Report Offensive Ad   Privacy Policy

Lectionary Sermons: Lent

The Way of the Cross

By Wesley Smith

Lent Two, Year B:
Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38 (posted below)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "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, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels."

Wherever we go, the cross is there, confronting us. Whatever we do, the cross is always there, confounding us. The cross stands in opposition to all that is beautiful and lovely and life-affirming in this world. The cross confronts us with the death of God. Paul tells us as much, the cross is a scandal, a shameful thing in the eyes of the world. The joy and exuberance that we experience Easter morning must go through the cross. There is no avoiding it; at our peril do we minimize its importance. We will be forced, over the course of our lives, to stare suffering and death in the face, perhaps many times. This is unavoidable. As Christians, we are called, led, willed to walk the way of the cross. Understandably and not surprisingly, we do not like this. Our human tendency is to focus on Easter, to zero in on those things that inspire us, lift our spirits, and make us happy. We can speak for hours on end about the joy of salvation and the beauty of grace, but when suffering and sacrifice come into the conversation; things get uncomfortable, even silent. We don't quite know what to make of suffering. Our reflex, our tendency is to make the Christian faith "user-friendly". People don't want to come to church on Sunday morning and hear about suffering. They get enough of that on the evening news, or in their own lives.

That is precisely why it must be talked about in this place. Now I'm sure that this is not the topic that one would normally expect from a youth minister. Perhaps I should talk about something more upbeat, something that will lift spirits and make people smile. The author of Ecclesiastes states that there is a time for everything under heaven. To be sure, there is a time for dancing, celebration, and joy. But, there is also a time for mourning, weeping, suffering. One cannot have a full appreciation for Easter without the journey to the cross. And one cannot truly walk the way of the cross; indeed, one cannot walk with Jesus unless one is willing to confront and face the possibility of suffering. Jesus tells us plainly that in order to follow Him we must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Him. If we choose to be his disciples, we will walk the same road that Jesus walked. This is what Lent is about. This is walking with Jesus. This is the road that leads us to the cross. There are no short cuts. There is no way around. Walking with Jesus is to walk the way of the cross.

What else is discipleship but walking with Jesus, carrying our cross? In today's Gospel reading, Jesus gives us specific insight into what it means to be His follower. We are told clearly what being a follower of Jesus requires from us. The cost, it seems, is quite high. We are to first deny ourselves. Secondly, we are to take up our cross. This does not sound like a description of the blessed life. This does not sound like a pronouncement made from a loving, compassionate God. And we see echoes of this in other books in the New Testament. Both Paul and James tell us to rejoice in our sufferings. Rejoice? Yeah, yeah - rejoice, right. Take joy in suffering, consider it a blessing when you endure hardships, at best that sounds strange in the ears of the world, at worse that sounds perverse. And this pronouncement has always puzzled me, as I'm sure it has puzzled many of you. Let's look a little bit closer at what Jesus is talking about.

It is useful to take note of the fact that this passage occurs directly after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ. Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples respond, "John the Baptist, some say that you are Elijah, and some say that you are a prophet." Jesus then asks the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter responds, "You are the Messiah." The Anointed One. The One who will save all of Israel and redeem humanity. Then, a curve ball...The Savior of the world must undergo great suffering. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. It's important that we not miss the importance of that statement. [See the Son of Man references in Ezekiel (prophet, mouthpiece of God) and Daniel (Son of Man coming on the clouds). Note that the very one that should sit in judgment will instead be judged by the very ones that he should be judging!] The Son of Man, the Messiah, will die. Jesus does tell the disciples that he will rise again after three days, but according to Peter's reaction, we might assume that Peter stopped listening after Jesus' statement about his death. Peter jumps to his feet - "No way Jesus! This isn't what you are about! You are about life, not death. You are about joy, not suffering. You are here to restore God's glory, not be broken by the world!" A little later on, Peter will make the same kind of mistake when he misunderstands the Transfiguration. In this passage, Peter again is assuming that he knows what Jesus is all about. Peter even goes so far as to take Jesus aside and tell him what to do. Peter assumed that he knew what the Messiah was all about. We often make the same mistake. We assume we know what grace is about. We are under the impression at times that grace is a beautiful, wonderful, happy gift. Like a neat little present waiting for us under the Christmas tree. Jesus' words in today's Gospel reading show us a different side. Grace is a hard-won, messy, bloody affair. The grace of God that is lasting is great and wonderful because of the price that it exacted.

Many of you may have heard of the early twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was outspoken and vocal in his resistance to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was hanged at the concentration camp at Flossenberg on April 9, 1945. If anyone can speak to the true nature of discipleship and what it requires, it is Bonhoeffer. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about the two kinds of grace - cheap grace and costly grace. The first is cheap grace. Allow me to quote the great theologian: "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." Cheap grace is grace without commitment, any grace that allows us to be blind to the suffering in our world, any grace that lets us ignore the suffering within ourselves and within others. Cheap grace is given to us and then is put on the shelf, as a trophy." This, in my understanding, is what Jesus means when he talks to Peter about having his mind on human things. Humans, especially humans in this culture, want two things, it would seem, above all - results and convenience. God's grace? What's in it for me? Will God's grace make my life better? Will it make things easier? Will it end the pain? Will it end the suffering? I feel a little apprehensive talking about this, I am comforted that the message is not mine, but it is the message of Jesus. Suffering is a hard thing to talk about because I do not know your suffering. I can't bear your pain. I can't understand the depths of someone else's pain. So, when studying this morning's passage, my instinct was to put a positive spin on things. Granted, there is a silver lining - Jesus tells us about his resurrection. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will indeed save it. My initial desire was to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, to leave the darkness of the tunnel behind. I wanted to talk about the daybreak after the dark night. During Lent I believe that would be unwise. In order to get to the light, one must walk through that tunnel. In order to gain true life, you must give it up.

Jesus, in verse 34, gives us the blueprint, the map if you will, of the life of discipleship. The road is steep and the path is a hard one to walk. At times, we will fall behind. At times we will grow weary and tired. But, nevertheless, we walk. We walk with Jesus. We walk with the cross of commitment whatever shape that commitment takes, strapped to our backs. Now sometimes, when we lag or come to a standstill, we need a reminder of why we walk and where we are going.

When I was a child, my family would take occasional trips to the mountains, and we would walk on trails and visit the overlooks in the Appalachian Mountains. At the start of these hikes I would be full of energy and would constantly have to be told to settle down and not run ahead or off the path. As the hike got steeper and the time wore on, I would get tired and little bored from walking. Then, I would start to lag behind the group. This, in turn, would irritate my father, who would say things like "come on, boy, keep up" or "quit dragging your feet." Sometimes, we need that same rebuke in our walk with Jesus. And sometimes, it's not all that gentle...

Our first signpost on our walk of discipleship, our walk to the cross, is Jesus' instruction for us to deny ourselves. It's a common occurrence for Christians during Lent to misinterpret what "denying yourself" means. During Lent, we give up things like chocolate, soft drinks (I'm guilty here), fatty foods, and, well, you get the picture. We equate the phrase "deny yourself" with "deprive yourself of pleasure." This isn't what Jesus is going for, exactly. We get a clear picture of what Jesus is talking about in Philippians 2. Paul tells us that we are to have the mind of Christ, which is to say, we are to have the same worldview or outlook as Jesus. Paul continues to say that Christ poured himself out or emptied himself (the Greek word there is kenosis, we can think about like the emptying of a pitcher) and was obedient even to death - death on the cross. Denying yourself means to empty yourself. Empty yourself? Of what? Yourself. Paul says in another letter that we are to die to ourselves daily. We are to deny ourselves, empty ourselves daily. We are to empty ourselves so that we may be filled by the Holy Spirit of God. When we are full of ourselves, we leave little room for God to dwell within us. We fill our lives and indeed ourselves with so many things, so many worries, so many selfish desires and tendencies, that we often leave little to no room for God to dwell within us. And I am just as guilty as anyone. Lent gives us the opportunity to be intentional about emptying ourselves of ourselves so that we may be filled with God's grace and God's presence.

The second element of discipleship is taking up our cross. There is a term that we use that is related to this instruction from Jesus. When someone is in a very difficult situation, perhaps they are fighting a disease, or a disability, or perhaps they find themselves in an abusive relationship, some may say that that is their "cross to bear." This would imply that the crosses that we bear are picked up by us, but placed upon us without our choosing them. In this passage, we get a different picture of cross bearing. When we take up our cross, we choose to do so. Christ didn't say "deny yourself and accept the cross placed upon you," he said, "Take up your cross." Choose to carry the cross and walk with Christ. This cross is not about suffering that we may find ourselves in; it's about claiming that grace during those times of suffering. Taking up the cross is about the willingness to empty yourself of yourself. It's about having the faith that when we do that, God will lift us up to new life. The cross we bear is not the illness, or the disability, or the abusive situation, it is our decision to move forward in the face of those things. The cross we bear is the fact that despite the hardships and suffering that can weigh us down, we keep walking. One foot in front of the other, the cross of commitment strapped to our backs. Our feet not dragging.

This is what Bonhoeffer refers to as "costly grace." To quote once again, costly grace "is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a (person) the only true life." Even in the darkest part of the journey, when the load seems the heaviest, there is grace. Even in the darkest part of the tunnel, there is light to be seen. Even in the midst of suffering, there is the promise of redemption. Even in the face of death, there is the promise of resurrection. There is a quote by the author William Sloane Coffin that talks about suffering in the Christian life. He says, "All of us suffer. The tragedy is suffering that never gets redeemed, suffering that never gets healed, suffering that never leads to greater strength, suffering that never leads to new life. Jesus died on the cross to meet us in our weakness, so that by his suffering our suffering might be made useful, might be redeemed." The Lenten season is to remind us that we are on a journey to the cross. The Lenten season is to remind us that we must empty ourselves, take up our crosses, at times endure suffering and face death. We are on a walk that leads us to the cross. It is by God's infinite grace that suffering, emptiness, and death do not have the final say. Our cries shall be heard. Our broken hearts and lives shall be mended. Our suffering shall be redeemed. Though we journey in darkness, there is light up ahead.

More Lectionary Sermons
Ancient and Future Catholics

Index  Basic Beliefs  Articles
Lectionary Sermons  Art, Poetry, and Hymns  Prayers and Devotions  Objections and Concerns
Who We Are  Staff  Contact Us  Reading List  ChurchYear.Net