Vicar’s sermon Mark 8.31-38 25.2.24

Jesus said: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ This seems to be the verse for the second Sunday of Lent: the verse that we are to carry with us into the next stage of our journey through this season.
Kim and I got back from holiday yesterday. We’ve been in Devon: and Devon is the home of clotted cream because the grass grows for the cows to eat…and it grows lush and green because the rain comes down and down, the fields are awash and can hold no more water, muddy stream flow down the side of every little country road hiding the foot deep pot holes that are everywhere, the roads are flooded but the cows will be happy once they are let out of their barns onto the hillsides. It was wet. But that doesn’t bother us. We ticked off a return visit to Exeter Cathedral and thought to ourselves ‘If we’ve come all this way we might as well drop down into Cornwall to visit Truro Cathedral too’. Truro is unusual. It only became a Cathedral in the last century (Cornwall used to fall in the diocese of Exeter) and was purpose built…but in a very traditional style. And there, set into one of the walls is a magnificent terracotta sculpture of Jesus’ Passion. All the characters from the story are shown: Pontius Pilate was modelled on Edward VII, Barabbas is in the crowd shielding his eyes (because he’s just come out of a dark prison), the two thieves are off to one side stood at the place of crucifixion bound by chains and watched over by soldiers and there (in the centre of the piece) stands Jesus. The huge upright of the cross is being lifted by Simon of Cyrene. The cross piece has been attached and the gruesome business of execution is about to begin.
I’m not sure what the practice was. Whether Jesus (aided by Simon or not) carried both the upright and the cross beam of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem as portrayed in so many traditional ‘Stations of the cross’. I suspect prisoners had the cross beam laid across their shoulders and it was this that they carried: but this journey seems akin to someone being forced to take their own shovel to dig their own grave. It was part of the torture that Rome meted out on those who opposed her: truly cruel and unusual punishment. Taking up your cross then is to do with being willing to shoulder and share the shame heaped on the one about to die….a long way from our casual use of the phrase ‘we all have our cross to bear’. The person with the cross has ‘Loser’ marked across their forehead. Rome wins again.
Back to the holiday. When we weren’t out Cathedral hopping we sat and read. I’ve never read any of Melvin Bragg’s novels before: I can recommend ‘Now is the time’ which is a historical novel based around the events of the Peasant’s Revolt. Needless to say it doesn’t end well: Richard II sees Wat Tyler killed and then rounds up those who almost brought his reign to an end. But the story is well told. Then, for something completely different Frances Spufford’s book ‘The Backroom boys’. Non fiction but the incredible story of a selection of scientific triumphs from rockets on the moon, through Concorde and supersonic flight to Computer games and then the story of the publishing of the Genome: I never thought science could be so interesting. And finally, Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans. This is a critique of what he calls Critical Social Justice theory (perhaps known best in the US through Critical Race theory) which he believes is undermining the achievements of social liberal democracies. This book’s thesis connects with our gospel reading this morning. Let me explain.
Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theory according to Doyle divides rather than unites people. Just when we thought we could celebrate the multi-cultural nature of our communities racism is apparently everywhere. Just when the country has accepted and celebrated same sex partnerships and marriages it seems we are all homophobic. And whilst progress has been slow in shifting the balance of power between men and women (especially in the workplace) we are in a vastly different place to where we were just 30 years ago. But these gains are not enough. CSJ speaks the language of equality, diversity and inclusion but it feeds on a sense of ‘victimhood’. The experience of the oppressed must guide every policy, every decision: not facts, not argument or consensus, but feelings. And so no one can be trusted. Everywhere there is the possibility of misunderstanding or of an unintentional sleight ending a career. Lectures at universities require lecturers to issue ‘trigger warnings’ just in case students are offended by reading Shakespeare. Because the sensibilities of the ‘victim’ are always right academic freedom of speech is curtailed: some topics are too hot to even discuss. Statues must be pulled down. White prejudice must be acknowledged and rooted out and equality of opportunity is replaced by equality of outcome: for all must have prizes. Any attempt to even challenge this thinking just goes to show that you are an unreconstructed bigot who deserves the internet ‘pile-on’. Interestingly, CSJ applies to the three most contentious issues of the day: Race, sex and gender. But note, (as an article in The Times yesterday happened to point out) it is predominantly pushed by university educated social justice champions who are rather reluctant to champion the most oppressed people in the country, namely the poor.
But I said that there is a connection between this book and today’s Gospel, and it is this: Andrew Doyle believes the Christian Gospel (as understood down the ages) celebrates and elevates victimhood. The man carrying the cross, the man on the cross (he believes) gives this secular philosophy a theological grounding: Jesus, the victim, holds all the cards. He is the one with power, not his oppressors. I confess to being disturbed by that thought and I wonder what you think about it? Is it true? Is this what we have bequeathed to the world? A theology of victimhood? It’s everywhere, isn’t it? It’s there in Israel and Palestine at the moment: who are the victims, who are the oppressed. Whose life is worth more than another life? ‘My hurt is greater than yours so you will keep silent as I am heard’.
It seems to me that victims don’t have agency: that is they don’t choose to be victims. We could say that Jesus gradually has agency stripped away from him. There does come a moment in the story of the Passion where he must submit to the fickleness of the crowd, the violence of the soldiers, the injustices of ‘the system’: these things reduce his scope of influence, his room for manoeuvre. But throughout he chooses this way. He had set his face to Jerusalem many weeks before. He had told his disciples what would happen to him. In Gethsemane he could have refused the cup of suffering offered to him. We’re told he could have called squadrons of angels to his aid. He chose not to. He is not a victim complaining that the world owes him a better deal. He is a freedom fighter taking on the powers and authorities that crush (and continue to crush) God’s image in humanity.
To use a hugely potent example from the last week: Jesus takes up his cross and heads to Calvary in the same way as Alexei Navalny decided that he should return to Russia from Germany to challenge President Putin. There is another way of living. I will live it and be true to it. You may try to crush it by killing me and by so doing the hollowness of your rule will be displayed for all to see. Death is not the end for God is faithful. I have no fear. Do your worst.
This is not victimhood. It is immense courage. It is faithfulness and determination not guilt inducing complaint. Jesus said ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Christians aren’t doormats. They are freedom fighters…and they never give up.

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