The Way of the Cross
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, September 20, 2015
Today, we heard in (Mark 8:34), “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Clear, stark instructions. Maybe painful for us to hear.
Imagine you’re dead. And on your epitaph, you see on your gravestone, the following inscription: “He took care of himself.” Or “She took care of herself.” And then we get to see, at the end of our lives, the horror and fatal boredom of our self-preservation. This is what our culture of buying insurance and saving for retirement is predicated on: the saving of self. But Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “For whoever would save his life will lose it.” What does that mean? Whoever would save his life will lose it? I think the primary means of saving ourselves are twofold: one: acquisition of wealth and two: preservation of the self at all cost. Preservation of self is of course is the opposite of denying ourselves, of taking up the cross. But it is our all too familiar life. It is choosing a clutter of things instead of a quality of life; it is making a choice for the things we have over who we are.
Let’s continue: “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospels will save it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of the Father.” (Mark 8:35-38) A literal interpretation would read: those who want to preserve their physical life in the face of possible martyrdom by denying Christ (a very real choice in the Middle East today) will forfeit their life in eternity. It’s a stark choice. To either embrace or to deny Christ is to give up everything. I think of the nuns at Saiyedna Monastery when they were abducted. There was a wonderful video of them incarcerated, but laughing and loving each other, giving really no thought for their own welfare. This is our living example. And yet God is merciful and is willing to take us back even when we are faced with this choice and we fail.
Because it’s straightforward and frightening to imagine Christ being ashamed of us, ashamed of me.
To be honest, I never really liked sermons about the cross. They always went to dark places, and I was always more interested in the light. But the thing is, you can’t really get to the resurrection without the cross. It’s at the cross that we see God at his most humble and the living example of voluntary suffering. Why is the word voluntary so important? When Pontius Pilate said, “don’t you know I have the power to release you?” Jesus replies, “You would have no power unless it had been given to you from above.” (John 19:11) He is telling Pilate, there is something much bigger happening here. This is not your choice, it’s mine. I am setting the stage, not you. So why is suffering necessary? It’s a really good question, and the best answer is that all love involves risk. God will never compel us to love him, and because of that one fact, there is all manner of evil in the world. Yet, he who takes no risk does not love. For us, death is real, it’s a real tragedy that we have caused, but is conquered by Christ, by his humble empathy with our suffering. Love is humble and creative and restricts itself, forgets itself; it always promotes the welfare of the beloved. And God is never as strong as when he is most weak, because Christ offers us not a way around suffering, but through it with saving companionship. Jesus takes on our loneliness, our alienation and our inner conflict and he substitutes himself for us. It’s a hard concept, but it allows St. Peter to say, “Let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” (I Peter 4:19) So, is it the will of God that we suffer? Answer: let us commit ourselves to doing good because He is faithful. It’s a little bit of a disjointed answer. It’s little like Job questioning God, and God answering “How little you know… where were you when I created the world?” But it’s more than that, because of the example of the cross, we can say, “let us commit ourselves to doing good because we know that He is faithful to us.”
St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle: “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) To have faith is to trust that for we who may feel worthless, misunderstood or unappreciated, Jesus takes our place. He gives himself for us. Imagine Barabbas. Jesus literally took his place on the cross. Imagine what he must have thought: “Jesus died for me. He took my place.” In a sense, we are all a bunch of Barabbases. Yes, I am subject to death, but Jesus took my place, and no one else can really bear this in the same way that the incarnate God can. Jesus gave himself for us fully and completely on the cross. And this is the moment when God and humankind meet at the deepest possible level.
Before Christ’s supreme act of love on the cross, we stand naked. And the only real response to the cross is in meekness and humility to surrender our wills to Him. When Jesus died on the cross, a whole new process of regeneration and rehabilitation began. As St. Paul said in (Rom. 8:20) “the whole creation will be freed from the bondage of corruption.” So what is the meaning of life, of this flow of change, and crumbling decay? It is the revelation and self-disclosure of the love of God. An opening has occurred into which we can now be engulfed into eternal life. The resurrection is the real event that fulfills our dreams. Christ’s Resurrection is our transfiguration, and whether we realize it or not, our transfiguration into him is the goal, the dream, or the vision toward which the entire human race strives. That is the goal of humanity. But after the cross, this dream has become our reality.
Thanks be to God.