Undermining Oppression – August 8, 2005

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord
Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my
followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Picture the scene, for a moment.

It’s nearly 2000 years ago.

Palestine

is occupied by the

Roman Empire

.

Roman soldiers, equipped with elaborate armor and weaponry,

are positioned strategically throughout the land,

 In small
villages and in large cities,

 Along major
roads and at sea ports.

A battalion here, a garrison there. 

You can’t travel too far throughout the land without seeing
these foreign occupiers.

Though they are outnumbered by the local Jewish population,

 The Romans
hold all the power –

 Both
military and legal.

 

The Roman authorities employed a variety of mechanisms to
control the local population, ranging from civil rulers, sanctioned local
religious leaders, and military presence.

Yet perhaps the most telling and intimidating mechanism
through which

the

Roman Empire

held its
control over its occupied lands was the cross.



You see, the cross was their every-day execution tool,

And a common sight in the lands which they occupied.

From petty criminals to political opponents,

The

Roman Empire

subjected
any who would disrupt their occupation

to death on the cross.

But you see, the cross was more than just an execution tool

It involved more than just the executioner and the executed.

The cross killed whoever hung on it, and intimidated those
who saw it.

As such, the cross was an unambiguous symbol

of ethnic intimidation, imperial terror, and wanton power.

Set high on a hill, the cross was intended to strike fear
into the populations

 Who sat in
its shadows.

 

And so, it is in this setting of an occupied land and an
oppressed people

who daily confront the cross and all it means –

In this setting that Jesus tells his disciples to take up
the cross and follow him.

 

I think we tend to trivialize the cross these days.

“It’s my cross to bear,” we say,

 when a
grumpy boss dumps extra projects on our desk,

 or when
we’re stuck with an outdated, unfashionable car,

 or when we
give up chocolate or golf during Lent.



Or we inappropriately apply the analogy of the cross to our
life,

 Perhaps to
describe an unhealthy marriage,

an overwhelming responsibility towards aging parents,

or a seemingly out of control teenage child.

In both instances – the trivializations of the cross

and the misapplication of the cross to our painful life
situations –

In both instances we miss the true meaning of the cross.

The cross is neither empty sacrifice nor is it burdensome,
life-sapping pain.

Rather, the cross of Jesus and the cross he asks us to bear

is that of a bold, in-your-face confrontation of evil.

 

Jesus was a confrontational guy.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that he was obnoxious or
rude in our modern sense.

But I do know that he didn’t shy away from speaking his
mind, his heart, his faith.

Jesus knew how to push buttons,

especially of people who weren’t on the same page as him:

Such as in the first part of today’s Gospel, when he calls
Peter Satan,

Or such as when he turned the tables in the temple,

or on the many occasions he labeled the scribes and
Pharisees as hypocrites

a scathing insult to leaders of a strictly law-conscious
religious group.

And so Jesus had a fiery tongue, to be sure.

But today’s teaching is not one of his fiery, feisty
moments.



When Jesus tells his disciples that any who would follow him
should take up a cross,

 It wasn’t
the kind of line that would result in cheers of

“you tell ‘em, Jesus!” from his disciples.

No, this is one of his more subtle – and misunderstood –
moments.

Jesus had the gift of subtlety –

 Such as
earlier in Matthew’s gospel – chapter 5 – when Jesus says,

 “if anyone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Selfless submission to abuse? No, but that’s how we often interpret it.

In ancient near east culture, only someone of higher social
ranking could slap someone.

By turning the other cheek, rather than wilting away,

the victim stands up to the inhumane treatment.

Furthermore, by turning the after being slapped by the
backside of the aggressor’s hand,

 The victim
invites the aggressor to slap him with the palm of his hand –

 An act
considered shameful for anyone of any social rank.

Turning the other cheek is a way to cast shame on the
oppressor.

Jesus continues back in chapter 5: “and if anyone wants to
sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

In this case, Jesus is talking about being sued by a lender

(people of ill repute and generally unjust practice in those
days).

Don’t fight it, he advises, but in court hand over not just
your coat but your cloak also.

Though you’d end up naked in full court,

public nudity was understood as being shameful for the
viewer,

not the naked person.

By handing over your coat and cloak, you’d turn a situation
of your oppression

into one of shame for your oppressor.

One more example from Matthew, chapter 5.

Jesus says, “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go
also the second mile.”

In ancient occupied

Palestine

,

any Roman soldier could force a local Jew to carry the
soldier’s gear for one mile,

but not further. The
soldier could be punished for doing so. 

By instructing anyone forced into this situation to walk an
extra mile,

 Jesus is calling
on the oppressed to make the soldier feel uncomfortable.

 Can you
picture it?

The solder and the Jew who is carrying his pack reach the
one-mile mark,

 And the
soldier expects the Jew to set down his gear,

having completed the legal distance.

But the Jew keeps on walking. Now, the soldier is getting
uncomfortable. 

Why is he walking? What if anyone sees me? What will
they think? 

Oh no, it looks like I’m taking advantage of him,

and I could be punished for forcing this man to walk too
far. 

Oh, please, please Jewish man, stop walking. Please, I beg you.

Jesus is calling on the oppressed to turn the situation
upside down,

To make the oppressor uncomfortable,

 To make him
squirm in his boots,

 To
shine a light on the injustice.

 

And so with Jesus’ teachings of subtle confrontation in
mind,

let’s go back to Matthew 16, the source of today’s reading.

Take up your cross, Jesus says, and follow me.

Can you imagine, for a moment, what a spectacle it would
have been

 For a
dozen, or a few dozen, or a hundred, or five thousand

 Followers
of Jesus to take up 7 foot crosses and walk through town?

Occupied, oppressed people,

 Strapped
with crosses on their backs,

 Guilty of
no sin or crime or misdemeanor,

 Walking
through

Jerusalem

or Caesaria?

Such an act would make a mockery of the cross itself and the
Romans who used it,

 Rob it of
its intimidation factor,

 And strip
the

Roman empire

of its fiercest psychological
weapon.

By simply speaking those words, “Take up your cross,”

 Jesus seeks
to undermine those who would use the cross to end his life.

 



Up to this point, I have described the cross in its 1st
century, pre-Calvary context.

Yet we are people who live on the other side of Easter,

 We are
people who know that by his death and resurrection,

 Jesus turn
transformed the cross from an instrument of death to a symbol of life.

And as a transformed symbol of death, as a reborn instrument
of life,

the cross of

Calvary

itself
represents a confrontation,

 A refusal
to accept the status quo.

For it was through this tool of death and intimidation,

 This
instrument of injustice and carnage,

That God instituted a new way of life, a new kingdom, a new
life.

For it is through the cross of

Calvary

that we see and experience

a God who confronts evil, confronts injustice, confronts
death –

with pure and simple and subtle life.

 

And so, friends, we know that life is filled with suffering.

Unhealthy marriages,

overwhelming responsibilities towards aging parents,

or the pressures on teenagers in today’s society.

I acknowledge that our lives are filled with this.

Christ is not giving us these sufferings for us to
pointlessly bear,

 Nor by
these pains do we in some way share in Christ’s suffering.



Not at all. But in
the midst of these sufferings,

In the midst of our daily pains,

Christ gives us life.

So too, in the midst of Roman occupation of Holy Lands,

 In the
midst of suffering for God’s chosen people,

God became flesh, dwelt with God’s people, and gave life.

And the paradox is that God’s life on earth was most pronounced
on the cross.

And that cross is a convergence of sin and grace,

a dwelling place of evil and love,

a commingling of death and life. 

God comes to us in the complexities and paradoxes of the
cross,

and in God’s hands the cross becomes a means of grace and
source of life.

We gather each Sunday at the foot of this cross,

 Not
forgetting its pain, but living in its hope.

 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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