“Many who are first will be last, and the last first ” Mark 10:31
“The meek shall inherit the Earth; if that’s all right with everyone else”. The graffito written on a wall in college days would probably not appear now; the words of the Sermon on the Mount would not be sufficiently well-known for a humorist to use them as inspiration.
The church is, of course, not much in the business of being meek and it certainly is not in the business of being last; whether it’s the bishops in all their finery, or the new evangelical churches with their swish buildings and stacks of technology, the church is at a far remove from a poor man from Nazareth and his motley group of friends. Jesus’ words have been rewritten in the minds of many churches as, “many who are first will be first”.
The faith of those who listened to the Sermon on the Mount; the faith of those whom Jesus promised eternal rewards because of their self-sacrifice and their facing persecution, seemed to disappear in the early centuries and a new sort of church emerged. The Christianity of the Cross had faded away, the meek discipleship of people like those from Galilee did not suit the powerful people who now declared themselves to be ‘Christians’.
By the time of the emperor Constantine, at the beginning of the Fourth Century, Christianity was well-established. Constantine’s conversion in 313 AD and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was a recognition of the reality that already existed. The Anabaptist writer Stuart Murray-Williams suggests that a subtle, but very important, shift took place at the time of Constantine, the Cross was superseded by the Chi-Rho monogram. Chi and Ro were the Greek letters that appear to an English reader as ’X’ and ’P’, they translate in English as ’ch’ and ’r’, the abbreviation of ‘Christ’. Christianity had become the religion of the powerful and the respectable and Chi-Ro was a much more acceptable symbol than the Cross; they did not wish to be reminded of the scandalous roots of their faith.
By the time of the Crusades, the Cross had become not an emblem of suffering and shame, but of dominance and power; to Moslems in the Holy Land it was a symbol of aggression and merciless violence. Christians had forgotten the roots of their faith; they had forgotten the Jesus who was an outcast and a reject and whose death was a scandal; they had forgotten the faith that Saint Paul proclaimed as “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. It was inconceivable that any of the medieval popes would ever behave as the last and the least of all; inconceivable that church wealth and power would be readily surrendered
Christendom became the order of things, Christendom was that state of affairs where the Church and state were joined seamlessly together. Even when the Reformation took place in Europe, a Catholic Christendom was simply replaced by a Protestant Christendom. The Church was about power and influence and respectability, it was not about a Galilean carpenter hanging on a Cross. The church has continued in that vein, being respectable and accommodating ourselves to the powers of the state in order that we retain our influence, hardly mindful of the Gospel call to be the last.
It was the very heavyweight German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who wrote in “The Crucified God” back in 1974, “’The old rugged cross’ contradicts the old and the new triumphal theology which we produce in the churches in order to keep pace with the transformations of an activistic and rapidly changing society.” Moltmann was saying that we should not be constantly trying to accommodate ourselves to the world, instead we should be true to Jesus as he was, being true to his words about expecting persecution and expecting that in the last day, God will turn things upside down: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first. ”
We have become embarrassed at the idea of Jesus inverting the order of things; we are afraid to challenge people to commit themselves to the sort of discipleship of which Jesus speaks, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is easier to talk about an easier, a more comfortable faith than to talk about the faith of the disciples who say to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!”
We forget Jesus’ calling to us when we lose sight of the Cross. Whatever language we might use to theologise those awful hours in Jerusalem, the Cross brings us back to the physical reality of what Jesus endured for us. A church that was fully committed to the Jesus who dragged his Cross to Calvary would be very different from the Church we know. It is hard to imagine that Jesus would recognize much that goes on in his name. The Cross is very troubling for the Church. The Cross is ‘I’ crossed out; it contradicts all ambition and hierarchy and power and influence—no wonder it is not liked.
Being true to the Cross means remembering Jesus as he was, it means embracing a faith where the first will be last and the last will be first. The persecutions of which Jesus speaks aren’t things we actively seek, they come as part of the package in following a man who was despised and rejected. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replies to his disciples, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much .” He doesn’t offer an easy option for those who don’t like the way of the Cross; self-sacrifice is rewarded, but self-sacrifice there must be.
Christians in the first centuries were not troubled by being scandalous. They were on the edge of society. When they were excluded from the Jewish synagogues near the end of the First Century, they became a radical and underground group. They faced a series of persecutions because of their refusal to deny Jesus, but the Christian Gospel was so strong that no persecution was ever going to be successful.
Can the church today muster that degree of faith? Are we prepared to be the last, to be the least of all people, in order that, in God’s way of doing things, we might be the first?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at 9 am on Sunday, 11th October