
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
For Paul, in the act of baptism, one is symbolically “dying” (being crucified) and when one is raised up from the water, the life we now have is by God’s grace. In baptism we are choosing our own death.

Dan Berrigan comments that when one has voluntarily given up one’s life (in the act of baptism and confession of faith), there is nothing the STATE can do to threaten you – they can put you in jail but you are already dead. The state can’t kill you if you’ve already acceded to that - so one is now no longer in fear of the state’s ultimate sanction. And that is the power of Christian nonviolence. Yes, it is costly – it is not cheap grace. But it is also powerful enough to turn the world upside right.

Ched Myers writes about this passage in Binding the Strong Man – This is the central paradox of the Gospel. The threat to punish by death is the bottom line of the power of the state; fear of this threat keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history. To concede the state’s sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life. … Jesus has revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to “come after him” will have to identify themselves with his subversive program. The stated risk is that the disciple will face 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.

I want to share an article from a friend of mine from the Open Door Community in Atlanta:

Persecution As a Mark of Discipleship. By Ed Loring. Hospitality. Feb. 2006

There are a number of notae, or marks, of the Church. If these marks are missing, so is the gospel. There are ways to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in the congregant life of a confessing people. Persecution is a necessary mark of the Church of Jesus Christ. Without persecution, we know that the congregation has dropped the cross and is living in collusion with the idols of death and with the domination system that killed Jesus and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; bombed Koinonia Partners, burned Black Churches, and threw a rock through a stained glass window of Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta.

Mark is clear as he is concrete:
Then Peter spoke up, .Look, we have left everything and followed you...”Yes,” Jesus said to them, “and I tell you that anyone who leaves home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the gospel, will receive much more in this present age. They will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, and persecutions as well; and in the age to come they will receive eternal life. But many who now are first will be last, and many who now are last will be first.” (Good News Bible)

In the basic outline of the Christian life, the Beatitudes, Jesus gives two out of nine of his blessings to those who are persecuted. He did this because his life was filled with conflict, rejection, bad-mouthing, and death threats all the time. He and his followers were pursued people, and Jesus knew of the necessary rent that had to be paid to live in the household of faith. Only centuries later did domestication replace persecution as a fundamental mode of the powers to keep the truth in a vessel of lies.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness. sake, for theirs is the Beloved Community.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (NSRV)

Without persecution, the truth becomes distorted, a half-truth. Without persecution, the Christian Church becomes like the Kiwanis Club. Without persecution, the hard road toward a narrow door becomes an 18-hole golf course: gated, segregated, and protected by moonlighting former Marines who are now minimum-wage-earning security guards.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who has taught me much, sees an irony of history in that much of human struggle and accomplishment contains the seeds of evil, or at least the unintended consequences of loss and negation.

The loss of community experienced in African American life, for instance, is a sad and unintended result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There is no argument here that we should return to Jim Crow or that the Civil Rights Act should not have been passed. I worked for its passage. But as the African American community becomes more like mainstream America, it is useful to ask, “How did this happen?” The Civil Rights Act mitigated the experience of persecution of African Americans. Truer for those with money, education, and bits and shreds of privilege; but shaping for all.

No longer did an African American need the unity of community for the simple acts of the Works of Mercy. Now the market, not human relationships, offered the choices. For instance, with interstate travel, Blacks could stop and eat wherever they could afford it. No need to go out of the way to eat with relatives, friends, or make arrangements through Church connections for a meal and a shower eight hours from home. No need for the pastor or deacon to help guide the travelers to a home where they could spend the night, as Quakers had done for Harriet Tubman and her fugitive bands of runaway slaves. Need to pee? Defecate? No need to stop and ask for Hospitality; just pull over at the gas station or the rest stop and pee for free with dignity!

The money economy replaced the need for community, as persecution of Black folk was mitigated as they traveled the American highways. The role of pastor, church, women’s clubs, homes, and visiting all diminished with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The binding needs, Hospitality, and institutions - purified by fire, hate, lynching, and Jim Crow – began to slip and spin as the unity of community spilled into the mixed waters of mainline America. The Rock of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Church and the Black Family, were less viable as Blacks, like Jesus, moved from persecution to domestication. From the revolution of values to the .I Have a Dream. of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are called, Black and White together, within the circle of faith, to live lives of risk and courage for the Gospel. To stop the war in Iraq. To mitigate human suffering in all of its ways and means. To house the homeless, stop the death penalty, free 87% of our prisoners. We are to pick up our cross, which means to accept persecution and follow Jesus, The Human One, into conflict, persecution and suffering - such is the
rent for the joy and goodness of a shared life in the household of faith which heals and sets us free.

(Eduard-the-Agitator Loring is a partner at the Open Door Community)

Where do we see people taking up the cross today?
On Thursday, the FBI identified the body of Tom Fox of CPT in a trash dump in Baghdad, Iraq. Yet while he and three other CPTers were still missing, Michele Obed-Naar left her family in Duluth to join the team in Baghdad. She is taking up the cross to follow.

Jacob Reitan joined a group of young people on a current-day Freedom Ride, going to so-called Christian campuses around the nation to let them know that God loves gay and lesbian people- even though those colleges have banned openly-affirming GLBT students. He now faces a possible 6-month sentence for trespassing at Jerry Falwell’s college in VA. He has taken up a cross in his attempt to follow.

Taking up a “cross” might be seen when an introverted college professor takes up what others sarcastically or cynically say is a quixotic attempt to unseat an incumbent Member of Congress from his own political party because of his strong belief that the present war and occupation of Iraq is both wrong-headed as well as immoral. This risky behavior could be the taking up of the cross in an attempt to live out his commitment to follow the nonviolent Jesus.

81-year old Delmar Schwaller will report for his 2 month prison sentence during Holy Week this April for his trespass at the School of the Americas. This WWII vet has been a city council member in Appleton, WI for 10 years and has repeatedly traveled to Nicaragua to help build schools and hospitals there. He said at his trial,
"I have listened to those who have been tortured, held captive, and witnessed friends murdered. I have also read many accounts of these horrendous acts. I have lived with, talked with, and helped to alleviate some of this pain people have suffered when I do volunteer work in Central America, especially Nicaragua. My conscience tells me it is right and just, almost compelling me to act. In the year 2000 I was arrested, processed, and released with a five-year ban from entering Fort Benning. This year the five years are up and after long years of witness, prayer, and thought I crossed the line and entered the Fort Benning military base again. I have no regrets. It was the right thing to do. Pax Christi."
Is Delmar taking up a cross to follow his Lord?

Let’s take a little time to reflect on what ways we are challenged to take up the cross today- share out loud if you wish.