Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Psalm 22:22-30 Romans 4:13-25
One important question comes to the forefront of our minds during Lent – “What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus? Frederick Buechner says that after his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness asking himself the question – “What it meant to be Jesus.” During Lent, we Christians are to ask what it means to follow Jesus.
Before we can understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we must understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. For first century Jews, the Messiah would deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. Galilee was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. No one expected a suffering and dying Messiah. That just was not a part of the picture. Just at the mention of suffering, rejection and death, all listening stopped. They could hear no more. This kind of talk was crazy, totally unacceptable and foolish. No need for a resurrection, for the Messiah would never suffer and die. But that is exactly what Jesus is preaching. That is what being the Messiah means to him.
Peter has other ideas. Peter’s rebuke reflects the way we humans think. The way to victory is the way of power and might, the might that makes things right and results in a glorious kingdom. Just look at human history. We know that history is written by the victors. Just look at our own lives. But for Jesus and any who would be his followers, there is another way.
Jesus says to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. Jesus could not have chosen a more vivid image. In first-century Palestine, the cross meant only one thing: death, the cruel, tortuous death for anyone who threatened Caesar’s kingdom. The Romans put up crosses like billboards on the interstate advertising Caesar’s power. Jesus’ hearers knew exactly what taking up the cross meant. In 6 CE they had watched the Romans crucify two thousand Galileans. Imagine the impression that would have on a young Jesus.
As long as the self is the center of our world, as long as the self reigns, we will forever be seeking shortcuts to the kingdom. We may try and try again to substitute another way for the way of the cross. But only when we deny ourselves can we take up our cross and follow Jesus. All our efforts to save our lives are useless. All our efforts to make another way are a denial to the one who showed us the way, the way of the cross. This is true discipleship. In the end, true messiahship and true discipleship are connected. When we are finally willing to accept Jesus for who he is, the suffering one who lays down his life for others, then we can understand who we are to be, and denying self, we can take up the cross and follow him.
In praying and sitting with this scripture, I was reminded of a Kairos story. I love the Kairos Prison Ministry and know that God got me involved to form me, shape me, transform me. I have learned so much from the experience and know that I would not be standing here today if I had not served in Kairos. In 2004, I was working a Kairos weekend at Washington State Prison outside Sandersville. The chaplain there was called Chaplain Mary, I can’t remember her last name. She was a dynamic African-American pastor and preacher.
That weekend, she really wanted a woman, Gloria, she had been working with to attend the weekend. The woman had a host of mental health issues. In fact, she came Thursday night from Lock-Down, after some altercation. Two officers escorted her into the room. Things were going smoothly until mid-morning on Friday. During one of the talks, she began to wail, yell out and cry. The Chaplain had her removed from the room and called me over. I was not ordained and had just begun to ponder ordained ministry. She told me she wanted me to go with Gloria. I immediately said, “who me, I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t do it.” She looked at me and moved her face right in front of my face and said, “You can do it. You are a mighty woman of God.” She held my hands, said a prayer and sent me off.
Well, you know us Episcopalians – without our prayer book, we are naked. I muddled through. I sat with Gloria, held her hand, handed her tissues, and prayed. I breathed deeply inviting the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide me. I prayed for Jesus to touch her, heal her, to be present with her. I rebuked the evil forces within her in the name of Jesus. After about thirty minutes, she was calm and I was exhausted. We both returned to the common room and continued the day. What I had to lay down was a sense of inadequacy. What…. God can use me? So if I move more of myself out of the way, Jesus can come and the Holy Spirit can fill me and use me. God surely surprised me that day!
The cross is the heart of the gospel, and bearing the cross is a central requirement of discipleship. Making a confession that Jesus is the Christ is not enough. If he is the Christ, then he expects to be followed and obeyed. He doesn’t ask for modest adjustments in our lives, but a complete overhaul of our behavior. He calls us to bear a cross. Cross-bearing refers to self sacrifice. The call for self-sacrifice is soft pedaled in a lot of churches. No one wants to talk about sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a fruit of the month selection of spiritual fulfillment, or intoxicating spiritual experiences or intellectual stimulation. He presents them a cross. He doesn’t invite them to try the cross on for size, walk around, feel the weight of it to see if they like it. He doesn’t ask for volunteers to carry one for extra credit. This demand separates disciples from admirers.
Disciples join those who have suffered for Jesus’ sake. Disciples find Jesus at the center of their lives, not themselves, not their will but God’s will. Admirers may acknowledge him as the Messiah but dig in their heels when he calls them to follow a particular path, much like the rich young ruler not wanting to give up his possessions.
The message for disciples, for all of us is that God loves us so much that we can become mighty men and women of God. We are gifted, empowered, loved and beloved. We are here to help others see and experience God. So what is it that gets in the way of our living into God’s promise as mighty men and women of God? What is it that stops us from taking up our cross and following Jesus?
What is it that is getting in the way of your relationship with God? What is it that is holding you back from being all that God wants you to be? God wants all of us to be healed and whole. What is it that you need to do to open the door of your heart for God to enter more fully, more deeply. Lent is a wonderful time for pausing and pondering, for reading more deeply. In Lent, we are reminded of the sorrow and sin that are still present in the world, and perhaps in our own hearts. God brought the new world into being in and through Jesus. God is making everything new and God invites us to be a part, to join in, to be made whole.
What does your cross that you are holding in your hands represent? What part of yourself do you need to lay down to be able to take up your cross – pride, insecurity, indifference, inadequacy, anger, pain, grief, fear? The cross calls us and also the vertical line reminds us to continually work on our relationship with God. The horizontal line tells us to work on our relationship with other people. Hold your cross, pray with it, keep it close as you journey the days of Lent. We will do more with the crosses later. Love that serves others no matter the cost clashes heads with the culture that believes we should seek our own advantage, no matter the cost or the hurt to others. Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. His self-giving love remains a permanent mystery even to Christ’s most devout followers.
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up cold about 3 AM. The weather had been so weird, I had turned off my central heat. I got up and got a space heater out and plugged it up. It was a different one than I usually use and got bright red and made noise – a kind of tinny noise. Zebi, who had been asleep on the bed, raised her head trying to figure out what this new thing was. The heater also has a thermostat that lets it come on and go off. After about the third time, Zebi ears are perked up. I talked to her to comfort her, but she starts moving – moving away from the dragon and over me in the bed.
In a few minutes, 80 pounds of moving pressure and she was on the other side of me, with me in between her and the dragon. Isn’t that what we do with God? Hide behind the name of God, or hide behind our label as Christians, hide where it is safe and secure. But Jesus is asking us, telling us, beckoning us to move beyond, to lose our fears and uncertainty. Jesus is calling us to step out, to use our gifts, to form a community, to commit, to love, to become. Jesus is calling us to love more, do more, be more, if we just take up our cross and follow him and then we can be mighty men and women of God. Amen.