Reflection: Carrying the Cross

Reflection for Wesley Uniting Church Evening Service
8th of September 2019

Luke 14:25-33

What on earth can we do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke?It starts with Jesus telling those following him that in order to become his disciples they must hate both their families and their lives, and ends with him telling them to give up all their possessions. I’m not sure which is the more shockingly blasphemous saying; which the more counter-cultural; which the more impossible to take ‘literally’. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew seems to be softening Jesus’ words when they quote Jesus as saying instead: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ (Matthew 10:37-38)

Of course, as always, we need to put this passage in context. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and his death; ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem’. (Luke 9:51) But as he journeys towards his death Jesus is surrounded by ‘large crowds’ – according to commentator Joseph Fitzmyer probably people following him ‘because of the blessing and the wonderful things that he has associated with the kingdom’.1 So as he speaks Jesus is probably surrounded not just by those who have chosen to commit their lives to him, but by dilettantes interested in the newest guru. These might be the people that Jesus wants to challenge and shock, rather than committed disciples.

But there’s really no way of contextualising and softening the command to carry one’s cross. Commentators I’ve read during this past week have been divided on whether we can read the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension into this saying. At this stage of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has told his disciples that ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,’ (Luke 9:21-2) but the ‘huge crowds’ would know nothing of that. For them, carrying one’s cross could only refer to the usual prelude to the horrifying and humiliating form of execution used by Rome to break the will of conquered peoples. In that context there could be nothing positive about carrying one’s cross. On the other hand, of course, the Gospel is being written post-resurrection, and those hearing and reading it know that crucifixion itself was the prelude to something astounding, terrifying but wonderful. In the post-resurrection context, maybe carrying one’s cross could be life-affirming, rather than life-denying. After all, later in the Gospel when Peter says to Jesus, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you,’ Jesus responds: ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Luke 18:28-30)

There are two things I’ve read this week that have lodged in my brain, though, and that have made me reluctant to move too quickly from describing Jesus’ sayings as ‘absolutely bloody terrifying’ to describing them as ‘ultimately life affirming’. The first is that incredibly memorable sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which I had remembered as being the opening sentence of the whole book, but which I’ve been reminded actually comes halfway through a paragraph in the fourth chapter: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’. It turns out that what I was remembering was the ‘Introduction’ to the book written by Bishop Bell of Chichester, who had known Bonhoeffer for years. In that ‘Introduction’ Bell wrote of Bonhoeffer that ‘Dietrich himself was a martyr many times before he died,’ but in the same way that Jesus’ sayings in this passage are read through the lens of his own crucifixion, everything Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of discipleship is given added weight by the fact of his execution by the Nazis. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate … even life itself, cannot be my disciple;’ ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’.

This week I also read an article on this passage in the American magazine Christian Century by William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Lamar writes:

Right now … I want to talk to you – a Century reader and likely a white person. I want you to know that we live in different worlds. There’s a good chance your church is a white church, driven by the history of white people. And if you’re white, when you leave your church you enter a world made for you-a world that assumes your house is the best on the block and that all sensible people should seek to dwell therein.

Writing of the difficulty of hating one’s life and giving up one’s possessions Lamar points out that:

Black Christians are well practiced in cultural renunciation. My ancestors rejected the notion of America as “a shining city on a hill.” For them and for many still today, that city’s lights of justice and peace are so dim as to be inconsequential. White Christians have not been similarly compelled to renounce the power and principality of white supremacy or American empire.[1]

Another American commentator I read this week, Richard W. Swanson, put this passage into the context of a book he’d been reading: Dear Church: A Love Letter From A Black Preacher To The Whitest Denomination In The U.S. by queer Black preacher Lenny Duncan. (The whitest denomination in the USA is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in case you were wondering.) Swanson tells pastors to:

Read that book, and not only because Nadia Bolz-Weber dared you to. Read that book because Duncan notes that leaders, preachers, and all sorts of church people are worrying that the church is dying. (And not just the ELCA.) Duncan says: “Dear Church, you aren’t dying. … I know it feels like you are dying. … Dear Church, you aren’t dying; you are being refined.” (Dear Church, pp. 146f)

And in that context Swanson hears Jesus telling those who want to follow him:

Get rid of all your possessions. Get rid of the privilege that allows you the illusion of safety. Recognize that Jesus’ words stand against privilege, white supremacy, and all forms of patriarchy. The possessions and position that the church thinks of as its existence is actually the addiction that prevents us from following Jesus. Getting rid of privilege won’t kill us (though it will feel as if it does), it will refine us.

I happen to have been reading American commentators this week, but the same points could probably be made in Australia. What we are seeing with the federal Religious Discrimination Bill is a last, desperate, attempt by Australian churches to hold on to the privilege and possessions that Australian Christians used to be able to take for granted: respect from the community, and a place at the tables of politicians.

What on earth can we do with today’s reading? I’m not sure. As another commentator I read this week put it: ‘There is little that is gentle or reassuring in this,’[2] and as a preacher I tend to lean always towards the gentle and the reassuring. But Bonhoeffer and the Black American preachers have reminded me not to go there too quickly.


[1] William H. Lamar IV, ‘Reflections on the lectionary,’ Christian Century, August 17, 2016, p. 21.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Volume 3, p. 233.

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