Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 25, 2018
Scripture Reading: Mark 8:31-48
In the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, our readings are focused on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and we are invited to journey along with Jesus until we reach the cross.
But have you ever paused to consider what a strange thing it is that the cross is the universally recognized symbol for Christianity? If you think about it, the cross was a Roman tool of death, but not just death. It was designed to cause the maximum amount of pain and suffering, and to prolong the process of dying in a very public way.
And this is the main symbol attached to the faith that we profess. Our churches are adorned with crosses, both outside and inside. Maps usually indicate the location of churches with a cross. Many of us, myself included, choose to wear crosses as jewellery, to identify ourselves to others as followers of the crucified one, and to remind ourselves of the one whom we follow. But when we choose to wear a cross, we are choosing to wear a brutal instrument of torture and death. What would you think if you saw someone wearing a necklace that was a noose? Or earrings that were shaped like machine guns? But what is the difference between that and a cross?
The question becomes even more poignant when you look around at the violence in the world that we are living in. A world where a teenager can walk into a school with a semi-automatic rifle and kill 17 people. A world where the presidents of two countries threaten the existence of the whole planet with nuclear war. A world where violence is repaid with violence.
Because this cycle of violence seems to be the way that our world functions. A school shooting is met with the suggestion that teachers should be armed in order to fight back. Someone says or does something hurtful to me, so I reply with something hurtful to get back at them. They reply back with something hurtful, and the cycle continues. American preacher Rob Bell compares this to the old video game, Pong. Remember that game that was a bit like table tennis or Ping-Pong, with a paddle on either side of the screen and a blip traveling back and forth. I ping the blip to you, and you move your paddle to ping it back to me. Back and forth. Back and forth. And so it is with violence – I do something to you, you do something to me. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Think about your favourite movies or books, or even cartoons. The bad guy does something bad. The good guys, claiming either self-defence or the common good do something bad back to the bad guys. The bad guys retaliate with something even worse towards the good guys. And so on, in a seemingly-endless loop until one or both are destroyed.
Last weekend, I was watching the movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with my neighbours, and I was able to see this cycle in action. Humans kept apes in cages at a research facility, tormenting them with experiments. The apes escape and set up their own society, but when the humans show up, the apes start a war with the humans. The humans fight back. And the cycle continues. At one point in the movie, I had some hope that the cycle might be broken – one of the apes leading the war was about to fall to his death, and an ape who was advocating for peace was in a position to save him. I thought to myself, “maybe this is how the situation can be resolved – if he saves his fellow ape, maybe there can be reconciliation and a non-violent resolution to the situation.” But if you have seen the movie, you will know that it doesn’t end this way. Instead, the ape advocating for peace throws the war-leader to his death so that he can claim the leadership position. Violence done for the greater good. And the cycle of violence continues.
Getting back to our scripture reading, in today’s reading from Mark, Jesus begins to talk about his own death, and he tells the crowds who are following that they are to deny themselves and take up their cross. They are to deny themselves and take up a brutal instrument of torture and death.
Unfortunately, this is a phrase and passage that has been used to keep people in harmful or violent situations, or to keep people from seeking help. That’s just the cross you have to bear. But I would suggest that maybe there is a different way that this could be read or interpreted – a way that has to do with breaking the cycle of violence that is so common in our world.
Remember that in just under five weeks, we are going to re-member the Good Friday story. We are going to re-live the time when Jesus took up his own cross and went to his death. Jesus was God-in-flesh, but in this moment he renounced all of his Godly powers. He could have zapped those who were crucifying him. He could have blasted that wooden cross into slivers. He could have argued back to those who arrested him, and brought him to trial. But instead, Jesus chose the power of silence. He chose not to fight back. He allowed himself to be tortured and he went to his death, without resisting. God-in-Jesus broke the cycle of violence by not repaying violence with violence, but by embracing his cross. And in doing so, the powers of violence were broken.
In this moment, the symbolism of the cross is turned upside down. The Romans intended the cross to represent an instrument of pain and suffering and death; but Jesus has turned it in to a symbol of anti-violence. He took up his cross, and the cross no longer had power over him, and death was defeated.
I mentioned movies and books earlier where we see the cycle of violence perpetuating, with the characters repaying violence with violence. There is one example I found though, where this cycle of violence is broken by the hero taking up his metaphorical cross, and that is in the Harry Potter books, especially the seventh and final book in the series.
Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the books yet or seen the movies – if you don’t want to know how they end, you might want to plug your ears or leave the room for the next couple of minutes.
So the overall story is an epic battle between good, represented by Harry and his friends; and evil, represented by Voldemort and his followers. The series starts out perpetuating the cycle of violence, where Voldemort does something bad and Harry and his friends fight back. The one point in the books that upset me the most the first time I read them was when Harry and his gang started using the so-called “Unforgivable Curses” – magic that was so bad that the use of these spells meant automatic imprisonment – they were unforgivable. Up until this point, they had been used only by Voldemort and his followers, but in the last book, the so-called good guys start using these unforgivable curses. The cycle of violence had escalated to the point where both sides were using worse and worse violence.
But then towards the end of the seventh and final book, Harry comes to a realization that Voldemort can’t be defeated using the violence that he is perpetuating. In a scene that is dramatic for its lack of action and violence, Harry begins a long quiet walk to the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort. He doesn’t want to go, but he knows that he needs to go in order to bring an end to the fighting. And when he comes face-to-face with Voldemort, he doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t resist. He allows Voldemort to kill him, and in doing so, all of Voldemort’s powers of death and violence are finally broken and disappear. The cycle of violence was broken because one of the participants refused to participate in it.
Now I’m really hoping that none of us here has to face execution by the Roman Empire; and I suspect that none of us will be called upon to defeat Lord Voldemort. But each one of us is called to end cycles of violence and hurt in our own worlds. You sometimes see this in families – one person says something about someone else, and the other person retaliates. Families can be broken apart or family members can become estranged by this cycle. You also see this in some workplaces – people stepping on each other in order to get to the top.
There’s a phrase, “crab bucket mentality” that seems to capture this phenomenon. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket without a lid, even though they could escape, they won’t. Any crab that reaches the lip of the bucket on the edge of freedom will get pulled down by the other crabs. The cycle of doing violence to one another keeps them all captive or trapped.
And yet Jesus says, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.” Jesus tells us that we aren’t to fight back. We are to embrace our cross. We are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to participate in it.
People who take up their cross in this way usually aren’t well respected by society. Our society usually doesn’t reward people who don’t scramble for the top; who don’t defend themselves. They are often seen as being weak or cowardly.
But Jesus tells us that we are to take up our crosses, in imitation of what Jesus himself would go through. And from our perspective, 2000 years later, we know that this moment when Jesus embraced his cross isn’t the end of the story. Jesus embraced his cross, and went to his death; but in doing so, the power of death was broken. Death could not win, and two days later, the tomb was empty.
We are an Easter people; and even in this season of Lent as we journey towards the cross, we celebrate the resurrection. So let us take up our crosses, knowing that the crosses may bring pain and suffering. But even as we carry our crosses, we know that Jesus has walked this road before us. And as we carry our crosses, we can be confident that the cycle of violence and death has been broken, and we no longer need to participate in them. And as we carry our crosses, we know that the power of the cross, the power of silence and non-resistance, is stronger than the power of death. May God give us all the courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Let us pray:
you are the God of Good Friday,
and you are the God of the resurrection.
Give us the courage
to journey with Jesus to the cross.
Give us the faith
to be your counter-cultural people
in the middle of a violent culture.
Give us the reassurance
that even in the middle of pain and suffering,
Jesus has walked this road before us.
We pray this in the name of the crucified one,
who is the resurrected one.
(Take up your cross, Harry!)