Excruciating discipleship #Goodfriday?

Sieger Köder ‘Simon of Cyrene’

When Jesus turned to the crowds who were flocking to hear his teachings and receive healing and hope and said

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[1]

he was, in no uncertain terms, letting them know that his teachings and way of life would bring them into direct conflict with imperial systems of control (at the time this was represented by the Roman empire), which would cause them unimaginable suffering.

So what did the cross represent?

The cross was not a form of punishment used by the Jews, but rather a feature of the occupying Roman imperial legal order. Punishment by crucifixion was a capital punishment reserved for slaves, criminals and foreigners and was rarely used against Roman citizens (desertion from the Roman army or treason being notable exceptions). It was an excruciating and shameful way to die. It was also an effective deterrent which terrorised and exhibited the power of the State against those who refused to ‘fall into line’.

There is little doubt that when Jesus chose to speak to his followers of the cross, he was framing the cost of following him in the strongest of terms; our word excruciating comes from the Latin word for crucify. The Romans themselves described crucifixion as “the most cruel and disgusting penalty” (Roman statesman Cicero Verrem 2:5.165) and “the most extreme penalty” (Verrem 2:5.168). The Roman jurist Julius Paulus listed crucifixion as the worst of all capital punishments, ahead of death by burning, death by beheading, or death by the wild beasts, whilst the Jewish historian Josephus described it as the “the most wretched of deaths.”

In short, the cross, in the context in which Jesus spoke, represented becoming an enemy of Rome, punishable by death by imperial law; it meant being regarded as a subversive criminal by those who held the power.

So why did Jesus expect that his followers would face the terror of the Roman cross?

In recent years there has been an escalation in debate around the theological significance of Jesus’ own death on the cross but much less discussion, it seems, on the significance of the cross we are called to encounter in following The Way of Christ; the cross of discipleship.

It is sobering that Jesus spoke about the cross before his own impending crucifixion became obvious. It seems that he saw clearly that there was an unavoidable suffering which would accompany the continued worship[2] of a God of Life under imperial occupation. Imperial Rome offered life on its own terms and often at a price which only the strong or successful could afford; the weak were often marginalised and even criminalised as defective, subversive and suspect in a system which rewarded strength and shows of honour and respect for tradition. In short, he perceived that his teachings were in some part, in direct conflict with the social and legal and religious structures of the Roman Empire.

His would be followers must surely have been terribly shaken by the threat of the Roman cross? It seems that the hope Jesus offered the marginalised inhabitants of occupied Palestine outweighed the threat of suffering; even the excruciating suffering and loss of dignity which the shameful imperial penalty of the cross symbolised.

So Jesus’ gospel message included the promise of affliction and trial. Yes, there was forgiveness and healing and wholeness to be gained by following him…but if we are to be givers and not just takers, our transformational witness to Life in all its fullness will sometimes, if not always require a struggle in the face of opposition to bring that same testimony and sign of hope to others.

For many of us, we are resting easy in the wake of the sacrificial discipleship of those who have gone before us, challenging slavery, injustice and carrying this Easter message of Hope (which I have written about more fully here). Others across the world are encountering the sharp end of resistance and the heavy blows of oppression.

As a family, we all need each other.

[1]  This speech was recorded in 3 of the 4 gospels Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27.

[2] Worship is used here in its fullest sense to include love of God and love of neighbour; a lifestyle which supported Life-affirming, relational community which protected and cared for the vulnerable and weak and in doing so reflected God’s love.

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