I have always wondered what it would be like to be a celebrity and be pursued 24/7, to have an entourage of devoted followers at your heels waiting to catch a drop of wisdom, a look or even a touch. I guess when fame and fortune first hits one may think, “Wow, how wonderful it is to be so popular, to have so many people hanging on my every word, watching my every move and checking out my figure for signs of over indulgence!”
By about day three I think the novelty would wear off. Get these people out of here! Can’t I have one moment alone?
Today’s Gospel opens with the recurring words ‘large crowds’ were travelling with him’. Large crowds are a stock feature of the synoptic Gospels, by the lake, at the synagogues, on the mountains and wherever Jesus seemed to be. Even when he is seeking silence and stillness for a little time out they turn up, 5,000 in the sermon on the mount and 4,000 at the sermon on the plain.
So I am not surprised that this time he turns around and gives them a serve, not a get lost you lot serve but a reality check. Ok folks, the school excursion is over, now down to real business. If you keep following what I say this won’t end well, are you up for it? Families, villages, careers, relationships and ordinary everyday living will be disrupted and turned around if you go where what I say will take you.
D Mark Davis comments “…… this call to discipleship is radical, implying that those who follow Jesus are not going to be making decisions based on ‘what’s best for me,’ or even ‘what’s best for our marriage/family/children.'” There is no clear indication that there is such a decision for, if one looks at the examples Jesus gives, an outnumbered army or an over committed builder, the decision seems simple, no. In the case of the army, negotiate; the house builder, rent; the other option in both cases most likely won’t end well.
Jesus then says “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This is not a reference to the cross of Calvary but is not the act of a later editor putting words into Jesus’s mouth it appears in Mark, Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas as well as here.
Also Epictetus a Greek speaking scholar is quoted in the Discourses by his pupil Arrian as having said the following:
If you want to be crucified, just wait.
The cross will come.
If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right,
then it’s to be carried through, and your integrity maintained.
The inference being a certain way of life will lead, inevitably to conflict and if such a life is to have integrity one is to follow that life to its predictable end. Epictetus and Jesus both are saying, if your live outside the accepted norms of society and value what is at odds with such a society you will, in a Roman occupied country and a modern democracy, arrive at the cross.
Now that may not be what the ‘large crowds’ wanted to hear. They were looking for peace and freedom from the oppressors not more violence and angst, especially from those they know and love. A counter-cultural philosophy of love your enemy, give help to the despised and reprimand to those in power is not the way one goes about making friends and influencing people. Yet the teaching of Jesus stood at odds with society then and still does today.
Emerson Powery writes, “Today’s contemporary Church has to wrestle with the reality of following a radical, counter-cultural prophet.”
Now this is not only a social justice question, it is a spiritual and religious question: what religion do you follow? The religion of the ego self and narcissism where I do everything for myself and those within my immediate purvey? Or is it the religion of capitalism, which says to the rich there will always be more, to the rest the leftovers. Or is it the religion of consumerism where enough is not enough and more is insufficient? Or is it the religion of self preservation, save our own bacon, call the lawyers and hard luck to the rest (a position often taken by the churches in reference to child abuse claims).
Powery poses the challenge in just the way Jesus did, it is not a foregone conclusion that the large crowd or the contemporary church will indeed take up the religion of Jesus and live a radical, counter-cultural, prophetic role in the modern world. There is too much to lose. Our place in the power structures, our hard fought for exemptions and options, our buildings and our money, not to mention the fancy dress and valuable silver ware. To live a life of sacrificial compassion for others, including the whole of creation of which we as human animals are but one of many will mean a radical rethink for the church and for each of us individually.
- It will mean preferencing justice in all our actions and our words, not just saying what is right but doing what is right, despite the cost. It will involve speaking prophetically into the public space and challenging long held views or those opinions we described last week as being like haircuts, everyone has one but not all are worth considering. Integrity in word and action takes great courage but is the task we face.
- It will mean preferencing the poor and not just the poor in terms of other human beings but the poor meaning the birds of the air, the flowers of the fields, the animals of the forests and fish in the sea. These make up the world along with humanity that God so loved. This will challenge how we consume, how we find ourselves entwined in the economic devaluation of resources and how we hoard up riches for ourselves at the expense of others. It is indeed very challenging and may well be too much on either an individual or a societal level for all of us.
- It will mean preferencing a life built on enough – our daily bread – our ordinary job – our enough house. Simplicity in being without the urge to always seek more. Science tells us that there is a default point for happiness. Despite the lure of more, once one arrives there and gets over the excitement, science tells us we fall back to our default level of happiness. As happy as your are now is probably how happy you will be regardless of more.
- It will mean preferencing a different God than the one we learnt about in Sunday School and came popular in response to the Enlightenment.This is a God is beyond all definitions yet knowable, beyond all boundaries yet personal, outside our world yet fully engaged in the experiences of our world, a God with a preference for all of Creation and not just human beings. Here is Mystery sitting in our muddle, our pain and our despair bringing hope to brighten our darkness.
Jesus is a radical countercultural prophet who calls us and the church to a life which place us outside the accepted social contract. We cannot do it alone. We do it together and we do it together empowered by God’s ever-present Spirit. It is the only way we can take the road to the cross. In the end it was the only way Jesus could too.