Sunday, March 12, 2006

2 Lent B

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 16:5-11; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38

We have been on our way through the season of Lent for nearly two weeks now. Hopefully the cravings for the things we gave up have lessened somewhat, the caffeine headaches have subsided, and seven o’clock in the morning doesn’t come quite as early as it did. And perhaps, in the spaces left by the things we gave up, or in the intent of the things we have taken on, perhaps we have become more aware of God’s presence on the way with us.

Looking back, Ash Wednesday was for us, as it is each year, a turning point in a very real way. On that day we made a “right beginning of repentance,” kneeling before God and confessing the sins by which we have tried to make our lives our own. Repentance means turning around, literally changing our minds, changing our direction, and setting our self-centered minds and feet and lives on the way of Jesus. It was, Greg told us in his sermon, despite the somberness of the service, actually a happy day. The ashes smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality traced the same lines once drawn there as a reminder of our new life in baptism.

So here we are, on our way through this season of repentance, looking forward now to Easter when we will fill the spaces left by Lent with Resurrection joy. But today…today we are stopped dead in our tracks by Jesus himself, whose words in the gospel are a reminder that the way we are on leads first to a cross.

It is in many ways a turning point in the gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark has no time to tell birth stories or spout theology – he has Jesus baptized by verse eleven, tested in the desert by verse thirteen, and then Jesus is on his way, preaching, calling, exorcising, healing, cleansing, teaching, performing miracles, a whirlwind of work that by chapter three has those in power, those with authority, seeking his life.

The passage we hear today is at the very middle of Mark’s gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been demonstrating such power and authority to do the work of God that Peter, in the verses just before where we pick up, has declared Jesus must be the Messiah, the One Anointed by God to save God’s people. Peter and the other disciples had given up everything in order to take on following this Jesus, whose way of unswerving justice and fearless faith seemed certain to upset the balance of power and return the kingdom of the world to the people of God.

Then he began to teach them, Mark writes. He would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. We know only Peter’s reaction to Jesus words – what of the others? Did some laugh – ha, that’s a good one Jesus, be killed, rise again. Did some nervously clear their throats, glancing sideways at one another to see if they had heard Jesus right. He’s not serious. Is he serious? He can’t be serious. He’s the Messiah….

Peter, bless him, nearly exploded from the effort of turning Jesus’ words about in his head. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him – Jesus, no, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re the Messiah. This is not the way to the victory we’ve been working towards. How can you win if you’re dead? Apparently Peter hadn’t heard (and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway) that last part Jesus said about after three days rising again….

Perhaps it was for one heartbeat tempting for Jesus to imagine he could use his power and authority differently, how much easier it would be to take the world by force and not by love. But then Jesus turned and rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

At this turning point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus sets his feet toward Jerusalem, where his cross awaits, and he invites not only Peter and the rest of disciples but all who will listen – including us – to walk that way with him.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Jesus used the image of the cross not because he was going to die on one but because hundreds of people died on them each year. The road to Jerusalem was lined with crosses, so that pilgrims on the way to celebrate the Passover, the reminder of their liberation from oppression in Egypt, would be reminded also that they were subject people again, now under the power and authority of Rome. The Messiah, Peter and the others believed, was supposed to save them from this new oppression, not be martyred by it.

And now the Messiah was urging them to die as well? In the end, of course, many of them would. Take up your cross would be for many followers, then and in every age since, not a metaphor but a reality.

And yet, to hear Jesus’ words simply as that sort of death sentence is, I submit, to set our minds on human things rather than divine. How can you speak of hope if you’re suffering? How can you win if you’re dead? Taking up the cross, before it is a way of suffering and death, is a way of living. It is, in fact, the way of life – not just eternal life, but life here and now, life as God has always desired human life to be, a life devoted to loving, healing, and reconciling.

The way Jesus lived – unswerving justice, fearless faith – set the love of God above all else, above all other power and authority the world could set against it, above even the power of death. The way Jesus lived measured success not by power gained but rather by power shared, indeed, by power poured out for those the world considers powerless. Paul would write that Jesus poured himself out, that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

God does not want or need our blood. But God does want and need us to pour ourselves out for the world, to set the love of God above all else. Taking up our cross is not a call to martyrdom – it is a call to life, to taking up our place in the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus did that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done. It is a call that can stop us dead in our tracks.

For our minds are of course set on human things. We wrest in this world whatever power and authority we can in order to survive first, and then, to live comfortably….And we are relatively powerful people here, powerful by virtue of our education, our resources, our relationships, our freedom, our belonging to a community. Giving up power in this world, if you’re not trampled by people who want it for themselves, is certain to earn a few laughs – ha, that’s a good one, giving yourself up – or some nervous throat-clearing and sideways glances – surely you’re not serious. Are you serious? How can you win if you’re dead?

John Calvin, who took up his cross during the Reformation, such a turning point in the history of those who follow Jesus, offered the world this rebuke, perhaps more scathing now than it was those hundreds of years ago. He wrote, “We are not our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own; therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God’s; towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed.”

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Taking up our cross means losing the life in which our power and authority comes first. It means taking on God’s kingdom instead of our own. Taking on God’s way instead of the world’s. And God’s way, unlike the world’s, is not, in the end, about suffering and death, or do we also, like Peter, not hear that last part Jesus said about rising again….

Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. Let us set our mind and feet and lives on divine things, turning to the cross and taking it up as a reminder to live as though nothing could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. Amen.

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