Reading Mark 8:27-end
Preacher Reverend Neil Summers
A cartoon on the front of a birthday card I saw was a witty send-up of the kind of jargon that can often typify the business and commercial world. It depicted two businessmen sitting in a bar, one clearly very despondent. Picture the scene: the unhappy one says to his companion, ‘I was on the cutting edge. I pushed the envelope. I did the heavy lifting. I was the rainmaker. Then suddenly it all crashed when I ran out of metaphors.’
Metaphors: They clearly play a significant role in our lives, don’t they – not just as linguistic tools, but much more besides. Metaphors shape our thinking, convey philosophy, and even express theological concepts. Of course, metaphors are not simply a modern communication phenomenon. In fact, they are probably as old as human language. Jesus himself frequently used parables for teaching, and parables are really extended metaphors – engaging, symbolic stories that made people think and often challenged the status quo. Metaphors were prevalent in Jesus’ descriptions of himself: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ ‘I am the light of the world.’ And he also tells us about the pearl of great price, the wheat and the tares, and the house built on shifting sand. Unlike the businessman in the cartoon, Jesus never seemed to run out of metaphors.
Not surprisingly, across the centuries, disputes have arisen about metaphorical language in the Bible. Is it really justifiable to take the language of the Bible metaphorically, or does reverence for the texts require us to understand them as literally as possible? It’s a controversy of real importance, I think, because what is conveyed in the biblical language is so significant to those who endeavour to follow Jesus: we naturally want to discern what it might mean for us. How about this example from today’s Gospel: ‘If any want to become my followers,’ Jesus says, ‘let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ As one commentator has said, ‘The cross in Jesus’ day was not a logo or a metaphor…The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss and death. It was a real weapon: the only way to, ‘take it up,’ was to become its real victim.’
When Jesus picked up his cross, it was to set himself against the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities, against the ideology that oppressed and shackled God’s people, and against everything that hindered the breaking-in of what Jesus termed the kingdom of God. He picked up the cross to go to his death – literally. But when the writer of Mark’s Gospel related Jesus’ teachings on the matter, we see that something new was slipping into the meaning and the implication of bearing the cross, because as Jesus told it, every one of his followers must bear a cross. Does that therefore mean that every one of Jesus’ followers will face his same cruel and tragic death?
Well, in Mark’s day the threat of crucifixion was still there. As this Gospel was being written some forty or so years after Jesus’ death, conflict was everywhere. Social, political and religious instability were inescapable: Rome was appointing a new Caesar after Nero’s death; the temple in Jerusalem was under siege and soon to be destroyed; while Jews were divided over whether to comply with their Roman occupiers or rise up against them. And the fledgling band of Jesus’ followers was caught in the middle: their beliefs neither persuaded them to fight Rome nor encouraged them to support it. Neighbourhoods were divided; families were divided. It was a difficult, desperate, and dangerous time. Sound familiar? I know we often highlight the differences between the New Testament context and our own – and rightly so – but some of the issues that confront us today seem to tell us that, fundamentally, there’s nothing much new under the sun. Because today we, too, face political instability in and between nations; and a growing refugee and migrant crisis; and the persecution of religious minorities – not least Christians in lands where the faith has its origins; and various moral and ethical dilemmas which divide religious and secular people alike, such as the ‘right to die’ debate in Parliament last Friday.
This line from Mark’s Gospel about bearing the cross reminded Jesus’ very early band of followers of the very literal potential of the cross to take life. Depending on the choices they made, indeed, it might take theirs. But there is another side of this coin in the Christian philosophy, for the faith tradition and the Scriptures also speak of the cross, paradoxically, in terms of an unexpected means not of loss, but of gain. In the Christian understanding, the burden, pain and suffering of the cross is not where the story ends, for it turns into an unlikely means of new life and new hope. Incredibly, a source of loss and defeat becomes a source of gain and victory.
Until recently, we would have been relieved and grateful to say the cross is no longer employed as the Romans used it in Jesus’ day to put insurrectionists and opponents to their literal death. Yet, in very recent history, we find crucifixion rejuvenated in the persecutions of the 21st century world, along with brutal beheadings. What we thought we had consigned to the world of metaphor has reverted, tragically, to a literal reality.
Thankfully, this will not be the reality for most of us, though we must pray for those who literally face both the threat and the act of execution in the modern world. But for all of us in the Christian tradition, the cross remains – thankfully metaphorically – powerful and formative. If I were to ask you if the cross still had its uses for your life, what would you say? In our context, at this time, perhaps we can interpret the cross to be the place of our ultimate transformation…a place to hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness, our prejudice, our greed, and then let them die, so that something more eternally good and grace-filled and Christ-like may be given life. What, I wonder, would you and I hang on such a cross today? Is there something in our lives, our community, our world, that needs to die for something else more gracious, good, and life-giving to come to life?
Think of the hundreds and thousands of Christians who have trusted in the cross’s power to transform things, whether in their own personal hearts and souls, or whether a change was required because of a social condition, a political injustice, or a national disgrace. Let’s make no mistake. Such cross-bearers often carry a heavy, heavy load, as they take their crosses up to follow Jesus. But they have done it, time and again, with the sure and certain conviction that the potential and the power of the cross that burst into the world when Jesus first shouldered it is now accessible to every one of his followers. The cross is now our means to grasp and give life to the transformative power which is capable of making God’s kingdom more fully present among us.
Jesus carried his cross, literally. And his followers have been required to shoulder theirs ever since – albeit metaphorically in most cases – in those things that are most deadly in our lives. Coincidentally, tomorrow in the church calendar is known as Holy Cross Day, when we recall that the cross became the universal symbol for Christianity. It must be admitted that the church, historically, has sometimes used (abused?) the cross to induce guilt and self-hatred, and to justify judgement and punishment, rather than seeing it as a symbol of God’s love and mercy, and God’s ability to bring life out of death. Not many of us, thank God, expect literally to feel its crushing weight or bear its splinters in our hands, but there are times when we must metaphorically bear our own cross. It is part of the deal of being human in the world, and it reflects a faith that inescapably has desolation and pain at its very heart. But if we are authentically to be ‘Jesus people’, it will not be an end in itself, a symbol only of defeat and death. Because the cross is not the end of the Jesus story: it is, above all, a symbol of transformation from those things that lead only towards death towards those that bring us to new life.