Monday, March 26, 2012

Cross as Criminal || Discipleship and the Way of Jesus

I have read the passage, heard the verse, and preached about Jesus' declaration, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). Yet when I read this the other day by bedside lamplight- I stumbled. I have never been threatened with the fate of a "cross"; I have never been forced to decide between freedom and arrest. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made minimal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. In other words, my story of discipleship has faced little resistance from outside authorities, minor persecutions by those who know me or meet me (most of these by fellow disciples who disagree with me in regards to social and theological matters), and never put my life or the lives of those I love at risk or in jeopardy. Again, when I read this passage over and again the other night, from the friendly confines of my bed, within a safe neighborhood, after a fairly easy day (aside from wrestling to sleep my two kids), I stumbled.

Has Jesus' call to "carry the cross" anything to do with my Christian witness, experience, context, and journey of discipleship?

After all, the only cross I have ever carried has been worn around my neck, a silver chain with sparkling symbol dangling between my collar bones. I don't think that's what Jesus meant.

But is that what it has come to mean?

I have been enamored by my Lenten journey through Mark's gospel. I have read this rendition of the Jesus story more times than I can count; however, this time around has been different. I have felt as though I have actually entered into the narrative and begun to ask many of the same questions of both disciples and cynics, been astounded by the diverse and subversive, even paradoxical, teachings of this Rabbi, left afraid as I ponder what all this means, and amazed as I consider the brilliance and beauty of what all this can, should, and one day will mean.

The story up until Mark 8:34 has been an intense seaside pilgrimage by Jesus and his disciples- beside, on, across, and even calming the sea. Jesus has crossed social, religious, and political boundaries as he journeys on "the Way." This Way, prepared by John the Baptist, [1] is now fulfilled through the life and teachings of Jesus, new markers of the kingdom of God. Moreover, the Way of the kingdom incarnated by Jesus has shifted the conversation and focus of God's people from elite center to prophetic periphery, from institutional Temple to modest peasant homes, and from the farms of Jewish Galileans to the country of Gentile Gerasenes. The Way of Jesus as this kind of Messiah has challenged the social and economic implications of Torah, instilled hope for those oppressed by empire, and cast out demons in both religious and political systems that exploit versus protect the weak.

Still, Scripture says that as the disciples were in the boat, crossing back over the sea from the Decapolis to Bethsaida, they are quite perplexed by all of this- particularly the loaves. Jesus then challenges them, "'Do you not yet understand?'" (8:21).

You can almost hear them exclaim, "No!"

Then to complicate the matter, they are told that if they really want to be his followers they must pick up their cross and follow him? In other words, a true disciple will be marked as criminal, will acquire a record, will be an affront to the status quo, and will be led to potentially die a first-century convict's death. This is the first mention of the cross in Mark- and the cross was criminal. Still they are called to follow- no matter what the cost.

I have never been forced to carry a cross. In fact, as a white male living in the suburbs all my life, this is no surprise. I have had trials and tribulations, for sure, mostly unrelated to matters of faith or the results of a life of disicpleship.



Job change.


No cross. Actually, my background check always comes up clean. And I am never mistaken for a criminal because of my skin tone and black hoodie. [2]

So what does the cross mean for me? What does Jesus' invitation to a criminal-esque discipleship look like now? Should I quest for the ole ball n' chain? Should I picket whatever cause interests me? Should I grab my tent and occupy something and somewhere?

I am not sure I have the answer. I do know that as I read this text I am challenged again to ponder the aged question, to what extent am I willing to risk everything and follow Jesus? How far am I willing to go? Who am I willing to befriend, to serve, to love, and to invite into my home despite social norms? How might Jesus call me to "sell all I have" and give to the poor, work alongside the oppressed, and lobby for the rights of all who are destitute?

What seas might I cross?

What pigs might I drown? (Mk 5:1-20)

What resources will I share?

What neighbor might I serve?

What laws might I challenge?

What systems might I confront?

What questions might I ask...?

What's funny is that I no longer wear that cross around my neck. It dangled too much and was kind of annoying. It was itchy. It wasn't the kind of cross I liked- too gaudy.

I wonder, have we become a church, a community of disicples, and a people of God who assume the same sort of choice when it comes to the cross we are called to bear, not around our necks, rather on our backs?

I hope not. But to carry the cross of Mark's portrait of Jesus seems so hard. It requires so much. The cross is not optional, let alone trendy.

Sometimes it may even warrant an arrest...other times it may not.

"The call to follow, then, is a call to walk in a path of radical love that challenges oppressive power structures. This can lead to danger and possibly to death because we live out this call in the midst of overwhelming forces of greed and violence. Mark does not suggest that suffering and death are God's will for Jesus or for disciples. Jesus' suffering is not to be 'imitated.' Jesus did not desire execution or see sacrifice as a virtue. He accepted (apparently with fear and trembling) his death as the inevitable consequence of living an all-encompassing love that challenged oppressive power structures. Suffering, in the form of loss and persecution, is thus presented as a consequence of discipleship" (Ched Myers, et al., "Say to This Mountain," p. 106).



[1] One of the things that is lost in Biblical translations is that Mark appears to have a running thread in regards to "the Way." It begins with 1:2, "prepare the Way," i.e. John the Baptist, and continues as Jesus is "on the Way," see Mark 9:33 and 10:17 (Gk. ὁδός often transl. as "road" or "journey"). In other words, the Way prepared by John is then pursued and fulfilled by Jesus. Along the Way, stories are told, questions are asked, friends are made, enemies encountered, and the kingdom of God is declared as near and here!

[2] I continue to be perplexed by the tragedy, dare I say injustice, that is exposed by the Trayvon Martin story. Read more on

Below is a video made by one of my high school students ;)