Taking up our cross

Pentecost 16

Proverbs 1.20-33, Ps 19, James 2.18-26,Mark 8.27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, and who despite our failures and our disloyalty, loved us enough to die for us. Amen.

Last weekend Michael and I attended the great debate that was a part of the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. We went in part because Germaine Greer was one of the speakers and in part because of the topic: “Reading the Bible is good for you.” Sadly it was a little disappointing. First of all, two of the speakers for the affirmative claimed that the Bible was “silly” and no one for the affirmative had a very strong argument for reading the Bible. Secondly, when it came to what was to be a free for all, there was such a degree of self-consciousness among the speakers that instead of an “no holds barred” argument, it simply fell flat.

That said, the third speaker for the negative, Ben Law a local writer and comedian, was witty and insightful. He began by saying that he quite liked the Bible, but that it was a document that could not be read without assistance because it was open to misinterpretation and to abuse. He supported the views of the other speakers for the negative, the first of whom pointed out that the way in which many Americans read their Bible has led to the most punitive of legal systems. The other had reminded us that well-meaning, but often misguided missionaries in this country and elsewhere have destroyed local language, culture and self-respect to impose a Western faith and lifestyle.

We all know that the Bible is filled with wisdom, love and compassion, but we cannot deny that it also contains accounts of God-sanctioned genocide, that its heroes are flawed and include in their number adulterers and murderers, that in the Psalms there are threats to bash babies heads against rocks and that its God constantly threatens wholesale destruction both of God’s people and of their enemies. Using the Bible as their defense Christians have embarked on the crusades, justified the enslaving of members of other races and have even engaged in battles against each other.

At the same time, the Bible has inspired believers to great acts of courage and self-sacrifice. Christians have for millennia cared for the poorest of the poor, fought to ensure the end of slavery, were among the first to respond to the AIDS crisis and have laid down their lives for others. The Bible inspired Bonheoffer to take on Adolf Hitler and Gandhi and Martin Luther King to struggle for justice for their people.

The Bible is a complex collection of writings. Today’s readings are an example of just how difficult and confusing it can be to read the Bible and how easily it can be misunderstood. Let me illustrate:

From the Book of Proverbs we read that God will laugh at our calamity and mock when panic strikes us. The letter to James tells us that the early church was already debating what should be believed with regard to faith and works. Not only that, there is in James a reference to Isaac’s offering of his son Jacob as if willingness to sacrifice a child was a laudable thing to do. Fortunately the Psalm has a much more positive message, but read in a particular way it could be seen to argue that those who keep the law will be rewarded.

Having listened to this morning’s readings what message are you going to take home? If you were asked this afternoon, what would you say about the Bible based on the passages from Proverbs or James? Would you be advising someone to read them without an interpretive aid?

Even today’s Gospel is not without some difficulties. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.” Having announced his own impending death, Jesus urges his followers to understand that a life worth living is a life that is lived for God and for others rather than for oneself. He is trying to help them to understand that being outward looking rather than inward looking is not only a means to eternal life, but is also more rewarding in the present.

Jesus knew only too well that living for God is not necessarily safe or comfortable and that sometimes living for God and for others leads to being marginalised, excluded and even killed. However he encourages us to place our trust and our confidence in God because he knows that a life centred on God is infinitely richer than a life lived without God. That a life that is lived outwards has greater depth and provides more satisfaction than one that is wholly self-absorbed.

Sadly, in popular usage, this important aspect of Christian living has been tamed and domesticated. It has been transformed from something that is live giving, to something that is life denying, from a focus on God to a focus on oneself.  The phrase, “Taking up one’s cross” is used colloquially to imply that there is something praise-worthy in living stoically with pain, with difficult relationships or with disappointment. Used in this way, self- denial all too easily becomes self-absorption and dependence on God becomes dependence on oneself. Instead of taking up one’s cross of one’s own volition the cross becomes something that is imposed from outside, something to be endured, something to be borne. Used in this way, the cross is not the way to life but to a living death.

So, as the church recognised right up until the Reformation, reading the Bible is good for you, but only if it is read with understanding and care, keeping some basic precepts in mind.

When we read the Bible, we have to remember that even the Old Testament is God’s love letter to God’s people, that God, instead of wreaking destruction, constantly holds his hand, that God instead of condemning us for our betrayals, came to us, entered our world and died for us. We have to remember too that the Bible is not an instrument of power to be wielded over others to make them conform to our values and ideals nor is it to be used to enslave or subjugate others. When we read the Bible we have to remember that the Christ who died for us, demonstrated the love and compassion that lie at the heart of God.

Most importantly of all, when we read the Bible we have to read it through the lens of the cross, to remember, through the course of our lives, that it is in dying to ourselves and living to God that true wealth is to be found and that if we take up our cross we do so not to burden ourselves or to prove a point, but because we are confident that it leads to fullness of life both in the present and in the life to come.

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