24th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2021

In the film, “Emerald City” David Williamson has one of the characters declare, “No-one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest.”  This may be, in part, due to the origins of Sydney itself.  Outside the Sydney Hospital on the Macquarie Street footpath is a small plaque commemorating the site of the first hospital in Sydney, built by two businessmen in exchange for rum licenses.  Thus it began, and thus it continues.  Thomas Kenneally wrote in his early account of the city, The Commonwealth of Thieves:

“Both our hedonism and our conservatism . . . derived from Georgian England rather than Victorian England.  Sydney is still a very Georgian town with its exorbitant rorts, its passion for real estate. All we are interested in are the lucky stories, which is a very Georgian thing.”[1]

The passion for real estate, the constant pursuit of wealth, influence, and ultimately, power make Sydney a very flashy city.  Sydney flashes both its passion and its pursuits.  This was the theme of Williamsons’ “Emerald City.”  Regretfully, it seems that the playwright, Neil Armfield might be right when he once observed ‑ in a way that echoes David Williamsons’ observation ‑ “The Sydney Opera House is entirely Sydney:  fabulous on the outside, truncated, confused and corrupt on the inside.”[2]  

Even though probably none of us have the where-for-all to generate such passion and pursuit, it is all around us.  We can easily be seduced into them, albeit in subtle ways.  In a Georgian kind of way we become fascinated by the lucky stories and in some quiet way hanker that our own might share in them.  The story that we have just heard in the life of Jesus confronts this hankering.  The encounter between Peter and Jesus is the encounter between two different ways of living, two different sets of expectations about the way in which we find happiness.

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  These words are at the very heart of the Gospel of Mark.  And Mark puts them at the centre of his gospel so that these same words might be at the very heart of our discipleship.  We have become so used to these words.  Yet, they are some of the most confronting words that we will ever hear:  Take up your cross and follow me.  

For the significance of the words to remain fresh for us we have to keep putting ourselves back into the time of Jesus and wonder at how the first disciples would have heard these words.  The cross was a familiar sight in 1st century Palestine.  Crucifixion was the preferred method of the Romans of putting people to death.  It was a shocking, brutal strategy implemented to keep people terrorized into submission.  It was also something very public.  The Romans would crucify people not out of sight but right outside the gates of the city, so that every time people came in and out of the city they had to endure the horror of seeing people dying on the crosses erected there.  We can forget just how brutal the Romans were.  And their brutality was increased by the way they would humiliate those they had conquered.  They crucified people naked.  For the Jewish people this was the ultimate humiliation. When people thought of crosses all they would be able to think about was two things: death and humiliation.  So when Jesus begins to say, “Take up your cross and follow me” the shock must have been palpable.  “You are asking us to be humiliated and die?”  It is little wonder that Peter would remonstrate with Jesus so forcibly.  He stands for each of us who recoils from the suggestion that we should suffer a humiliating death.

Why, then, is the cross at the very centre of Jesus’ understanding of life?  Why, now, does the cross figure so prominently in our worship, in all our buildings, in our prayer? Because it is the most shocking and confronting reminder that if we are to follow Jesus, then there is no alternative.  If we follow Jesus we will be humiliated and we will die.  This is the journey on which we will find ourselves.  It is an extraordinary proposition, when we think about it. It is firstly a journey of humiliation.  What does Jesus mean by this?  It is a journey in which we will be stripped of our pretence, of our masks, of our illusions.  We will laid bare, we will be rendered vulnerable.  We will descend to a point of sheer nakedness at which we have no longer any defence, any guard, any protection.  We are to enter into the crucifixion of ourselves. We cannot follow Jesus without entering into that same journey of self-emptying.  

This, however, is not about self-annihilation.  Because we have to ask, “Well, why would we do this?” Why would we commit ourselves to such a journey?”  We go on such a journey only because of a possibility that it presents for us.  What is that possibility? It is the possibility of discovering a freedom to rise to the other. We die to our self so that we might rise to each other.  We die to selfishness so that we might we might be able to share life more fully, more widely.  We live without defence so that we might be more open to receive the other.  We live without pretence so that we might relate to others more truly. We live without illusions so that we might live more hospitably.  We die to our self so that we might live with more receptivity to one another, and more participation with each other.  Locked within our self we live in isolation. Prised open we live in communion.  Communion, not isolation, is the truth of our humanity because it is the truth of the divinity in whose image we are made.

For this reason, we die and we rise.  We take up our cross and follow him

[1] From Steve Meacham “Regret and rejoice: this is Australia” Sydney Morning Herald 3 October 2005, on Thomas Keneally: The Commonwealth of Thieves:  The Sydney Experiment (Random House 2005).

[2] Neil Armfield, An Address,  “Creative Futures – Cultural Life in Sydney 2030,”  Sydney Town Hall, 24 July 2007 

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