This past weekend I worked as one of the trainers for the College for Congregational Development, a training program for lay and clergy leaders in our diocese. We train church leaders in lots of things, so that they can improve the health and sustainability of congregations of all sizes, locations, and conditions.
Participants meet at a retreat center down in Federal Way and learn about group dynamics, emotional maturity, personality differences, change management, organizational culture, and more. This past weekend, we focused on trust development and conflict. Participants learned different ways to build trust in congregations, and handle the inevitable conflicts—and inevitable hostilities—that arise.
At one point, to get the conversation going, I asked the group to shout out some examples of typical conflicts that happen in churches. “What do people fight about in churches?” I asked.
The responses ran along these lines:
“Churches fight about whether to have traditional pews or moveable chairs.”
Or, “They argue about who gets to use the parish hall on Tuesday night.”
Or, “Parking. They quarrel about how to add parking spaces.”
At that point I sighed and said, with irony, “And for this, Jesus died.” People laughed, and we all understood how absurd we church folk can be. We do fight about things like this. Even so, part of me wanted them to make us sound a little less small-minded. Even if they had to make it up, I found myself wishing that they’d say something like this instead:
I wish they had said, “We argue about the best way to help our homeless neighbors.”
Or, “We debate financial divestment from nations and companies that damage the earth or perpetuate injustice.”
Or, “We fight about the difference between charitable handouts and political advocacy.”
Sometimes we church folk argue on that level. There are times when our conflict has to do with our mission, our identity as Christians, our calling as people who follow Jesus of Nazareth. At our best, we want the rumble of a good debate about how to live out our identity as Jesus-followers. Or maybe that’s not our best. Maybe, at our best, we aren’t in conflict at all: we are in agreement, in lockstep, and we know exactly who we are, and what we must do to be a part of the dawning of God’s kingdom in this world.
That’s certainly a worthy ambition for us, particularly in light of our scripture for today, where we hear one of the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah, and Jesus rebukes Peter for looking for the easy way out. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says sharply, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Take up their cross.” That’s a religious metaphor, a metaphor unique to the Christian religion. It can be hard even for insiders to know what it means. The basic meaning is that to be a Jesus-follower means to follow him all the way to his cross, and that means, in short, that we are to be all in. Jesus went all the way: he practiced self-giving love his whole life, and spoke bravely and provocatively on behalf of his kin, his people: the voiceless peasants, the marginalized nobodies, the unclean outcasts of his day. In that place and time, to be that bold, that prophetic, that in-your-face with the authorities, meant execution …and a gruesome, humiliating execution at that.
“Take up their cross,” goes the phrase. The cross: it’s the word at the root of the word “excruciating.” To follow Jesus means to do things that are excruciating. To practice love so fully, so wildly, that we will lead excruciating lives. In Baptism, we are joined not just to this living Christian community. We are also joined to the death of Christ. We share not only in his resurrection, but also his death. He wants us to go all the way.
We shouldn’t be fighting about pews and kitchen drawers and parking spaces. We should be thinking bigger thoughts.
And yet, I have to say, while we definitely have our moments of absurdity, I’ve seen some extraordinary, excruciating Christianity being practiced here.
I know our history as a parish, that thirty years ago this was the only parish in the diocese that offered the liturgy of burial for persons who had died of AIDS and been rejected by their religious communities. We weren’t just open and affirming of gay people in the eighties, which at that time in U.S. history would have been excruciating all by itself. No, we went all the way. We recognized in the Gospels how Jesus himself came not for the healthy but for the sick, and made a habit of placing his hands on those who were ill, or disabled, or disfigured by disease. These people were ritually unclean, which means if you touched them, you too would not be able to enter holy sites, you too would become an outcast. And Jesus went right ahead and did that. And so did we.
But it’s happening now, too. We are building relationships with our neighbors here in Lower Queen Anne, and not just with the merchants and residents and arts organizations that surround our building, but also our homeless neighbors. Some of us sit at table with our dinner guests every month, and build friendships with those who not only have few or no friends, but are practically invisible to most people.
Some of us are passionate about environmental justice, and a few of our parishioners are keenly aware of how our food practices damage the environment. One of them was on Facebook last week, talking about justice for animals abused and killed in factory farming, and she wrote, “I would give my life for this cause.” And I believe it. I’ve been following her faithfully for the last year. She is all in.
And perhaps individual ministry is what we do best, here at St. Paul’s, where there isn’t a strong vibe for corporate ministry—there aren’t a lot of groups or teams that organize themselves around a particular problem or issue. Many of us are more introverted and independent-minded than that. Not all of our folk who are passionate about environmental justice express that passion by advocating for animals. One of us is hard at work researching options for installing solar panels on our roof. Another looks for ways to make our daily operations in the kitchen more green. And I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who gather here Sunday by Sunday are avid environmentalists at home, and working in their own ways to walk more lightly on the earth.
And so I don’t want to scold anyone this morning. That’s not my job, and Jesus does it well enough that his sharp words can stand alone just fine. He is irritated at his friends because they want to deny what he keeps trying to tell them—that he will be handed over, arrested, and executed. They want to pretend that the path he is following won’t be that harsh. And he knows better.
That’s why he sternly orders them not to talk about him as the Messiah. He asks them how he’s being perceived by others, and they tell him what the crowds are saying, that most of the onlookers think he is a famous prophet, maybe even Elijah himself. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his closest companions. Peter speaks for them: “You are the Messiah.” But Jesus isn’t comfortable with this being spread around. He shuts it down. Why?
One probable reason is this: it’s too soon for anyone to understand who Jesus really is, so grand titles will have to wait. Jesus persists in calling himself the “Son of Man,” or, better translated into our language, the “Human One.” He is fully human. And so his followers need to understand that if he is the Messiah, if he is the One for whom generations have waited, he is a fully human Messiah. He is one of us. And that implies that we, too, are called to follow the path Jesus is walking. So we shouldn’t rush to call him “Messiah” before we understand all of that. We need to get it: this Messiah will suffer and die. And, if we intend to follow him, so will we. We will die to our old way of living and being. We will die to lives focused only on ourselves. We will have to go all in.
There is a point in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is finally recognized for who he truly is. A character is watching carefully, and puts it all together. After a whole Gospel of Jesus calling himself the Son of Man—the Human One—and discouraging his friends from assigning him grand titles, a character gives Jesus a new title, and this title is not rejected, not countermanded. “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” says the centurion, moments after Jesus dies. Only then—only at the cross—can we understand who Jesus is. Only there—only at the cross—can we grasp our own calling, our own identity as human ones who want to follow this master of self-giving love.
If you take up your cross—if you go all in—then that’s when we will all see clearly who you really are.