The sermon for week March 04, 2012
THE CROSS BEFORE US, Mark 8:31-38
I stood on the tiled floor, of the cinder block walled fellowship hall of my home church. I was ten or eleven years old. I wore a white robe and an elderly deacon stood beside me. It was the Sunday evening service of the Baptist church and I was about to ascend the wooden steps leading to the baptistry of the sanctuary above us.
There in the waters of the baptistry that raised above my waist I was asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I responded, “I do,” and then upon my profession of faith, the minister lowered me backward into the water until my entire body was submerged under the water and I was baptized.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” was the one and only question asked of me. It is the same question in most mainline churches asked of confirmands at their confirmation and the same question asked of new members when they join the church. The wording may vary but the intent is the same, asking, who is Jesus to you?, and responding, “He is my everything. My Lord, my teacher, my Savior, my hope, in whom I place my trust.”
It is the same question Jesus asked of Peter. “Who do you say that I am, who am I to you,” and the same response, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, my all in all, the One upon whom I have stacked everything, the One I trust completely.”
But, at ten or eleven, what did I know? Enough that sixty years later, I am still following, but still it is a hugh step, at any age, at ten or twelve, forty or fifty years of age. It was for me at ten and is for me at seventy, and it is for each of us, to say of Jesus, “He is my light, he is the central metaphor of my life, my teacher, my exemplar, my Lord, my Savior. In him I seek the meaning of life, in his face I see the face of God; he is for me the way, the truth, the life.”
Jesus knows this about our confession and the confession of Peter. Jesus knows our answer and the answer Peter gave is not simply a check mark on a celestial quiz, but comes from the very core of our life, looking to him to define and tell us who we are, and who we might become, yet answers bigger than ourselves, answers that will sustain us through our lives, part the heavens, lift us to the eternal, and at the end to the embrace of God.
Jesus hears Peter’s confession, he knows the depth of his answer, he knows how much Peter is counting on him, and here is Jesus’ reply, “It is necessary, that the Son of Man, must undergo great suffering, be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus’ reply doesn’t fit. It never fits the expectations implied in our confession of faith. We are looking for triumph and Jesus points us to suffering. We want to begin with the resurrection and Jesus wants us to start with the cross. Peter was probably expecting a Messiah that would overthrow the Romans and establish a reign where perhaps Peter would share in the power. Whatever Peter expected, death was not the response he looked for, or is it with us. How can you make a profession of faith in Christ, expecting that this is going to lead to new life for you, a better life, filled with hope and promise, and the very first thing you are faced with is a crucifixion?
The cross is often for us an enigma, yet is forever enshrined in the words of institution in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus suffers. Jesus dies. We don’t get it. We come to Jesus looking for life, and as he promised, life abundant, and we are given instead the Via Delarosa, the way of the cross.
Some attempt to explain it with theories of atonement. They say, Jesus needed to die for our sins. It was a substitutionary atonement. The theory goes like this, Jesus died in our place. God cannot look upon us because we are sinful, we deserve death, so Jesus dies that death that God might receive us. Others say, it wasn’t God who required Jesus’ death, but the devil. The devil needed a ransom for our souls which he owned by our sin and Jesus paid that ransom in his death.
As a ten year old and a seventy year old these answers, for me, were too brutal, and they are not the answers Jesus gave to Peter in his rebuke of Peter who said, “Never, I will not let this happen. I will not let you be crucified.” Jesus does not answer with a theory.
In fact, Jesus doesn’t give an answer at all. Instead he addressed not only Peter but all his followers who have gathered around to hear this exchange, including us who would be Jesus’ followers in this day and time. Here is Jesus’ reply to Peter’s insistence that there be no crucifixion. “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 safe it.”
Jesus doesn’t explain, as the theories attempt to do, but instead asks us to do the same. Jesus, even as he travels toward Jerusalem and what he knows awaits him there, is still trying to teach us what it is to be human, what it means to be created in the image of God, and Yes, what it is to have life and have it more abundantly, and what he is saying is you can’t get there without suffering, but it is a peculiar kind of suffering, it is a suffering on behalf of others.
Even if you believe in the substitutionary atonement, even if you believe in the theory of the ransom, it still comes down to a point where to find yourself, and Yes, to have life and have it more abundantly, you must lose yourself to something greater than yourself, and that greatness, that greater reality is the love you have inside yourself to share, the same love that was in Christ Jesus when he made his way to Jerusalem and what would be certain death.
Hear these same words of Jesus, insightfully translated by Eugene Peterson in the translation of the Bible entitled, The Message. Here are the same words of Jesus translated from the Greek by Dr. Peterson: “Don’t run from suffering, embrace it...Self-help is no help at all...Self sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self...What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”
Last Sunday the Academy Awards were presented. One of the pictures nominated for Best Picture was, “Descendants”, starring George Clooney. In the movie, Mr.Clooney plays a wealthy business man in Hawaii whose family owns some of the last remaining pristine land on one of the islands. The character, played by Mr. Clooney, has spent his life absorbed in business. He has two daughters, but in the opening narrative describes himself as the back-up parent, that is until his wife is involved in a water accident and lies in a coma on life support in a hospital.
He has to become acquainted with his children, enter into their lives in a way he has never done, facing their suspicions, their rebellion and at the same time their mounting grief for their mother. At the same time he learns from one of his daughters that his wife had been having an affair. The story is of redemption as slowly he enters into his children’s lives and his heart opens, and in the end at the bedside of his wife, the life support removed, the body dying, he buries his head in her, expresses his anger over the affair, his negligence as a husband and father, and yet, his abiding love, a love that takes in the betrayal, a love that suffers, but a love that is at the core of his very being.
That is the love God asks of us, that is the love that makes us human, that is the love God breathed into us when God created us in God’s image. It is the love that completes us, and it is only through that love that we will find the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise for life and life abundant.
That kind of love doesn’t come cheap, but it is the kind of love Jesus’s asks of you as you seek to be his followers and at the very beginning when you first made profession of your faith in Christ, he told you of a cross.
Why do we have this season of Lent? Why in it, do we focus so much upon the cross? Why at communion is it important for us to hear Jesus words, “This is my body broken for you,” It is because in this season, in the cross, in the sacrament of communion, we are not only given the words of eternal life but the way of life. You live beyond yourself, you live for something greater than yourself, you live, motivated, by the love which is within you, the same love that was in Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago Sharon and I received a letter from a friend in Charleston, W. Va. For years we vacationed together with three other couples at the beach and over the last several years have met for a week at Chautauqua. The lives of this couple were full, they lived abroad for two extended periods, he was a plant manager, she helped to co-found the East End Family Resource Center in Charleston, but now there is this, reading from her letter:
“As you know Bill has Alzheimer’s. I think it is late mid-stage. I am not sure he still knows people. The other day he said I sometimes looked like his wife. He can feed himself though messily but needs help with dressing, orienting, etc. When he is concerned about something, he cannot tell me about it, cannot find the words. He just sleeps all the time. It is quite a change from managing chemical plants and doing anything around the house - plumbing, electrical work, carpentry - to not being able to figure out how to get his socks off and on. He refused to return to the nice adult day care after two days and had me stop a service coming to the house to stay with him when I was away, so he goes with me everywhere - tennis, concerts, etc. - and just sleeps. We always liked to hike especially in the mountains, but now we can’t even walk around the block...”
It is not an easy life. Sharon and I were with Bill and Carol last year. “It will have to be their last year,” Carol said, and my abiding image of that week is of Carol leading her husband by the hand, or of the two of them, sitting on a park bench, and she whipping the drool from his lips.
This might not be the romantic love born of novels, but it is a love born of the cross. It is a love that endures. It is a love that abides, and always before us is the cross, knowing there is no place we can go that God is not. The cross before us reminding us God has gone before us, God is with us.
It is the way of the cross. It is the love Jesus asks of us. Amen.