Is Peter offering advice to a dear friend or is he a bad influence? And what does it mean to take up a cross and follow Jesus?
Isaac S. Villegas, who is a Mennonite pastor in North Carolina, poses a new approach. This is what he says, “I was taught that the Christian life was a spiritual workout, to exercise muscles of self-denial until they hurt…[The leaders] taught us that the Christian life was an obsession with individualistic piety, a spirituality that befits a culture focused on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. … When Jesus invites his disciples to take up the cross, he’s pointing at the torturous mechanism of Rome’s power to silence subversives, not evangelical pietism. Jesus wants his followers to know what they’re committing to: a political movement of revolutionary community that will make them enemies of the establishment.…The point, Jesus says, is to bear witness to the gospel of life even if each decision will lead to execution at the hands of oppressors. ‘Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,’ Jesus says, ‘will save it.’”
I have often addressed the first question about Peter--is he giving bad advice or not? And, I have often considered what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus from the viewpoint of spiritual practice and from the viewpoint of the baptismal covenant--that I will consider others as I nurture my relationship with God. So, Pastor Villegas’ approach isn’t entirely foreign to me but it is a new way for me to look at “take up your cross”. Self-denial isn’t the point, being a subversive revolutionary is the point.
Recognizing the poor will always be with us is one thing. Getting to know the poor is revolutionary. Alleviating the suffering of the poor, the sick, the unhoused, the naked, and the immigrant is subversive.
Recognizing that when we help any of the above, we don’t diminish ourselves but enrich our lives with new friends, maybe new and more diverse neighbors, and a better community for us all can be the outcome. And, we will get pushback from the establishment because for some the main consideration in life is that there isn’t enough to go around and my life will be diminished if I give to someone who obviously doesn’t deserve it because they have no bootstraps with which to pull themselves up. It must be their fault that they are sick, or poor, or must leave their homeland, or don’t have a home, or are naked.
And, some folks who are in these situations will tell you they did have something to do with the plight they are in at the moment. And, yet, think of all the times you and I have done stupid things and heaved a big sigh of relief that there were no bad consequences or that the consequences could have been worse. We were lucky or had resources or friends and family to help us.
So, speaking truth to power was well, it was Jesus’ thing--basically his only thing. Even healing the sick was a response to the lack of care for those who were suffering in so many ways. Early church people followed his lead and fed the hungry, cared for the sick and dying, and told good news to the poor. And it was all subversive revolution and it was not praised by those in power.
It is interesting to me that our small congregation sponsored a young woman to go to seminary, and she is a subversive revolutionary in our midst. And, while there has been pushback from the establishment, there is also some respect there because some can see that Sarah’s actions aren’t about ego or even self-denial, they are about recognizing the humanity of others, no matter their situation in life, and getting to know them as friends, as brothers and sisters. And taking on the deep grief of loss and the deep joy of redemption and recovery.
Knowing her has stretched me beyond anything I ever thought I could do or be. And there are scores of people in our community who could say the same because she has made them revolutionaries, too. Or, in many cases, she sees them for who and what they are and loves them anyhow--just like Jesus does for us all.
Pick a subversive you admire or maybe a subversive who scares you a bit and follow their example this Lenten season; consider how you can become a subversive revolutionary in your own sphere of influence-take up your cross and follow Jesus!