“Imperial Peace, Crucifixion, and Earning Our Reputation”
Text: Matthew 16: 21-28
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
One of my friends from seminary, Dan, went on to pursue a career in clinical psychology after graduation. We got the chance to catch up last summer and he had a great line about his work that I think applies to lots of things, including today’s gospel reading. He said, “People don’t change unless there’s a crisis. Sometimes I have to create the crisis for them.” He wasn’t talking about creating the actual conditions of crisis that exist externally—foreclosure, marriage problems, health crises. Those are already in the world, those are the things people come to talk with him about. He was talking about creating a crisis of self-understanding in order change patterns of thinking and behavior. It’s a crisis that comes from fully confronting the question, “What kind of person am I and how might I live, in light of these circumstances?”
Jesus’s speech to the disciples in Matthew 16 definitely sounds like it might have thrown them into a crisis of self-understanding (poor Peter!). But Jesus’ words were not the actual crisis. The actual, external crisis was the daily threat and reality of crucifixion itself: happening all around them, all over Judea, all over the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved specifically for slaves, thieves, and enemies of the state. And since the brutality of the Roman Empire created such a high number of slaves, thieves, and enemies of the state—through war, invasion, and land theft—there were an awful lot of crucifixions. Possibly some of the disciples’ grandparents were alive during the Third Servile War when, across the Mediterranean Sea, along a 120-mile stretch of Roman road, six thousand rebel slaves were crucified at once. Right then and there with Jesus in Galilee, too, times were pretty hot. Chances are that by this point in their lives, the disciples had spent a fair amount of time trying *not* to get crucified. Because, as far as the empire was concerned, they were already guilty by association: Judeans had a reputation for disobedience. Always stirring up trouble, looking for an excuse to flout Caesar’s “peace.” Most of the disciples had probably already witnessed a crucifixion or two, because crucifixions were meant to be seen. They were meant to send a message. To remind people like the disciples that in the Roman system “law and order” served the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. And if you found your own ability to survive or protect your family was compromised by those interests, best keep your head down and keep quiet. Or else, the cross. The crisis is the cross.
In light of that crisis, what does Jesus tell his people?
Does he say: “Hey, don’t worry, everything’s going to be alright”—?
Does he say: “Just be polite, pull your pants up, don’t smoke or steal, and they might let you might live long enough to see your children be born”—?
Does he lie to the disciples?
Does he minimize how bad things are, or how much worse they might get?
He tells them, more or less: Earn your reputation. Caesar finds you to be a troubling, disobedient people. So go ahead trouble him. Your obedience is to God, not the state. The work I’m calling you to do does not reap accolades, or comfort, or safety but the risk is worth it. This is bigger than us. This is about building the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
We don’t have to time-travel to ancient Palestine to find people so sick of state violence they’re willing to put it all on the line. Jesus has certainly not cornered the market there. People are following suit, for example, in Ferguson MO. It’s not making all the TV news but there has been some tremendous ministry of presence and healing happening in Ferguson since August 9th. Lots of it by clergy but more of it by lay people, both churched and unchurched. I’d like to read you a short account from one of those lay ministers—a grandmother and community leader, Elizabeth Vega. In an incident that took place on the eighth day of protests, when a large group of teenagers peacefully gathered on the sidewalk to exercise their civil rights and disobeyed police orders to disperse, she describes one of the young men who refused to move:
“Let them shoot me!” He screamed. “They are going to shoot me anyway. I might as well die for something I stand for.” Four of us surrounded him urging him to come with us. I had my hand on his chest and I could feel his heart pounding as he railed at the police two feet away. Tears streaming down his eyes he screamed until he was hoarse the names of everyone he knew who had been hurt by the police. When he was done we were all crying. We thought we had a victory when he walked away. Then police pulled [another young person] out of the arms of my friend Jan and arrested him. “They snatched that baby out of my arms,” Jan screamed. “What do we do? We don’t even know his name.” Keep in mind this wasn’t after dark. This was in the afternoon standing on the Ferguson SIDEWALK!!
I hear a great deal of moral outrage coming from pundits across the political spectrum—that the folks protesting in the streets of Ferguson are nothing more than “freeloaders,” “looters,” and “gangbangers.”
Freeloaders, looters, and gangbangers.
Poor people, hungry people, angry people.
“No angels,” as the New York Times might say.
Disruptors of imperial law and order.
Slaves, thieves, and enemies of the state.
Likely candidates for crucifixion.
It’s as if a community demanding attention to the inciting incident for these protests—the murder of Michael Brown—or the history leading up to that murder were somehow a graver crisis than the actual murder itself. But that is not the example Jesus demonstrates for us in today’s reading. When there is a real-world crisis of state violence, Jesus names it. He calls us, as his followers, not only to see this crisis but also to be changed by the knowledge that it exists. Not vaguely changed. Not moved sentimentally. Changed in our minds and in our behaviors so that we, like him, move through this world with a bigger agenda than saving our own skin. Crucifixion only works if it shuts up the witnesses and survivors; we take the risk of speaking out in our lifetime so that the next generation might not have to fear it.
This week, think back to a time in your own life where you went through a crisis of self-understanding. How did it change you? As you remember that part of your own story, look for the places where it connects to the bigger story—the story of our country, the story of our faith. Where are the places where you trust yourself to follow Jesus and where do you find yourself empathizing with Peter? Or favoring Caesar’s “law and order” over living, breathing daughters and sons of God? Just notice all those things. If you find yourself starting to panic or get reactive, take some deep breaths and remember that the crisis stirring in your mind is not itself the ongoing crisis of the cross. The external crisis is what God wants us to answer for. So what kind of people are we, and how then might we live, in light of these circumstances?