by Philip Turner.
Though I attended my local Methodist Church at least twice each week as a child, I do not remember seeing a cross. I saw organ pipes pointing upwards, casting a shadow over the raised pulpit, but no cross. It was only later that a small wooden cross was rebelliously placed on the communion table under the pulpit. It was only after that when, where once had been a flower festival display at the back of the chapel, a cross remained that flower arrangers decided not to dismantle, and the rest of us let it be.
I’ve often wondered why my childhood Methodist chapel was designed without a cross, and the congregation had, for many years, been content to leave it that way. It is still a mystery, but this year I feel I may have some insight.
Since January, my church community has been steadily reading reading the account of the last few days and hours of Jesus’ life in Mark’s Gospel. I’ve read this account many times, yet the impact this year feels different. It isn’t because, unlike in my childhood, I now have a cross to look at: my church meets in a nearby coffee shop where there are no fixed displays of faith. But reading Mark, and honestly struggling with what it means today, has presented a picture of the cross that has shaken me to the core.
This is because, in Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, no less than three times, that he must die.[i] It is because Mark highlights, not so much Jesus’ physical pain, but how he is humiliated. It is because Mark painstakingly shows how his so-called ‘disciples’ left him, his faith leaders disown him and the civil authorities make fun of him. So far has popular opinion swung away from him, that not one single person casts a sympathetic vote in his favour. Not even his mother, in Mark’ account, comes out in the support of her son. And God remains silent. The desolation goes even further. On the cross, the last remaining thread of human dignity and and self protection is removed; Jesus’ body is shown as frail and completely exposed for all to see. Yet, what is most disturbing is not what is seen, but the invitation we can still hear. We remember that Jesus has said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.‘[ii]
Samuel Wells[iii] highlights, among other things, that 90 percent of Jesus’ life was obscured and hidden. The remaining 10 percent was his recognised public activity, and a small percentage of that was his suffering and death. The implication is that, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it might be reasonable to expect a similar outline for our own lives. Yet, to what extent is that our expectation?
I work as a chaplain in my local acute hospital where I often meet patients and their families who are shocked by the realisation that this life is short and that they must, one day, die. Fortunately, unlike Jesus, most of us need not experience pain: modern medication has almost eliminated that necessity. However, it is beyond the ability of modern medicine to address the humiliation highlighted in Jesus’ experience. Modern medicine can’t relieve the hurt we feel when people let us down. There is no painkiller for the abandonment that we can feel. The reason, Frances Spufford assures us, is the Human Propensity to Mess things Up, which means that we should not be surprised when we experience human cruelty.[iv]
I wonder whether those of us seeking to follow Christ often reach for the vision, but avoid the realism. This might have been the reason for the absence of the cross in my childhood chapel, yet I suspect that the visual cue does not automatically lead to engagement with our own cross that Mark’s Gospel presents. Certainly, I am both grateful and disturbed by the realism that my current church community has uncovered. Yet, I also reach for the vision. Morna Hooker reminds us, ‘Jesus loses his life, and is saved by God; he accepts shame, and receives glory; and he expects nothing less from his followers.’[v]
[i] Mark 8.31; 9.31; and 10.33f
[ii] Mark 8.34
[iii] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p.24f.
[iv] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), passim and p.233.. He prefers the initials HPtFtU..
[v] Morna D. Hooker, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994), p.53.