Imagine two job advertisements side by side in the ‘Appointments’ section of a national newspaper.
One specifies that to do the job you must move from your own country, but you’ll be able to take your family and all your possessions with you. When you arrive in the new country, the inhabitants will be subdued by a major force, and your people will take over the land. You will become exceedingly prosperous, your son will be the ancestor of several royal families and you will receive international acclaim.
The second says that to do the job you have got to give up the occupation you have been trained for, leave your family and your home town, and become a homeless vagrant in your country, which is occupied by a foreign empire. Relying on charity, you will try to sell a product which threatens the interests not only of the occupying force, but also of the native leaders who collaborate with it. The rewards of the job will be that you will be arrested, tortured and killed. After your death, however, you will be vindicated in the eyes of some people and you will enjoy a new life, in ways not specified.
Which would most people choose?
It’s fairly obvious. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, most people would be moved by human values, and would choose the first.
The first job ad is a summary of the Old Covenant, offered to Abraham. The second is what we Christians accept when we enter the New Covenant. At the heart of the New Covenant is Mark 8.34, in which Jesus says:”If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
Scholars are divided over whetherJesus actually said these words, or whether they were written back into the Gospels by the early church after the crucifixion. Doubts are raised by the precision with which Jesus predicted the details of his death, which makes the apostles’ continued lack of understanding during the journey to Jerusalem, Holy Week and the trial and passion difficult to accept.
On the other hand, Jesus would have been well aware of the hostility of the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, and of the particular dangers of going to preach in Jerusalem at a major festival. He would have known how the Romans treated those they regarded as rebels and criminals, for crucifixion was a fairly common occurrence in the occupied Judea and Galilee at that time. The Romans used this punishment against those caught up in Jewish rebellions against Roman rule in 4BCE and 6CE, and during the Jewish revolt in 63-70 CE.
What would “taking up their cross” have meant to those who originally heard or read these words? Crucifixion was a common form of execution used in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman Empire. It was used to punish criminals, and in those cases crucifixion would often take place at the site of their crime. More commonly it was used to punish those who took part in rebellions against Roman rule, so was more often used for men than women, and for slaves and members of occupied territories than Romans. It was a method of punishment that was designed to be humiliating, since it took place in public and the victims were naked. It was painful, since the victims were usually flogged beforehand, and had to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. It could be quick, but was usually performed in such a way that death did not take place immediately, but after hours or even days of pain and humiliation. It was designed as much to be a deterrent to others as a punishment for the condemned.
So, in telling us followers of Jesus that we must ‘take up our cross’ and follow him, the Gospel is saying that we must be prepared to be branded a criminal and a rebel against the secular power, be beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed.
That fate became a reality for many Christians in the early church, particularly for those blamed by Nero for the great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Others in early church history, or later when the Gospel was taken across the globe, suffered equally painful, horrifying and humiliating deaths as a consequence of following Jesus. In some parts of the world, following Jesus still means running the risk of persecution, injury or death.
We heard only in recent weeks of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya simply because they were Christians. In some countries run by atheistic religions, or where the majority of the population follows another faith, Christians may be imprisoned, their churches bombed and some of them may be killed. Even in countries with a strong Christian tradition, like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, being in the wrong place, or being the wrong sort of Christian may mean persecution, discrimination and danger. And in other places, Christians have to maintain their faith, and their trust in the goodness of God in the face of natural disasters, widespread poverty and disease, which must feel to them like the weight of a cross they carry every day of their lives.
But for most of us, that is not the case. Unlike those who carried their crosses in 1st century Galilee, we are not living under foreign occupation by people who practise another religion.
Christianity is built into the fabric of our nation, and holds a position of enormous privilege. Our monarch has to be an Anglican Christian, our bishops sit in the House of Lords, There are a number of Christian schools of different denominations which are supported by the state and Collective Worship and Religious Education in our schools must by law be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian content. There are Christian chaplains in most of our hospitals, prisons, legal and government institutions. There is no restriction on our freedom to follow our religion.
We can build churches where we want to, subject only to the same planning restrictions as everyone else. We can publish our books freely and preach our faith openly, subject only to the same laws that everyone else has to obey. There is no restriction on people’s right to convert to the Christian faith, if they wish to, or to leave it, if they no longer believe. There are even exemptions for Christians in some legislation: nurses and doctors don’t have to perform abortions if this is against their consciences, Church of England clergy, who are automatically registrars, don’t have to perform marriages for divorcees or gay couples, and churches are allowed to opt in or out of equality legislation, like other faiths.
Yet, in spite of this, there have been claims that Christians have suffered for their beliefs, and even suggestions that they are being persecuted, or discriminated against in this country. Some of the cases that have given rise to these perceptions have been taken as far as the European Court: Staff working in various organisations have been disciplined for wearing crosses with their uniforms; a Christian counsellor was sacked for refusing to work on sexual issues with a gay couple; teachers and nurses have been disciplined for offering to pray with pupils and patients; and there have been cases reported in the media of the hotel owners who have been prosecuted under equality legislation for not offering the same facilities to gay couples as they do the heterosexual ones; a registrar sacked for refusing to officiate at civil partnerships; and a care home worker sacked for refusing to work on Sundays.
Three years ago, a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry reported on its investigations into these cases. The inquiry was overseen by Christians in Parliament, an official all-party Parliamentary Group and was sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance. It concluded that “Christians in the UK are not persecuted. To suggest that they are is to minimise the suffering of Christians in many parts of the world who face repression, imprisonment and death if they worship, preach or convert.” Their main conclusion suggested something far less dramatic was happening: “Christians in the UK face problems in living out their faith and these problems have been mostly caused and exacerbated by social, cultural and legal changes over the past decade.” In other words, our society has changed and is changing, and Christianity no longer has quite the same privileged position it once had.
Their enquiry suggested some ways in which legislation, and the way legislation is applied, might be modified to take account of the way some Christians wish to practice their faith. But they also said: “Some of the legal activity, associated campaigning and media coverage has been unwise and possibly counter-productive to the positive role that Christians play in society. Ahead of bringing cases to court, Christians need to consider the potential impact their actions might have on politics, public opinion and the confidence of other Christians in their mission.”
So the question remains, how can Christians today take up their cross and follow Christ?
For some Christians, who feel some issues are fundamental to their faith, ‘following Christ’ may mean they have to accept some restriction on the employment opportunities open to them. They can’t work for public bodies if they wish to discriminate against certain people; they can’t work for organisations that require them to wear uniforms if they are not prepared to abide by the same uniform regulations as everyone else; and they cannot offer services to the public unless they are prepared to offer them to everyone on an equal basis. But I would question whether any of this is really equivalent to “carrying a cross”.
In a situation where we live in a society where we are not occupied by a foreign power, where we are free to practice our religion, where indeed our religious faith is supported by the dominant organisations in society, we as Christians need to think deeply about how exactly we can ‘forget ourselves, carry our cross and follow Jesus’, to the extent that we lose our everyday human way of life, and experience the divine, eternal way of life.
This Lent gives us an opportunity to do that. I pray we may all take it.