Taking Up Our Cross

The challenge to those we teach today is to understand the cross and apply it to our circumstances.

What is a cross?  Its symbolism and meaning are ubiquitous today.  It’s certainly more than an intersection of two lines.  It’s a fashion accessory for many.  We see it in appear in all types of art.  For sure, its a symbol of our faith.  We see placed prominently in Christian churches of all stripes.  We see it used as a memorial and in cemeteries.  Its presence can bring peace and assurance to our life and faith.  But unfortunately, it has also been misused over time as a symbol of intolerance, threat and fear.  Certain “Christian” bodies have used it to signify that their perspective is right and all others best move out of the way. While this is as far from the message of Christ as one can get, it actually is in keeping with the original Roman intent for the cross.

A Roman cross wasn’t a thing of beauty.  It was something to be feared.  It was an instrument the Roman authorities used to establish their rule far beyond Rome as they subdued people and civilizations that stretched as far north as modern day England, as far south as Morocco, and as far east as Iraq.  In doing so, they achieved a span of about 200 years, between 27 BC and 180 AD, which is known as “Pax Romana,” or Roman Peace.  During this time, their empire thrived, intricate roads were built connecting this vast empire and aqueducts carried fresh water into cities and dirty water away.  But the cross may have been one of its most useful instruments.

The cross was a popular method of dispatching threats to the empire. “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion,” says New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, who is with the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Crosses were then used as a way to repress any possible insurrection.  They were usually set up in public places, like at a crossroad, and became a signpost to all who traveled that Caesar and Rome was a power to take seriously.  This cross did not offer people traveling directions but rather, with a corpse left hanging on it offered directions of another kind:  Know your place in this Roman order and everything will remain peaceful for you.  Make even the slightest waves in opposition and you can expect to join this man on your own cross.  These “signposts” were found all over the Roman world.

This is what the disciples had in their minds when Jesus, after being identified as the Messiah, announced “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Can you imagine both the horror and confusion that must have surrounded them?  This gifted rabbi that people had been flocking to hear speak and be healed by is telling us that he is the long awaited savior of our people.  He’s the Messiah!  But instead of saving us from the oppressive Romans, he is asking us to embrace their form of submission!

No wonder Peter, who first identifies Jesus as the Messiah, reacts so forcefully at Jesus’ teaching of his rejection.  Peter, like many of us, wants to take control of the situation and preserve his leader and movement.  Given the context of the Roman world, perhaps Jesus is simply stating a fact.  If I am what you say I am, the local authorities and ultimately Rome’s response will be to kill me.  But Peter’s desire to fight fire with fire was not the agenda God had planned for his son.  And, after forty days of training in the wilderness to resist satan’s temptations, Jesus’ work pays off as he resists any plan of self-preservation, even when it comes from his star pupil.

Would-be messiahs were nothing new in first century Palestine.  More than a few had risen to prominence, with their own band of disciples and the cause of God and nationalism as their banner.  Violence and death were always their end as they resisted the empire’s strength.  After each demise, there was nothing left to show for their efforts.  Jesus’ call was to embrace, on behalf of his followers, the path of savior through martyrdom.  Looking back at the witness of Christ in the gospels, it appears that part of God’s beautiful plan was that only through the embrace of self-sacrifice can the movement of God’s reign ever come in any significance.

What does this scripture have to say to followers of Christ today?  What kind of self denial and cross is Jesus asking us to carry?   And how abrupt and difficult is such a message to our ears?  To answer, we must first start with the question, “who do we say Jesus is?”

Who do we say Jesus is?  This question makes all the difference.  If we are going to take up our cross, we first have to believe the cause is worthy of suffering.

This is the question that gets this whole scene started.  Jesus and his disciples have been traveling from town to town preaching God’s kingdom, casting out demons and healing the sick.  He’s developed quite a fan club.  And Jesus wants to gauge his disciples by asking them about the folks they are encountering.  What are they saying about me?  Do they recognize me?  But ultimately, he wants to know if they, who have been with him the most, recognize him for who he really is.

When Peter makes his confession, the wheels start to turn. A messiah by any other name than Caesar is someone with a mark squarely on his shoulders.  The disciples have given up everything to follow him.  With this news, they may have to give up their life.  Peter and the others were probably ready to die for Jesus’ cause, to go down swinging in a fight against the evils of the empire.  What Peter did not like, what he didn’t fully understand, was Jesus’ acceptance of what seemed like defeat.  His teaching that he would die seemed like a certainty, not a possibility.  How could the Messiah be victorious when he was ready to accept death at the hands of the enemy?

Yet, as the story plays out, Jesus’ death is not the end but rather the beginning.  Jesus’ death changes everything.  Jesus’ willingness to trust fully in God’s authority over everything rather than the Ceasar’s violent version of reality, put Jesus on a cross but brought those who follow him life.  Today the Pax Romana is but an ancient history lesson.  But the gospel of Christ is embodied in every person who believes and follows.  Jesus’ death and resurrection was the ultimate signal that humans, no matter how powerful or threatening they appear, can’t really have any lasting power over God’s creation.

So, how we understand who Jesus is will make a difference in how we understand the cross that Jesus asks us to carry, and our willingness to pick it up and follow him.  What is our cross today?  Is it worth our sacrifice in order to bear it?

The challenge to those we teach today is to understand the cross and apply it to our circumstances.  The cross may not mean a literal death or martyrdom.  Rather, it may mean that we have to daily say no to things that stand in the way of our ability to fully trust in God alone.  What systems and technologies do we trust more than God?  Are we able to fully claim the way of Jesus above the way of capitalism, a particular political point of view, the threat of violence, a work ethic that drives us to continuous work or lifestyles that compromise our ability to see God at work and join God there?

These lifestyles, as an example, are not necessarily scandalous.  But, it very well may be in our comfort, in our overwhelming options of how to use our time and wealth, that we choose being served rather than serving. What does this look like?  If it is a continual guilt trip, then we don’t want it.  But, I think the Jesus way is a simple truth that our life is more than the conveniences we have become enslaved to.  As we follow Christ, we start to recognize this but too often we give into our own Peter rebuking us, trying to keep us safe, in a predictable place we can control.

Following Jesus is a greatest adventure.  Walking in his footsteps brings us purpose beyond anything else society can offer.  The tension is that society doesn’t want this adventure and doesn’t trust it or celebrate it.  Society wants to stay in a system that is predictable and controllable.  The adventure of faithfully following Jesus will either go under the radar of popular culture or it will be rejected.  This is just one of the crosses we as Christians are called to bear.  Being unpopular, crazy or both.

So, what does it mean to bear our cross?  We have collective crosses we must bear faithfully for God such as coming to terms with gun violence in America.  And we all have our own crosses that require sacrifice and faith to bear.  What will it look like for a community of Christ followers to bear our burdens (our crosses) together?  Is it possible?  I pray and hope that it is.

For a radical example of taking up the cross, Greg and Helms Jerrell have followed Jesus’ call to minister among a marginalized neighborhood in Charlotte, NC (http://qcfamilytree.org/).  Instead of pastoring in a church setting, which would have perhaps brought them more comforts and middle class lifestyle, they were called to Enderly Park.  Their choice has made them who they are and they wouldn’t change a thing!  A mission team will go to serve with them and learn with them June 27-30.  Sign up at http://www.hrbcrichmond.org/my-hrbc

Our Limiting God

“This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you. I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.” – Genesis 9:12-16, The Message

We study a familiar story this week, but we skip the two-by-two part along with the rains come tumbling down section and head straight to what God promises creation after the floodwaters subside.  In Genesis 9, we find the first mention of a covenant in the Bible.

In the ancient near east, a covenant was an agreement between two groups.  Most always, this agreement was a promise made by a conquering kingdom to not destroy the conquered kingdom and even protect this people in exchange for access to the conquered’s resources and land.  The agreement is reciprocal but not equal:  We the conquering will not destroy you but will protect you as long as we have access to the resources that will make us greater.  There is clearly a have and a have-not.

What we see in the covenant promise that God makes to Noah’s family on behalf of all creation is different.  Clearly God is the powerful player in this scene.  God has just all but wiped out his creation, save for Noah’s family and the two-by-twos.  But as one scholar puts it, God appears to be just a little shocked at the display of his strength toward creation. Therefore, God makes a unique covenant, a one-sided covenant, with the people and animals that God delivered.  In doing so, he sets his bow down in the clouds, as a warrior would do when he has come home from battle.

This rainbow becomes a sign for God and a reminder that he will never destroy creation again.  The rainbow acts as a reminder to God.  I admit I’ve never given much thought to the rainbow being a reminder for God.  I’ve always seen it as a reassuring sign for creation.  Why does God need reminding?

Perhaps it is because when God promises to not destroy, God is limiting his ability to bring to an end to his creation.  And from time to time, humanity’s propensity to selfishness might just frustrate God enough to consider it again.  And why would God want to do this?  If we look back to Genesis 6:5, we read that God saw the wickedness that had overtaken all of creation  – that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only to evil continually.  And God is sorry about his creation – enough to blot them out; except there is Noah. So God saves the only family that found favor in his sight.  And God destroyed the rest!

We don’t spend much time on this part of the flood story, do we?  We love the faithfulness of Noah and the way God saves his family and all the animals.  Its safe.  We make it a children’s story and decorate nurseries with these images.  But the times leading up to the flood and the catastrophic flood are far from G-rated!  There are very adult themes here.  God was fed up with the evil in his creation’s heart.  Seems like the world was like Las Vegas, times ten!  Even God’s angels got into the mess, falling in love with women and impregnating them with giants!  Really?  Read Genesis 6:1-4.

To harken back to Adam and Eve’s original sin, it appears that the people of Noah’s day had no regard for God or his commands, which were created for the purpose of humanity’s flourishing.  People had their mind set on evil, day and night (6:5).  I take this to mean people did whatever made them feel good, putting their desire ahead of the good of the whole and the order that God had created.  Such disregard for God, the divine parent who cared so much for creation, was enough for any mortal to give up.  And for a moment, so the scripture says, so did God.

But there was Noah. God provided the necessary instructions for Noah’s family to survive.  They boarded a ship and the floods came.  But what about all those bent on evil?  What happened to them?  They got what they deserved, right?  Can you picture the hopeless struggle as the waters rush and rise?  Its not a pretty sight.  And now that Noah, his family and the animals had survived, God, fresh from his victory in battle, is ready to lay his weapon down for good.

What must it be like to be angry at creation?  Many of us have been angry at our children, sure.  But angry enough to kill?  Is this really the kind of God we read about in the rest of our Bible and worship?  Its hard to imagine.  But his wrath is right there in scripture. Is there more to this?

Since the beginning, civilizations have had their flood narratives.  What does one do when everything they know is wiped out by rushing water?  When lightening strikes from the sky?  Thunder rolls overhead?  We know a lot about the weather today (although not enough to control it or even predict it well).  But in ancient times, this was all mysterious and assigned to the anger of God.  Certainly, we know that sin is pervasive and at times almost irresistible to humanity.  Its can be enough for anyone (even a deity) to want to give up.

Recalling that much of the Torah was written down during the Babylonian exile, what might the homeless Israelites have thought of this story?  They believed their continual sin had carried them away into exile.  Might flood stories also be explained as righteous anger?

The beauty of God’s covenant is that, no matter the cause of the flood, we see God taking initiative to promise that no matter what evil may come in the future, God will not destroy, even though it may be tempting as evil can be so frustrating and hurtful.  But God is willing to be limited so that even when humanity turns to evil all the time (and I think we can admit it still happens) God will refuse to destroy.

With this in mind, I think the story can be more about who the LORD God is in contrast to those other near eastern gods.  Whatever resemblance God and the flood may have had in other flood stories, the covenanting God who limits his power out of love and compassion for creation is a far more compelling and, in the end, powerful.  It is also a foreshadowing of God’s final redemptive work through Jesus, as he limits himself all the more, taking the form of a human and denying any divine privilege. (Philippians 2)

What I take from this story is God does hate the state that sin leaves us in but loves us so much that he finds another way around the sin problem.  It wasn’t through destroying his wayward creation but being vulnerable enough to conquer the sin that would put Christ to death.

One last feature I noticed, with the help of others: God’s bow – the rainbow – is taut, as if strung and ready for action.  A bow that is strung will look more like the bending arch in the sky than one that is not loaded.  This could reflect that God is patient with his creation even though his patience is tense, full of pent up energy.  He’s laid his bow down but it doesn’t mean God is OK with the evil that remains in creation.  And because God was willing to suffer at the hands of evil, God knows all the better the terror that it inflicts on us.  Just look at the evil that leads one teenager to kill so many other innocents this week.  And even how we are becoming so used to it.  So, no.  God isn’t OK with the evil that woos us.  So, just as the rainbow is a reminder to God that he will never destroy his creation for even this, the strung, tense bow should also be a reminder that God doesn’t take our sin lightly.  In righteous love, God has defeated evil through his incarnational sacrifice.  But in God’s righteous anger, God is still burdened by the sin that keeps us from fully knowing and seeing his love, this side of the kingdom.

Therefore, I believe that anyone who suffers for righteousness sake, who stands up for God’s creation in the face of evil can expect to suffer but also expect to be blessed.  (Beatitudes, Matthew 5)

  • How does our lesson speak to God’s radical love in the face of even the heartbreaking events of this week?
  • While God will not destroy us because of our sin, what might the taut roundness of the rainbow reveal about God’s attitude toward sin?
  • Following God’s example, should our attitude toward sin be different than our attitude to those who sin?  How does our attitude toward sin and sinners reflect that God’s Kingdom is available to all?



Brilliant Dust

On Wednesday, we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  In comparison to other Christian observances, this one may strike us as the strangest. On our way to resurrection and God’s plan of making all things new, what do we need to know about frailty, dust, death and repentance?  Lent, oddly, reminds us of our place in God’s larger story.  Still not a fan?  Hear me out.

The common refrain we hear during the imposition of ashes are the words: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Pleasant, I know, but this is on purpose.  In Genesis 2:7, we read of how God formed man from the dust of the ground.  We are created from dust.  And if we pay attention to the places we live and work, we notice we are good at creating dust.  Our bodies are constantly shedding and creating new skin. We are literally dust.

But the story doesn’t end with dust.  Genesis 2:7 continues to say “the Lord God breathed into the nostrils of this man and he became a living being.”  We are who we are because we carry God’s breath.  The word for human or man in these verses is adam, which means dirt in Hebrew and adamah means ground or land.  So God formed us from the dirt of God’s creation and gave us our uniqueness among all creation when God breathed divine breath into us.

Equipped with God’s life-giving breath, God empowers humans to have dominion over the dirt of the world.  With our God-given breath, we are able to cultivate life from the dirt which sustains us and all other living creatures.  But if we are honest, we are also capable these days of much more than sustaining lives.  We are also capable of destroying life, too.

As we quickly see in the next two chapters of Genesis, these special creatures called humans are also capable of turning their backs on their creator and capable of destroying God’s very good creation.  So, from Genesis 4 through today,  we continue to deal with this tension of creativity and destruction.  We see such beauty in our world.  People are capable of such kindness and self-sacrifice, one to another.  But people are also capable of destruction, cruelty and selfishness, too.

And before we, who were given the responsibility of divine creativity, alters God’s good work to an unrecognizable wasteland of greed and hubris that leads to destruction, we need a reminder of who we are and our place in God’s world (not our world).  The jarring words “remember – you are dust” are there to save us.  God created you with divine breath.  You bear the resemblance of God.  But you must also remember that none of us are God.

Acknowledging that we are not God is getting harder these days.  No one really goes around calling themselves god.  But check our behavior.  How often do we as individuals or as a society consult with our creator before moving ahead with our latest project that may impact the earth, the oceans or fellow human beings?  Our behavior reflects our unwillingness to accept that we are dust, that our bodies wear out and that our planet is also finite.  What it does show that we are deeply interested in ourselves.  We would make poor gods, at least when compared to the true God in whose likeness we are created.

And since we are created in God’s image and with God’s breath, the good news in all of these ashes is that there is deep meaning and purpose in our lives.  When we acknowledge that God created us with the responsibility to take this very good creation and do something beautiful with it, well, that should both scare us and excite us!

To quote one theologian’s musings on our spectacular dustiness:

“To regard ourselves responsible for our future, responsible for the very human race itself and the very planet itself, is not arrogance but recognition of the truth.  But all such human responsibility depends on one immense condition, that we never forget that we too are creatures, children of the same Majesty who formed the planet and the suns and galaxies which surround us.  In that sense, created and formed, given the gift of life, we are dust.  Brilliant dust? Yes.  Creative, thinking dust?  Yes, but still dust.  For all the brilliance and creativity and thought and imagination within that dust are the shimmering traces of that divine breath within us.”  -Herbert O’Driscoll, A Year of the Lord

Put a different way, we’ve been given this one brilliant and beautiful gift of a life from our creator.  How will we use it?  Will it reflect the intention and desires of our Lord?  Will it lift up and and bless both the creator and creation as worthy investments of our time, our creativity and praise?  Or will our abilities be forgotten and lost in self-adulation and even destruction?

Such questions remind me of a Switchfoot song, Live it Well, which asks the same kind of questions.

Healing Presence

Below, I start by restating the student sheet introduction statements.  Then, I give my impressions followed by a couple of video illustration suggestions.

What is important to know?  Jesus is not scared of brokenness – either physical or spiritual.  His willingness and ability to heal draws a crowd.  Jesus can give them what they long for.  What is it that they long for?  (Wholeness?  Acceptance?  New life?)

Where is God in these words?  Jesus’ healing is powerful.  The Greek word egeiro is used here and in Mark 16:6 in reference to Jesus’ resurrection.  It seems that Jesus’ work is not healing just for healing sake.  It is restorative.  For Simon’s mother in law, her social responsibility to was to provide for guests when they were present in her home.  Today, her guest was none other that the Son of God!   The healing restored to her the social expectation and meaning for a homemaker in 1st century Palestine.  It restored her dignity.  Don’t mistake the role of Simon’s mother as normative for today, however.  That would be missing the point!

So what does this mean for our lives? God recognized that nearness and even touch were important for building a relationship and trust.  Thus, God put on flesh and came near to his creation he was seeking to re-connect.  The incarnation, God becoming flesh, is a astounding show of God’s love for creation.  Jesus was willing to come into contact with all kinds – no matter their ailment.  That means none of us are ever to far gone for Jesus to come near to us and restore us!  In Mark 1, that included the demon possessed, the sick and the unclean – those skin diseases believed to be spread by touch.  If Christians are considered the body of Christ, what does our willingness or unwillingness to associate with others say about who Jesus is?

Now what is God’s word calling us to do?   How have we been healed and restored by God’s word or by God’s healing touch?  How has that healing allowed us to use our words and deeds to heal and restore others?

All of us are children of God, created in the image of God.  All of us also live in a world where sin still is present.  We can’t deny it – every new day brings heartache and disappointment for so many.  Our human condition brings with it the capacity to do great and creative things and to fail; to hurt others and let others down.  Some bodies are capable of at one point running a sub-four minute mile or jumping hurdles and the next moment succumbing to cancer.  It leads us all to ask, where is God in this?  If we are created in God’s image, why all the pain, the sickness, the heartbreak?  How are we, God’s children, capable of such beauty and such evil?  The simple answer, of course, is sin.  The sin that started in our inability to fully trust God but rather to think of ourselves as God.  Its that same sin, our desire to think of ourselves as God that prevents us from most fully reflecting the image of God.  Rather, its in our humility to trust God fully and to put our neighbor first that is ironically the way we reflect the divine.

Mark introduces Jesus, the Son of God, in fast-paced snippets.  We learn about John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ wilderness temptations, Jesus’ proclamation that he embodied God’s reign come near and his call of his first disciples, all within the first 20 verses of chapter one!

Then, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath.  He spoke with authority, which is to say he was interpreting the scriptures without the help of another teacher or prophet.  (See N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone p. 11, last paragraph).  Who better to recognize the authority of his teaching than the demon possessing a man present in the synagogue?  The demon obeys Jesus’ command and the assembly is amazed.

The scene switches to Simon’s mother-in-law’s home.  There, she is sick and unable to offer the typical hospitality that was expected of a first century Jewish home.    We don’t know anything about her illness.  But what seems to be significant is that Jesus is able to restore her health in such an effective way that she begins to serve her guests.  I don’t think this is a story about God’s desire for gender roles.  What it does speak to, however, is that in Jesus’ day, a woman’s role was wrapped up in her ability to offer hospitality to her guests.  Her sickness may have been grave.  She may have been brought back from the brink.  But at the least, her dignity was restored as she was able to provide what her peers would have expected her to do with guests in her home.

In the section after our reading, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper.  Lepers were some of the untouchable in Jesus’ day, with fear that their skin disease would be caught not just by touch but if they were within eye shot of others.   Therefore, lepers existed outside towns, alone and ostracized. This leper also recognizes who Jesus is and asks for healing.  Jesus is filled with compassion instead of repulsed as most would have been. (the Greek is splagchnizomai which is translated indignant or filled with compassion)  He reaches out and touches the leper!  And the leper is healed.

What do these miracles have in common?  What do they mean for we who follow Jesus, today?

For each of these people, the man demon possessed, the sick mother-in-law and the leper, were all  in one form or another considered less than whole.  One was possessed.  We may consider this person mentally ill today although this is to not diminish the reality demonic forces.  One could no longer do the tasks that gave her meaning. And the last was completely cut off from the community because of a physical ailment. But, when, in the NT, the person with leprosy was declared clean, it was her/his ticket to re-enter community, to be engaged again in work, family, worship, life. When the demonized person was set free, s/he was set free to fully connect again with others. Simon’s mother-in-law was raised to do the things that gave her purpose and meaning. The person who carried a sick one to Jesus walked home arm-in-arm with that one. These are not stories of magic; they are stories of human community being healed from the brokenness that sickness, disease, and mental illness can bring.

We know of the faithful Christians who do not receive the healing they prayed for, who suffer in a quiet but dignified way.  Is there hope for them in this scripture?  There is, if healing equals human connection.  If healing means God’s love for humanity does not depend on what society deems as acceptable.  If healing means that because of God’s work in Jesus, all can find full communion with God.  But this truth must be echoed in the way Christians in the present treat all God’s children.  That all people are worthy of our care, our time and our effort.

Martin Luther King’s vision of a Beloved Community that reflects God’s reign is the outcome of this kind of healing.  To offer a quote from Dr. King:  “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957

God’s Kingdom, God’s rule is evident in this world when, in seeking God first, we are able to offer to others the dignity of a love that seeks to elevate others instead of ourselves.  As Jesus says later in Mark:  Whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  (Mark 10:43-44).

Did you see Patch Adams when it was released in 1998?  It is the true story of an unconventional Dr. who learned to offer healing to others in unconditional ways.  In one scene, he brings laughter to children suffering from cancer in a sterile and serious hospital ward. https://youtu.be/byPJ22JDFjI  In another he argues that all people can be doctors when they see one another not as patients or problems but as people who can offer healing. https://youtu.be/Pr9ruvxA3K4 These clips may be helpful in illustrating the point or starting a conversation.