What are you afraid of? Like really scared of?

For me it’s heights. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’m not afraid of being up high. I’m perfectly happy sitting in a plane at 40,000 feet.

So perhaps I’m not afraid of heights… perhaps I’m scared of falling.

I’m sure there are many other things I’m afraid of but, to be quite honest, being crucified isn’t one of them. I have spent very little time thinking about the possibility because the reality is that me getting nailed to a cross is incredibly unlikely to happen. It’s just not a thing anymore.

And that’s a bit of a problem for us when we come to passages like this one where Jesus talks about his followers having to take up our cross and follow him. And not just because we don’t have any crosses handy to pick up…

It’s a pretty rubbish recruitment plan. Come and join us… and give up your life. Come and join us… and get brutally executed…. Come and join us… and have a life full of suffering.

Em, no, thank’s very much for the invitation… but I think I’ll give it a miss.

But the cross is so important to our faith. It’s the symbol of it. I’ve always thought it was odd that people wear an instrument of torture and execution as jewellery, but at least some of that comes from the importance of the cross to our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus came for.

In this season of Lent we’ll do quite a lot of thinking about the cross and why it is so important as we journey through the story to darkness and desolation of Good Friday.

This passage from chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel is an important step on that journey. We should give it our full attention but we should also be a little bit cautious about it, and especially where we put our emphasis.

We need to talk a bit more about the idea and strategies of empire if we are to be able to make sense of this strange and often troubling passage from chapter 8 of Mark’s story of Jesus.

But before we do that I want to say something really important about what this passage is NOT about. The idea of taking up your own cross has been misused to justify all kinds of things for centuries. It has been boiled down to something like ‘well, everyone has problems so you just need to put up with it’. People were basically told to stop complaining and just accept illness, abuse and discrimination without complaint because, well, because everyone has a cross to bear. That’s absolutely not what Jesus is talking about here. In fact, it is pretty much completely opposite.

So, let’s find out why we’ve been sold this lie that we should put up and shut up because it’s what Jesus wants.

Jesus is in Caesarea-Philippi. It’s a city of the empire, in every sense a Roman city with temples and amphitheatres and columns and statues. And it’s built in the middle of occupied Israel.

That’s one of the things you do if you want to occupy another country… you import your culture and privilege it above the native one. That can take all kinds of forms, from banning local languages, religious gatherings, introducing a new currency, making people work in different ways, imposing new laws and enforcing all of this with a very harsh system of punishment.

And that’s exactly what the Romans did.

They operated a very sophisticated carrot and stick system. They made massive improvements to sanitation, water distribution, roads and farming. The Monty Python sketch that asks ‘what have the romans ever done for us?’ is funny because of all the eras in history the Romans might have made the biggest impact across most of Europe and north Africa.

But compliance was required. And the stick was one of the most brutal forms of torture and execution ever devised… crucifixion.

We don’t ever talk about the reality of what that is, so I’m about to. It is unpleasant so if that’s something you might not want to listen to then skip ahead a bit…

It takes a long, long time to die on a cross. You hang there with just enough support to keep you there but also to allow gravity to do the work. The strain is agonising and eventually your internal organs collapse. But not for hours, sometimes days.

Crosses were erected along the main roads and near the gates of cities so that to get anywhere you had to walk past them. It was horrific. And it was effective. It wasn’t a way that anyone wanted to die.

So, when Jesus suggests that people should take up their cross, it’s not hard to see how it is easy to jump to the idea that he must be talking about suffering. That’s what crosses are all about. But I don’t think that he is.

We also need to be really careful that we don’t read ahead and impose our understanding of the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection onto this conversation quite yet.

This is a bit of a leap… but have you ever seen the Disney Pixar movie, A Bug’s Life? It’s about a colony of ants who are bullied by much larger grasshoppers. The ants are forced to collect grain for the grasshoppers and if they don’t collect enough the grasshoppers do what bullies do… they threaten violence.

It’s a brilliant example of how empire works. There are only a few grasshoppers and thousands of ants, but the whole thing works on fear. One ant could never take on a grasshopper. They are just too big and too strong, and they can fly. But 100 or 1,000 ants… that’s a different proposition altogether. But for that to happen something has to change. The ants have to no longer be afraid. And that’s what happens. It starts with one ant exposing the lie that the grasshoppers are stronger.

I’m going to use the words Government and Empire interchangeably for a few minutes. I know they are not the same. Not every government is also an empire, but our’s is.

Both government and Empire work on the same principles… people are either satisfied enough that making trouble is too much hassle or they are too afraid to bother… or not enough people join in to make it effective. Governments all over the world still spend their days working out how much their citizens will put up with. Will they pay this much tax? Will they wait this long for treatment? Will they put up with this much unemployment and this much benefit support? How many children need to be living in poverty before people start to bother? Will people pick up the slack through food banks and charity?

It takes a lot to change the mind of a government.

But Jesus isn’t inciting a riot. Far from it. So, what is he doing? Because he’s absolutely talking about what we might now call regime change!

Empire is one kind of kingdom. One system. But there’s another way. An opposite way. Jesus calls this other way ‘the Kingdom of God’ and it is in complete contrast to the Empire.

The kingdom of God is based on love, not hate. Joy, not fear. Peace, not violence. Sharing, not greed. Compassion, not selfishness.

But that seems so far away from the way things are. How do you make the change from one kingdom to the other?

Well, the question Jesus poses is this… what is that you are afraid of? What’s the worst thing that could happen? The answer is simple. You could end up nailed to a cross.

The cross is the thing that hold power. It is the symbol of fear, or suffering and of oppression. It’s the symbol of Empire. It’s not for us. Now the cross symbolises something very different. But to make the switch people need to not be scared of it anymore. They need a way to embrace the cross and to take away their fear.

And Jesus gives them it…


So, when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” he’s talking about leaving behind the selfish system of empire where the measure of the wellbeing of a society is the profit it made and the increase in wealth.

When Jesus says  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” he means that our lives as we know them will be completely different. We will step away from our self-destructive ways of living and regain the life that God intends for us. Jesus is talking about life and death, or rather living and dying.

He’s talking about the things that matter.  He’s talking about the life that God wants for us.

This is a call to embrace life. To not be afraid of the systems of death and destruction but to step away from them and live a different way.

But that has consequences.

People will point and stare.
People will call you mad or weird or dangerous.
because the system doesn’t like rivals.

People will call you all sorts of names.
People will undermine you and accuse you
because the system can’t stand when someone points out the lies that it is based on.

Jesus will eventually find himself nailed to a cross by the empire.
But in that moment,
even in that darkest of moments,
Jesus show that he was telling the truth.
The cross has no power.
Death is not to be feared.
Life wins because love wins…
love wins every time.

This isn’t easy. I can’t even stay off the chocolate for lent or get myself out the door for a run, even on a sunny day. How on earth am I going to completely change the way I live?

Perhaps by having an example. A role model. Someone to follow who has been there and done it all.

I said earlier that the people hearing Jesus say this didn’t have our knowledge of how the story ends. But the readers of Mark’s Gospel did. The people who believed and started to follow did.

The cross was transformed by Jesus’ life and death and resurrection from a symbol of torture and oppression and death into a symbol of hope, of forgiveness, of life.

Why would you not want to take up that cross, and in doing so step into the life God has prepared for each of us.

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