Tuesday 31 March 2015

Stabat Mater: standing beside Mary in Holy Week

Here in Sydney, two of our classically trained seminarians are doing a series of Holy Week performances of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. If you're in Sydney and would like to come along to a performance, the details are on Facebook. I wrote this short reflection on the Stabat Mater for the programme notes:
Holy Week is more than a memorial. It is a time of participation. We celebrate Holy Week as a way of participating in the great story of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death. We are among the crowd that cheers and waves palm branches when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. We are with Jesus when he shares his last meal with his friends. We share in their astonishment when our Lord stoops down to wash our feet and tells us to do likewise. The next day we join our voices to the crowd that cries out, “Crucify him!” And we are there when Jesus takes up the cross and lays down his life for the ones who have rejected him.

The 13th-century hymn, Stabat Mater, is a powerful expression of our participation in the events of Good Friday. In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus’ mother was standing by the cross as her son hung dying between two criminals (John 19:25-27). The Stabat Mater places us there with Jesus’ mother. We contemplate the cross with her. We see it through her eyes. We shed her tears. Our heart is pierced like hers. We identify with her shattering experience of grief and trust.

The Stabat Mater leads us from the grief of Christ’s mother to the sufferings of Christ himself. As we stand with Mary beneath the cross, we ask that our own lives would be pierced by Christ’s wounds. The hymn invites us, like St Paul, to “bear in our bodies the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10). It reminds us that the crucifixion is not just a mournful spectacle observed from a distance. We don’t watch the death of Christ in the same way that we watch a sad movie, shedding a few tears so that we will feel better afterwards.

When we fix our eyes on the crucifixion, we are contemplating the depths of God and the hidden depths of our own lives. The cross reveals the deepest truth about ourselves. It tells us who we really are. It shows us that we are loved; that we are wanted; that our lives have already been fully judged and fully forgiven; that “neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

Composed in the final weeks of his life, as he lay dying from tuberculosis at the age of just 26, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of this hymn is a profound musical exploration of human mortality, grief, solidarity, and ultimate hope. 
If you don't know the hymn, the words are below with their lovely melancholy Latin rhymes. You can see a performance of Pergolesi’s setting here – or better yet, come along and join us for a live performance in Sydney!

I      Stabat mater dolorosa                 The grieving mother stood
juxta crucem lacrimosa                 weeping beside the cross
       dum pendebat filius                      where hung her son.

II    Cuius animam gementem           Her soul, lamenting,
       contristatam ac dolentem             sorrowing and grieving,
       pertransivit gladius.                     pierced by the sword.

III   O quam tristis et afflicta             O how sad and afflicted
       fuit illa benedicta                         was that blessed
       mater unigeniti                             mother of an only son.

IV   Quae moerebat et dolebat           Mourning and grieving
       et tremebat cum videbat              and trembling to behold
       nati peonas incliti.                       the torments of her glorious child.

V    Quis est homo qui non fleret        Who would not weep
       Christi matrem si videret              to see Christ’s mother
       in tanto supplicio?                        in such agony?

       Quis non posset contristari          Who would not grieve with her,
       piam matrem contemplari            looking upon the blessed mother
       dolentum cum filio?                     suffering with her son?

       Pro peccatis suae gentis              For the sins of his people
       vidit Iesum in tormentis              she saw Jesus in torment
       et flagellis subditum.                   and subjected to the scourge.

VI   Vidit suum dulcem natum           She saw her own sweet child
       morientem desolatum                  dying, forsaken,
       dum emisit spiritum.                    as he gave up his spirit.

VII  Eia mater fons amoris                 O Mother, fount of love,
       me sentire vim doloris                 that I may feel the power of sorrow,
       fac ut tecum lugeam.                   let me mourn with you.

VIII Fac ut ardeat cor meum              Let my heart burn
       in amando Christum Deum          with the love of Christ the Lord,
       ut sibi complaceam.                     That I may be pleasing to him.

IX   Sancta mater istud agas               Blessed mother, do this:
       crucufixi fige plagas                     impress the wounds of the Crucified
       cordi meo valide                           firmly upon my heart.

       Tui nati vulnerati                         The precious pains of your wounded
       tam dignati pro me pati                child, suffered for my sake:
       peonas mecum divide.                 share them with me.

       Fac me vere tecum flere              Let me truly weep with you,
       crucifixo condolere                      mourn the Crucified One
       donec ego vixero.                        as long as I live.

       Iuxta crucem tecum stare             To stand with you beside the cross,
       te libenter sociare                         to freely join you in your weeping,
       in planctu desidero.                      this is my desire.

       Virgo virginum praeclara             Virgin, peerless among women,
       Mihi iam no sis amara                  be not now harsh to me:
       Fac me tecum plangere.               grant that I may weep with you;

X    Fac ut portem Christi mortem      That I may bear the death of Christ,
       passionis fac consortem               share his passion,
       et plagas recolere.                        remember his wounds;

       Fac me plagis vulnerari                That I may suffer his wounds,
       cruce hac inebriari                        inebriated by this cross
       ob amorem filii.                            with love for your son.

XI   Inflammatus et accensus              Ablaze and aflame,
       per te virgo sim defensus              may I find a defender
       in die iudicii.                                 on the day of judgement:

       Fac me cruce custodiri                 Guarded by the cross,
       morte Christi praemuniri              armoured by Christ’s death,
       confoveri gratia.                           cherished by grace.

XII  Quando corpus morietur             When the body dies,
       fac ut animae donetur                  may the soul be granted
       paradisi gloria.                             the glory of paradise.

       Amen.                                             Amen.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Heretical typos: von Balthasar's Origen

Where copyists are concerned, Origen was the unluckiest of all the church fathers. Rufinus complained that heterodox copyists had cunningly inserted heresies into Origen's writings. They "poured the poisonous filth of their own doctrines" into the texts of Origen in order to give their ideas a false aura of authority and antiquity (Rufinus, On the Falsification of the Books of Origen, 2). When Rufinus translated Origen into Latin at the end of the fourth century, he scrupulously omitted or erased anything that looked like a heretical interpolation. As he says in the preface to his translation of First Principles: "Wherever I have found in Origen's books anything that contradicts the devout statements he makes elsewhere about the Trinity, I have either omitted it as a corrupt and interpolated passage, or reproduced it in a form that matches the doctrine that he often affirms elsewhere." And then Rufinus adds that he has also made some interpolations of his own, inserting "explanatory comments" wherever Origen's "obscurity" calls for expression "in a fuller form" (Rufinus, Preface to First Principles).

Poor Origen! Interpolators on every side! Well, Christian reader, I'm sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but the bad luck of this great teacher has continued right down to our own time. One of Origen's greatest modern defenders, Hans Urs von Balthasar, inserts a very peculiar heresy into Origen's soteriology:

"... and by his death destroyed life."
Quotation from Origen in Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, p. 184.
To be more precise, it is Balthasar's English translator Robert J. Daly who has inserted this latest heresy into Origen. I am not certain, but I believe it may have something to do with Daly's unwholesome fascination with sacrifice.

If only Rufinus were here, he would have tidied things up quite nicely and removed every trace of heresy – something like this (translated freely from Rufinus' Latin):
For although the only-begotten Son of God, whom the holy church acknowledges homoousios with the Father before all worlds, became truly human and suffered for the salvation of the human race, and by his death destroyed death (for let all those who claim that Christ's death was a destruction of life be accursed), and by his resurrection restored life, just as marvellous, apart from the incarnation of the eternal self-subsistent Word, were the things brought about by the Holy Spirit, who is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, world without end.

Friday 27 March 2015

Trusting in drunkenness: a note on Clement of Alexandria

At the start of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that moral action does not arise from deliberation. In order to think clearly about virtue, one must first already have a virtuous disposition formed by good habits. Aristotle drily remarks that the endless ethical debate of some philosophers is really just a sophisticated way of doing nothing. You become virtuous – and thus able to understand virtue – by acting virtuously. Nobody ever reasoned their way into right living.

Clement of Alexandria’s second-century Exhortation to the Greeks has a similar view of the priority of acting over deliberating. Clement’s Hellenistic friends don’t first need to comprehend all the complexities of the Christian faith. What they need first of all is a change of disposition. They need to be charmed by the magic of Christ, enchanted by Christ’s music. The first step is to accept Christ and to begin to follow his way. Understanding what it’s all about comes later.

In a typically affable illustration (he is the most affable of all the early fathers), Clement explains the point by comparing conversion to getting drunk at a party:

Let me give you an illustration. You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question. Or in the case of self-indulgence, you don’t first make a careful examination: you hurry to indulge. Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire. When it’s a question of following this wise God and his Christ, you think this calls for deliberation and reflection, even though you have no idea what would be pleasing to God. Put faith in us, just as you do in drunkenness, that you may become sober! Put faith in us, just as you do in self-indulgence, that you may live! (Exhortation to the Greeks 10.77)
This is not to suggest that the Christian faith is irrational. For the one who has had a change of disposition, Christ also begins to shine as a rational light. Clement assures his readers that he has "an abundance of persuasive arguments about the Logos" – but these are for those people who have already had their desire awakened and have already begun to "contemplate this clear faith in the virtues", i.e., in the way of life that it initiates.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

On the faulty perfection of the saints

“Bad saints everywhere”–Kevin Hart

Everyone in the church knows that the saints are a bunch of rascals. We could never venerate a faultless person, though we could fault a blameless person. We churchy folk tolerate the ignorance of the heathen about the morality of the saints. We are quite content to let them believe the saints to have been impeccable moral exemplars. But when someone in the church misunderstands the sanctity of the saints and demands faultless perfection, then we sharpen our quills. It is for this reason that John Wesley—lover of perfection that he was—found himself appalled upon reading the work of Rev. Conyers Middleton.

Middleton presumed that it was meaningful to point out that the saintly fathers of the church occasionally demonstrated questionable behaviour and opinion (and he deplored the accounts of their miracles). It takes a perfectionist like Wesley to identify someone who does not have a proper appreciation of Christian perfection.

There are those who will argue against the adjectival use of “Christian”—especially when it is applied to nouns such as “music”, “t-shirt”, or “weight loss programme”. However, when applied to “perfection”, it is an essential modifier. The saints, after all, are not a row of flag poles, but a field of trees. A tree is perfect not because it is rigid and straight and looks like every other tree, but because it is wild. The perfection of the saints comes not because they are blandly flawless, but because they are wildly Christian.

Perhaps it is true to say that Wesley is more credulous of the miracles of the ancient church than is advisable, but he still saw through Middleton’s scepticism to the heart of the matter—Middleton had no love for the fathers. Love, the apostle tells us—rascal that he was—covers a multitude of sins. Christian perfection, Wesley knows all too well, is not faultless performance. Christian perfection is not “sinless perfection”, as he had to remind his critics constantly. The good Lord, after all, had nothing to do with sinless people.

It is not hard, Wesley observes, to find in the Fathers “many mistakes, many weak suppositions, and many ill-drawn conclusions” if one wants to. A saint is not untouched by human infirmity, but one who bears their infirmities with Christian fortitude. “A saint”, G. K. Chesterton once mused, “only means a man who really knows he is a sinner.”

“And yet I exceedingly reverence them”, Wesley concludes, “and esteem them very highly in love.” If the saints were flawless, they could be no example to us. The saints inspire only if they bear the blemishes of human life. Otherwise they would be horribly glorious gods.

Christian perfection, Wesley teaches, is not sinlessness, but love. Wesley’s prayer is nothing more than to be a Christian like the fathers, living a life of love in the service of the God of love. That, he says, would be a perfect life.

Friday 20 March 2015

Singing in the first person: on “I” and “we” in worship

Recently I went along with a friend to a Hillsong worship service. I was reminded again that one of the distinctive marks of Pentecostal worship isn’t just the style of music but also the prominence of the first person singular. In mainline Protestant worship, the prevailing trend has been to replace the worshipping “I” with the communal “we.” The “I believe” of the creed is changed to “we believe.” The newer hymns are all about “our” needs, “our” lives, “our” relationship to God and one another. When older choruses are sung, the pronouns are often updated to reflect the plural preference. I have been in a service where the deeply personal Geoff Bullock song, “The Power of Your Love,” was amended, from:
Lord, I come to You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that I’ve found in You
And Lord I’ve come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Lord, we come to You
Let our hearts be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that we found in You
And Lord we’ve come to know
The weaknesses we see in us
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Now in principle there’s nothing wrong with either “I” or “we” as far as singing to God is concerned. And the good Lord is probably long-suffering enough to figure out what we mean when we sing a line as daft as “the weaknesses we see in us.” Let’s face it, where hymnody is concerned, the Christian church will only be saved (if it is saved at all) as though through fire.

But I’m sceptical of the assumption that “we” is somehow the more Liturgically Correct word to use – as if the believers who turn up to church on Sunday morning cannot be trusted to remember that they are worshipping in a community. The whole thing smacks (if you’ll pardon the dirty language) of socialism. Are the clergy anxious to make us ever-mindful of our communal loyalties, as if they knew deep down that we would all rather be worshipping on our own at home?

Interestingly, St Augustine’s view of the worshipping “I” was exactly the opposite. In his exposition of Psalm 121, Augustine argued that the “I” is the proper symbol of corporate worship, while the “we” is too individualistic:
Let [the psalmist] sing from the heart of each one of you like a single person. Indeed, let each of you be this one person. Each one prays the psalm individually, but because you are all one in Christ, it is the voice of a single person that is heard in the psalm [Cum enim dicitis illud singuli, quia omnes unum estis in Christo, unus homo illud dicit]. That is why you do not say, ‘To you, Lord, have we lifted up our eyes,’ but ‘To you, Lord, I have lifted up my eyes.’ Certainly you must think of this as a prayer offered by each of you on his or her own account, but even more you should think of it as the prayer of the one person present throughout the whole world. (Expositions of the Psalms, 122.2).
Augustine’s point is that the language of “we” can easily give the impression that the congregation is a collection of atomistic individuals. But when believers sing to God in the first-person singular, it is as if the whole body of Christ were crying to God with one voice. The “I” is intensely personal: I sing as if the song applied to me alone. But it is also mystical and communal: beneath and above and around my own individual “I,” I hear the surge of a greater voice, a corporate “I” of which my own voice is a part. In Augustine’s view, this corporate voice is the voice of Christ. It is Christ himself who sings the psalms and who cries out to God in one voice from one body through the Spirit.

I implore you, my liberal Protestant comrades, don’t be too proud to admit that the Pentecostals might actually have got something right! And don’t be afraid to confront the question whether the experience of community in those ostensibly oh-so-individualistic Pentecostal churches is less intense and meaningful, or more, than what is found in our mainline churches with our theological propriety, our liturgical spit and polish, and all our earnest bluster and blather about we, us, and our.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Rock songs for (named) Gospel characters

  • Zechariah: “Shut Up and Dance” (Aerosmith)
  • Elizabeth: “A Woman Half My Age” (Kitty Wells)
  • Mary (mother of Jesus): “Send Me an Angel” (Scorpions)
  • Gabriel: “Undercover Angel” (Alan O’Day)
  • Joseph: “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” (Joni Mitchell)
  • Simeon: “This Old Heart of Mine” (Isley Brothers)
  • Anna: “Battered Old Bird” (Elvis Costello and the Attractions)
  • Herod the Great: “Children of the Grave” (Black Sabbath) 
  • John the Baptist: “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (Bob Dylan)
  • Simon Peter: “I Am a Rock” (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • Andrew: “Gone Fishin’” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • James: “So Long, Dad” (Manfred Mann)
  • John: “Thunder Rolls” (Garth Brooks)
  • Philip: “Come On” (Wynn Stewart)
  • Nathaniel: “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye)
  • Matthew: “After Taxes” (Johnny Cash)
  • Thomas: “Touch Me” (Doors)
  • James (son of Alphaeus): “Who the Hell Am I?” (Hoobastank)
  • Thaddeus: “Hey Jude” (Beatles)
  • Simon (the Cananaean): “Street Fightin’ Man” (Rolling Stones)
  • Judas Iscariot: “Friend of the Devil” (Grateful Dead)
  • Herod Antipas: “Political Man” (Cream)
  • Herodias: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Cyndi Lauper)
  • Nicodemus: “In the Still of the Night” (The Five Satins)
  • Joseph of Arimathea: “A Well Respected Man” (Kinks)
  • Mary Magdalene: “Respect” (Aretha Franklin)
  • Joanna: “Uptown Girl” (Billy Joel)
  • Susanna: “Rich Girl” (Hall and Oates)
  • Jairus: “Child of Mine” (Fleetwood Mac)
  • Bartimaeus: “Sweet Blindness” (Laura Nyro)
  • Zacchaeus: “Short and Sweet” (Espernaza Spaulding)
  • Martha: “Take It Easy” (Eagles)
  • Mary: “Listen to What the Man Said” (Wings)
  • Lazarus (John): “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees)
  • Lazarus (Luke): “Who’s Sorry Now?” (Connie Francis)
  • Caiaphas: “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (Sparks)
  • Pilate: “Hands Clean” (Alanis Morissette)
  • Simon of Cyrene: “Walk Like a Man” (Four Seasons)
  • Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James and Joseph), Salome: “Honkey Tonk Women” (Rolling Stones)
  • Cleopas: “Liberty Road” (Elf)

Sunday 8 March 2015

Paddling by the shore: new book by Kim Fabricius

Reader, you will be pleased to learn that our resident gadfly, Kim Fabricius, has published a new book. It is called Paddling by the Shore: Hymns of Kim Fabricius, and I commend it to you. It's available from Wipf & Stock or from Amazon. Some hymns are written for angels, but these ones are written for human beings.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Exciting new archaeological discovery

A similar ditch in Austria
A chance archaeological discovery made during earthworks in the area of Brunswick, Germany, is generating heated debate in theological circles. Construction workers were preparing the earth to lay foundations for a new apartment block when the ground fell away revealing, in the words of the foreman, “an ugly great ditch”. Archaeologists and philosophers were quickly brought in to examine the hole. While they are still awaiting the results from soil tests, most agree that it is indeed the ditch written about by Gotthold Lessing in his 1777 essay.

When the workers noticed the ditch, the foreman put a stop to all work until experts could examine it. “It’s not the first time we’ve made a philosophical discovery during earthworks. On a previous job a bloke came across the pillow that Kant used during his dogmatic slumbers.”

Others, however, are sceptical about the significance of the ditch. Ava Klein, a lawyer representing the construction firm building the apartments, released a statement criticising the decision to halt work to examine the controversial pit: “There is no reason why the reports of the appearance of this ditch should compel us to accept the truth of its historical or philosophical significance.”

A tutor of religion at a local seminary, Jules Roth, believes that the discovery is of great importance for theologians and philosophers. “This beautiful and massive fissure in the ground is a godsend. It’s true that it is difficult to see what’s on the other side from here, but the ditch itself is quite magnificent and should keep the academic community occupied for many years to come.”

Monday 2 March 2015

Do we have a church? (a sermon for Lent 2)

In the early 1950s a man named Clarence Jordan founded an interracial farm in Georgia called the Koinonia Community, which at the time was a very foolish and dangerous thing to do. He asked his brother Robert, a lawyer, to act as counsel for the farm. “Clarence,” Robert said, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

We might lose everything too,” Clarence replied.

“It’s different for you,” Robert said.

“Why is it different?” And Clarence went on to remind his brother how, when they were baptised, they were asked: “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” “What did you say, Robert?”

Robert paused, and then said, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” his brother challenged him.

“That’s right. I follow Jesus to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then,” Clarence said, “I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple.”

“Well now,” Robert said, “if everyone who felt like I do did what you do, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question,” Clarence concluded, “is: ‘Do you have a church?’”

Robert Jordan went on to become a state senator, and a judge on the Georgia Supreme Court. So I guess his answer was a “No”.

What about us? Are we followers or admirers of Jesus? Is our church a community of disciples or a fan club? When we “take Jesus as our Lord and Saviour” – language sometimes used, I’m afraid, in an “I’m-a-real-Christian, are you?” kind of way – but if we do use that language, what do we mean by it? What do we mean by discipleship? What do we mean by being church, the church of Jesus?

These are the questions that today’s reading from Mark 8 puts to us. Where are we? We’re in the far north of Palestine, at the heart of pagan culture – the name of the region gives it away: Caesarea Philippi – Roman, Greek. Jesus has withdrawn there with his disciples. What happens there is the hinge event on which the entire gospel narrative turns.

Jesus begins (just before our passage) by asking the twelve what the vox-pop is on him: “Who do people say I am?” They answer: “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” Dead guys, but guys who, when they were alive, got into trouble by speaking truth to power – Elijah to Ahab, John to Herod Antipas, the other prophets to one king or priest or another. The table is set. Jesus serves the main course. “And you – who do you think I am?” The disciples look at each other, and Peter, thinking nothing ventured, nothing gained, speaks for them all: “The Messiah” – in another word, “You da King.”

And then Jesus begins to teach, in what is the first of three passion predictions. Tellingly, however, Jesus drops the term “Messiah” and speaks instead of the “Son of Man”, which is better rendered the “Human Being”, meaning the Human Being as human beings are meant to be. And he spells out what’s going to happen to the Human Being, to this proper human being that he is: he’s going to march to Jerusalem, the very centre of Jewish and Roman power, and there, in a highly charged political atmosphere – what? – Caiaphas and Pilate will roll out the red carpet for a coronation? No, there he will be rejected by the holy and the mighty and executed. And Mark adds: “He made this very clear to them.”

Peter’s reaction to Jesus? “No way!” And then Jesus’ reaction to Peter: “Get away from me, Satan!” Satan? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? I mean, Peter, in protective mode, is only watching out for Jesus. Satan? Bells? Remember the temptation of Jesus? Mark is not specific about the nature of the satanic suggestions that filled Jesus’ head in the wilderness, but Matthew and Luke are: rule by worldly power and popular acclaim, and power and acclaim underwritten by what? By violence. Peter reasons: If Jesus is the Messiah, then of course he will rule with royal power – he’ll go to Jerusalem, kick butt, the people will love him – so whence this defeatist talk about suffering and death? That’s why his “No Way!” And that’s also why the “Get away from me, Satan!” That kind of power is not the kind of power that this Messiah, this Human Being wields.

Of course, we know better now. After all, we’ve had hundreds of years of experience as church exercising power properly, haven’t we? Crusades, witch-hunts, slavery, pogroms, the church as cheerleader to empires and states in whatever colonial venture or war they decide to undertake for land or gold or oil or geopolitical influence. So we know exactly, as Jesus goes on say, what it means to be disciples: “deny self” and “take up the cross”. The historical evidence suggests it means being loyal citizens. Moreover, we not only nationalise discipleship, to complete its domestication we also privatise it, as if by “self-denial” Jesus were talking about ascetically relinquishing the enjoyment of certain things, and by “cross-taking” stoically putting up with one’s troubles, a chronic illness or an insufferable colleague perhaps – the “crosses we have to bear,” as we say.    

But, really, is this what Jesus is saying? Come on! Like temple and state are going to combine to murder a man for teaching that the good life comes from being religious, patriotic, neighbourly, and living an uncomplaining life? Say your prayers, do your duty, be “nice”, don’t grumble – that’s it? That’s going to get a guy crucified? But crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the enemies of society, the ultimate sanction for the way all states operate, by moral policing and social control and doing whatever it takes in the way of lies, fear, and finally violence to maintain order and control. And what did Jesus do if not get in power’s face, live fearlessly in the presence of hostile authority, and practice nonviolence in the face of official aggression? That’s why he had to go, because he refused to accept the world as it is, the way the world works. He disrupted this business as usual, called it all into question – “The kingdom of Shalom is among you!” was his message – a manifesto that no earthly ruler can allow to go unchallenged. The execution of Jesus was, to be sure, a miscarriage of justice, but it was not a case of mistaken identity. They got the right guy alright. When Love appears, power has got to kill it. End of.
So the cross Jesus asks his followers to bear – it is this cross, determined by the way he lived and died, subversively, counter-intuitively, crazily foolishly. How do we live? Do we live by the truth of Jesus, or do we fall for the deceit that infuses the speeches of movers and shakers? Do we live without fear, or do bigshots scare us, scare us into the self-protection racket euphemistically known as “homeland security”? Do we live without violence and balk at collusion in exclusion, or do we shrug our shoulders and accept the demonization of enemies and the dehumanisation of the different in our own communities, in our own churches? In short, do we live by “realism” and “pragmatism”, are we “purpose driven” by “outcomes” and “results”, do we think that being church is about “winning” and “success”, or do we live as if Jesus is indeed our Lord and Saviour, but this Jesus, carrying his cross?
This month we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery freedom marches for African American voting rights, led, of course, by Martin Luther King Jr, whose monumental biography by David Garrow is entitled – yes, Bearing the Cross (1988). “The battle is in our hands,” King intoned from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol at the completion of the (third) march (in his now-called “How Long? Not Long!” speech). “And we can answer,” King continued, “with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summon us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” As King would keep going from Montgomery until his murder in Memphis a few years later. As Jesus kept going from Caesarea Philippi until his murder in Jerusalem a few months later. “The cross of Jesus,” James Cone observes, “is the key to King’s willingness to sacrifice his life, not only for the freedom of black people … but also for the souls of whites and the redemption of America.”
One final point. That little phrase that goes with carrying the cross – “deny oneself” – how interesting that the Greek word translated “deny” (aparnesastho) is found in only two other places in Mark: both in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Like Peter, Clarence Jordan’s brother Robert was in denial of Jesus because he wouldn’t buck the fierce pressure of opposition that goes with discipleship. What about us? Are we followers or fans? Do we have a church? Do we have a church?


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