What does it mean to “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus”? Is this what Jesus said before his death, is it a reading into the story by those who wished to tell a certain story after the fact, or is it about choices we make as part of our exclamation of faith?
Jesus chastises Peter for wanting to ensure he doesn’t end up on the wrong side of the law, in conflict with those in power. Perhaps Peter was concerned such conflict would deeply damage Jesus’ image, those he travelled with and the mission, what ever it was, Jesus was on about. Perhaps Peter was driven by concern for his friend, wanting to temper his enthusiasm to avoid what was beginning to look like an unmitigated disaster.
Perhaps Peter was committed to Jesus and wanted only the best for him and his message. Perhaps he was concerned about himself and the others. These men had families, businesses and responsibilities and this “thing” was beginning to sound like it could engulf them all.
One can sympathise with Peter and the others. There was no doubt what they were beginning to hear from Jesus had the potential to bring about conflict with the synagogue and the Romans placing them all in danger.
Or is Matthew using an incident that may have occurred to deliver a specific message to those in his community who were beginning to falter and doubt the authenticity of the Jesus as Messiah? Matthew was writing for and to a community in direct conflict with the synagogue Jewish faith. At this stage they still worshipped and attended the synagogue. They were battling the authorities about the genuine nature of Jesus as Messiah and were involved in a struggle for the heart of the Jewish faith.
Their conviction would lead to their exile. In the end the heart of Jewish faith remained with the synagogue, and those who followed Jesus were excluded and persecuted for their commitment. Therefore this passage is not about the cross as we have come to understand it or as being synonymous with the ordinary trials and tribulations of being human – sickness, tragedy, disability, war or more – it is about what happens when you take a stand for the politics of the kingdom.
In the case of Matthew’s congregation it was about denying their traditional beliefs and following the words, actions and teachings of Jesus – the fulfilment of the Old Testament story. In doing so they sacrificed their connection to the long and complex story of the Jewish people – they lost their country in the sense that they lost what made them Jewish. It involved a deep sense of the desolation of death and grief following the loss of their identity – their Jewishness.
Matthew suggests faith is an heroic act of stepping out from what is known into what is unknown – will this new faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Wisdom of God, be as life sustaining as the old faith? Will it be sufficient for our needs and do we need to do it any way?
Elsewhere Jesus says he came not to abolish but to fulfill the law, a statement seemingly in conflict with the call to deny self as outlined here. Is Jesus in fact speaking only of how we invest ourselves in stated practices and doctrines and not the experience of a living faithful experience?
Over the last week or so we have heard much about a call to pull down statues of heroes of the past, to change place names to get rid of an uncomfortable history and to rewrite some of the story of our country. Commendable as the intention may be, we must not do so but we must put up alongside the inscriptions and stories what we now know to have happened and to remember the whole story. Like Jesus we are not to abolish the past but to fulfill the immense possibility we have as a country if we all acknowledge together what has happened and what needs to be done to move forward.
Matthews Jesus is taking his community away from reliance on the law and the prophets, the synagogue and the priesthood, and toward a faith based in a personal and community experience of the living Wisdom of God. It is no longer appropriate to hang onto traditions which have served us well but are found wanting in a post-modern world. It is no longer appropriate to base our identity individually and as a community on what was once adequate but is now not.
One of the elements we are asked to continue to work on is language – what we say and what we mean when we say it. Is the language of the liturgy, be it 1662 or A Prayer Book for Australia (1995), appropriate for 2017? Is the language of a tradition coming from a different social structure and society relevant now for an Australia beginning to come to grips with its indigenous history and the multi cultural nature of our country where almost 45% of the population were born overseas?
This will always be a work in progress but it is necessary if we are to recognise both the oldest continuing ethnic group who were here long before England claimed us for their own and those who are coming here from other places and bringing their country – law, language, land, ceremony or ritual, kinship or family – with them in their bodies, just as Jesus did in his incarnated presence amongst us.
This process will mean that from time to time we are asked to deny ourselves what is comfortable and comforting, and be challenged by new words, concepts and practices. It will mean that at times we will find ourselves persecuted for the language we use – inclusive, just, compassionate and whole making – that finds itself at odds with orthodoxy and embedded tradition.
The interesting twist in the tail is that by letting go of such as traditional language we actually breathe life into our tradition and recreate it for the times in which we live. That is, perhaps, the meaning of the words ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. It is not about martyrdom but resurrection.
Let us continue the journey of new life by letting go of what has shackled us to the past and speaking new life into life.