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.

Giving up or letting go? Lent reflection on provision, security and power

When I was a small girl I had the privilege of living with my family among a semi-nomadic people group in Brazil. This people group had at one stage decided to ‘give something up’. The rapidly changing and insecure context they found themselves in had led them to choose to give up having children. The tribe was shrinking. They had let go of hope.

Sometimes our contexts seem so dark and lacking in hope; sometimes the pall of injustice which has enshrouded and implicated us all feels so great that we feel like giving up…

For better or for worse, this tribe changed its mind. The children of this tribe are my friends. Together we face the uncertainties of a globally challenging context and it seems to me that we are faced with two choices; either to give up on hope or to let go of fear.

The Christian season of lent, the 40 days which culminate with the celebration of Easter, is marked by many as a time to ‘give something up’. The season invites self-reflection and spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, can play an important role in helping us re-focus on the central message of Jesus-his good news for the poor. Amongst Jesus’ parting words to his followers were these:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34)

Letting go of fear and taking hold of hope…

During Lent this year a number of people in the UK who are concerned about the impact of welfare changes on the lives of vulnerable people in our communities are giving up food for 40 days. Rev. Dr. Keith Hebden shares his own reasons for fasting for 40 days here as his contribution to the UK End hunger Fast campaign.

Letting go of our individual freedom and taking up solidarity with the oppressed…

The Christian discipline of fasting is rooted in the biblical accounts which are themselves rooted in the wider context of ancient cultures, many of which practised fasting. Fasting in the Old Testament often linked the experience of disruption and oppression with the desire for restoration. As a sign of protest and mourning, fasting accompanied by deep reflection, repentance and prayer can be an intentional act of letting go of self-power which engenders humility and trust in God as the Sustainer- Provider.

It is this intentional letting go of self-empowerment which can mark the prophetic fast-for food gives power at its most basic level in the form of energy and strength. Jesus’ own season of preparation in the desert lasted for 40 days and is recorded as a period of total fasting. During these 40 days of fasting Jesus underwent a profound testing of his identity; he was tempted to take up a false (imperial) identity which would secure him on-tap resources, high level security to cover for risk and assure him of power and privilege in the form of a sovereign Lordship like the imperial rulers of his time!  Jesus knew that, if he was going to be effective in bringing ‘good news to the poor’, he needed to let go of the selfish, imaginary identity which relied on self-promoting pride and power. In letting go of these fallen notions of establishing provision,security and power, Jesus emerges from the desert of testing humble and by all accounts, weak; yet there was a new-found strength in his weakness; in letting go of one identity he became free to take up what was genuinely his and in doing so, he became strong.

Letting go of fear of weakness makes us stronger

Letting go of insecure pride makes us stronger.

Letting go of manipulative power to have it our way makes us stronger.

May lent become a time of strengthening of resolve to become hopeful seekers of this humble and bold community of peacemakers.

Easter Shalom: from the Cross to the Wedding Banquet

Sieger Köder Simon of Cyrene

we need that deeper narrative of the Kingdom which requires us to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). The cross symbolises the heart of the character of the King of this Kingdom who was himself the ‘suffering servant’. Jesus brought liberty and healing to others but did not seek to preserve his own life in his contestation for justice and reconciliation for all, because he recognised that self-interest and self-preservation lie at the nexus of the fallen powers which breed fear, pride and selfish ambition. The cross reminds us that change begins in a changed perception of ourselves as agents of a powerful and non-violent resistance to an order manipulated by fallen powers.
These powers thrive simply because few actually do resist them ‘unto death’ (whether literal or metaphorical) with the clear-sighted vision and wisdom of the resurrection power of God’s Kingdom.
The cross opens the way to the hope of resurrection. It represents Christ’s ultimate negation of the fallen powers in their attempt to script his final destiny. Many of us forget that Jesus called us to share in his struggle for justice, which inevitably brings suffering as we take up our own cross. The apostle Peter reminds us that in order for the glory of this just Kingdom to be manifest, we are required to labour and share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). This powerful Kingdom truth could be seen to represent the ultimate Carnivalesque in that it inverts even life and death in the new order of the Kingdom, where those who seek to preserve their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for the sake of this Kingdom will find them restored (Luke 9:24). Where the ‘whitewashed’
tomb of the teachers of the law spoke only of death under the aegis of fallen powers, the tomb under God’s grace is the womb of resurrection life; the old has gone and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, we see that the cross is the ultimate inversion of the present order of reality as it guarantees both our death and resurrection. As such it represents the real hope for a new and enduring Kingdom. This Kingdom is not shaped by the fallen powers, where fear and death are the ultimate predators in the hierarchies of power, but rather, the kenotic power of self-emptying which gives way to resurrection and fullness of life.’

Sieger Köder The Wedding Feast of the Lamb

The banquet brings together the themes already discussed of solidarity and social equality and laughter around a table of plenty; a banquet for the entire world. The banquet is a fitting culmination of the work for justice–plentiful provision in community for all. In her book A Place at the Table: Justice for the poor in a land of plenty, Judith Ann
Brady makes the theme of ‘a place at the table’ a guiding metaphor for achieving justice for the poor and the oppressed. The table represents friendship, provision and nurture and it also represents inclusivity and agency, in that all who sit at the table can join in the conversation and decision-making which flows from that.

For people of faith, working for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, there are two stages of the biblical banquet feast. The first, the Eucharist, anticipates the second, the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). Jesus’ recasting of the Passover feast with his disciples in the lead up to his own death links the justice themes of the people of Israel’s liberation from Egypt with his own work of liberation and justice as King of the new Kingdom and his anticipated culmination of that work on the cross. The Carnival banquet always contains an ‘element of victory and triumph’ which provides the symbolic pause between the celebration and completion of one cycle of labour for justice and the invigorated new beginning of another cycle of labour for justice…Even as we work for his justice and shalom, we need to remind ourselves frequently (‘for as often as you eat this bread and drink this wine’) both of the lament and suffering of the ‘whole of creation which groans’ and of the joy and thankfulness of the freedom we can taste in anticipation.

The Eucharist is truly ‘food and sustenance for the journey’ and, in addition, it marks out and reminds us that there is also material provision in true fellowship. There is a second biblical focus on the banquet theme which is that of the ‘marriage feast of the lamb’ in Revelation 19:6-9. This banquet is the ultimate celebratory closure of all cycles of work for the justice of God’s Kingdom and it acknowledges, interestingly, both the work of Jesus and of all of us who have taken up our cross and followed him:

For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts(1) of God’s holy people)

For the person of faith, the Eucharist is a symbolic feast which celebrates repeated cycles of work for justice in God’s Kingdom. Yet it also points beyond the immediate travail for God’s Kingdom and recognises, in solidarity with ‘all who suffer the pains of childbirth’ (Romans 8:22) that there will come a time when the permanent and outrageous plenty of the wedding feast will replace the transitory nature of the Eucharist feast. This Eucharist itself marks the move beyond slavery to the world’s unjust systems, towards the liberation and laughter of pilgrim communion and feasting. Importantly too, the banquet table also reminds us of the concrete value of our material lives.

The banquet table reminds us to work for the justice of provision of the material well-being for all of humanity, but it also reminds us to open our lives to the hospitality of the Kingdom, which calls us to share so that those who have little have enough and those who have much, have less; the redistribution economics of the Carnival Kingdom which are a powerful reminder of our ultimate place within the context of a human family of faith.

(1) Consider what a righteous act might mean.

[This blog is an excerpt from here from the book Carnival Kingdom ]