Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 19)
September 13, 2015
[Revised and adapted, November 2015]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
Yesterday morning, at about one in the morning, Lori and I returned from our three weeks in the Montana mountains—but it’s good to be back here in this place, to see all your faces; good to be back as we gather in the Lord’s service.
The doctrine of the Cross is right at the heart of Christian faith. Yet we hear voices these days saying it’s too difficult; too offensive. Maybe we need to move on. But we can’t “move on” from the Cross and remain who and what we are in Jesus. In response to such voices, I’m inclined to ask: Is it only now we discover that the doctrine of the Cross is difficult? This shouldn’t have been a surprise; it’s been clear from the very beginning. Didn’t Paul underscore that the Cross is foolishness and scandal? Jesus himself made clear from the beginning both the centrality and difficulty of the Cross. We hear about that in today’s gospel.
Right in the middle of Mark’s gospel, right at the pivot of the narrative, Jesus led his disciples to take the next step of knowing who he is and what he is doing. He opened up a conversation: “Those folks out there, who do they say that I am?” They gave various answers; then Jesus asked, pointedly,
“But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him “You are the Messiah”, and he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
A rather surprising instruction, isn’t it?, but critical, because without understanding the Cross, neither the people “out there” nor the disciples themselves will be able to understand Jesus means, what he intends, as Messiah.
“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”.
Peter hit the panic button—and took Jesus aside. “No! Absolutely not! Things have been going so well. Why mess it up?” Jesus rebuked Peter, strongly; telling him and the rest of the disciples (including us) that he was going to the Cross on purpose, and of necessity. This is where everything up until now had been pointing—all along.
Jesus was going to the Cross to embrace the full extent of our vulnerability, of our pain: to experience the worst of injustice; to take upon himself the full crisis of the human condition—and the full measure of our culpability. And there—in his utterly apparent defeat, he accomplished the victory of God—the instrument of our salvation; yours and mine—our liberation. There’s no other way. There’s no detour. There’s no cheaper option.
Jesus 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 live will lose it and those who lose their live for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
When Jesus tells us that if any wish to become his followers they must take up their Cross and follow him, he’s not referring to merely putting up with life’s frustrations. Nor can it be reduced to a challenge to some “percentage” (in which we ourselves aren’t included), who really have it coming.
“If any.” That’s a 100% proposition. Our Lord’s saying is a summons—to all and to each, no matter what our condition—to be bound up with him on the Cross and in the sacrificial way of the Cross.
In our baptism we are united with the death of Christ. And every Sunday, when we gather in Eucharist, when we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So, even if we are far too forgetful of it, we are now bound up with the crucified Jesus—bound up with his Cross, and the terrible, wonderful victory he accomplished there.
How could we ever expect that things thereafter would be “the same”? A new way of being; a different kind of life: We are to live, we are to think, relate, and we are to act—in a Cross shaped manner. Our lives, our action, our thinking, are to be cruciform. The words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians come to mind.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me… May I never boast of anything else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (2:20; 6:14)
Christians, by definition then, aren’t a people who just fit into the stuff that’s going on around us: different on the inside, and different on the outside.
So, how do we live more fully into the cruciform life in the here and now? I’m thinking a lot about that as we are head into yet another national election cycle—with the “big day” a year and a couple of months from now. I almost don’t know anybody—except political or media professionals—who’s getting a charge from this process. Yes, when the time comes, I’ll probably do my civic duty and vote, but I’m weary of the business already, and don’t expect it to get better. How about you? It’s my own considered sense that this coming election cycle could be among the most polarizing and toxic of all national elections in United States history, and I know that’s saying a lot.
What are we to do, then—and be—as Christ’s people in this context?
You know how it is when I go to the woods; the poetry starts to percolate up. Even more than usual. Well, there’s one poem, of late, that’s been speaking to me of our current condition—although it’s the better part of a century old. W. B. Yeats. Here’s the just the first stanza of his poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Very telling; isn’t it?
Now, in such a context, it can be very tempting for churches just to get along and go along: Do business the way business is done. The various political partisanships divide up the American denominational spoils. Why not accept the assignment of being cheerleaders to one institutionally preferred ideological team or another?
But this surely doesn’t sound like what Jesus had in mind! To fold in words of another poet, how could Jesus have been satisfied with his people serving as cheerleaders—really, superfluous cheerleaders—to the “ignorant armies clashing by night”? (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”)
We are to be exemplars of a different way of living; a different way of being. Maybe what would be of some real benefit to this present world would be more folks who had a keener sense of their heavenly citizenship. Maybe it would be for the actual betterment of our society—our deeply divided, polarized society—if we had a few more people who could lay their passions, political and otherwise, down before the Passion of Christ.
I’m not saying that we ought to be apathetic, disengaged people; but we are to be transformed. The church needs to very clear about this, I believe, lest we be co-opted. And I don’t believe Jesus sent us into the world to be co-opted: to give insipid versions of what can already be readily obtained elsewhere. The issues of the day have their importance, full of social and moral significance. We will certainly hear about them, out there, unendingly, in huge doses.
We’ve heard the old complaint about those who are “so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.” There was something to that, of course. Yet I sense, in our own context, that the more active risk is that we’re of so little earthly good precisely because we’re too exclusively earthly minded! The solution to the world’s crisis is not that the world acquire more of itself. (If that’s really possible!) We need something Else.
Here, in the ministry of Christian preaching, we have ten minutes a week. (Well, sometimes in my own case, maybe a little more than ten minutes!) I have, more and more, a keen sense of the urgency—the urgency and the very present relevance—of eternity. For anyone here, right now, this might be our last Sunday; this might be the last sermon. For any of us, the question posed by poet and preacher, John Donne, is both pointed and apt: “What if this present were the world’s last night?”
“What the world needs now” is not sentimentalism, but the capacity of perceiving the real; specifically, under the aspect of eternity. The Gospel proclamation is this: We only get to such perception—such an illumination—through the darkness of the Cross.
Different clergy have different approaches. Blessings be. It’s not that I’m unaware of other options. My own is deliberate, well-considered, proceeds out of conviction—and is bound up with my own particular sense of call.
For example: If I say nothing about “climate change” in my preaching time—absolutely nothing—for the next year, I’m still fully confident that you will hear of it—and in great measure. However, I have little confidence that the world “out there” will proclaim the Gospel to you in my stead.
We are to be the bearers, in Christ and by Christ, of an eternal way of being. It has broken through to us, by the Cross. So, how do we get our minds and our hearts, and our spirits, more Cross-shaped—more cruciform? After all, this could be much more the way to effect real change in our broken world than we ever suspected. Why then this confidence in loading ourselves up with that which the world is already stuffed?
I’m not saying that in preaching we never address a contemporary issue. We may, and indeed, sometimes we must—in obedience to the Word of God. But please be aware, when we think we want the preacher to “speak out” on this or that or the other: After the fact, if the preacher did so, we might be end up wishing we hadn’t gotten our desires granted! Frankly, some of the time, I wonder if the call for “prophetic preaching” is actually a desire to be congratulated for our very fine socio-political sensibilities!
The Eternal—revealed under the aspect of the Cross—is always a good deal more contemporary than we think. And a people formed therein is the instrument God is using to “make all things new.”
So: In my own ministry, I am less interested in telling people what to think, about this or that or the other, but rather much more concerned with how we think, from the core, from the heart; as Christians. Because wherever we come down on our individual politics, and however we might line up on this or that cluster of issues; our mission, our purpose—the reason we’re here—why we’re taking up a bit of the earth—is that we are a people claimed, and now being transformed, specifically through the Cross of Jesus. Hearts have to die with Christ and live with him again. Everything flows from there. No other way.
Will we lay our passions down before the Passion of Christ?
Jesus said, “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 live will lose it and those who lose their live for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus must go to the Cross; his journey must go there; so must we. But the Journey doesn’t end there; neither his, nor ours. Because this indispensable Cross, around which there is no faithful detour, is the gate to Resurrection. Praise be.
To conclude, it seems apt to return—again—to poetry; once more from John Donne:
SINCE Christ embraced the cross itself, dare I
His image, th’ image of His cross, deny?
Would I have profit by the sacrifice,
And dare the chosen altar to despise?
It bore all other sins, but is it fit
That it should bear the sin of scorning it? […]
From me no pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandal taken, shall this cross withdraw,
It shall not, for it cannot; for the loss
Of this cross were to me another cross.
Better were worse, for no affliction,
No cross is so extreme, as to have none.