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 Jesus has withdrawn there with his disciples.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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