A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent - 24 February 2021
We already know this Gospel reading…maybe too well. We know that it comes right after that shining, seemingly breakthrough moment when Peter gets it right and declares Jesus to be the Messiah…the Christ. And we know that, as Jesus explains the implications that come along with the title, Peter reacts with enough confusion and anger to get him in dutch with the boss. And then, as if it’s not bad enough that Jesus has to bear a cross, Jesus gathers together all his disciples (by inference that includes you and me, so don’t be trying to hide behind your computer screens) and tells us that we have to bear the cross, too…that to follow him means exactly that.
And this is a problem. For one thing: if our faith is something that we want to share with our neighbors (and I’m assuming for the sake of argument that we do), we will notice almost immediately in this market-oriented, consumer-driven, religion-as-a-retail-product world that cross-bearing isn’t a very helpful selling proposition. It is for that reason that a whole bunch of churches have just stopped talking about the cross, even to the point of removing them from their buildings entirely. And I get it. I’m an old marketing guy, after all. And I understand that if selling the church is what we are after, then it’s only right to eliminate as many of the barriers to purchase as we possibly can. Right? You get what I mean.
And if you think that sounds a bit suspect, just wait…because there is an even thornier issue here…one that is subtle and insidious and that, in the end does just as much damage as the retailing of religion. And it is this: we have turned cross-bearing into a law…a demand. We hear Jesus’ invitation take up the cross and follow as just one more thing that we need to do in order to prove to God and everybody else that we’re good enough to be called Christians…that we’re good enough for God to love us…that we’re good enough to make it into heaven someday by and by, pie in the sky when I die.
And I’m sorry to say that our teaching on this passage most often reflects that attitude. I went back and looked through my old notes and research (something I usually do in preparing for the weekly sermon) and was appalled by what I found. I don’t think I’m alone in screwing this up, so the fact that you’ve probably heard plenty of bad sermons on this passage is a small consolation. You know the ones I mean…the ones that always include, usually end with, a “so then.” For example: Jesus tells us that we should bear the cross. And, by the way, we need a new chairperson for the evangelism committee so then you should take up that cross, and head up that committee. Or…Jesus says that we should bear the cross, so then you need to dig a little deeper into your wallet so that we meet the budget this year. Jesus says we should bear the cross, and that means you should do this or fund that or stop doing something else. Jesus says we should bear the cross, but most of the time we have turned that into a guilt-laden demand for propping up the institutional church. Or, worse yet, we’re explaining away some personal matter that has nothing at all to do with Jesus. Well…you know…I’m always going to be chubby. I guess that’s just my cross to bear.
Harumph. I’m thinking we need a new way into this proposition.
So…instead of cross-bearing, let’s try something else. Let’s talk about name-calling instead. After all…there’s a whole lot of that going on in today’s readings. And maybe…just maybe that can lead us to a better understanding of what it is that Jesus is in fact calling us to do.
It starts with the story in Genesis. God gives Abram a new name. He goes from being “exalted ancestor” to Abraham…”father of nations” which is a patently ridiculous notion. Abram/Abraham, at this point in the story, is 99 years old. He’s been in covenant with God since he was 75 (way back there in Genesis 12) and the only off-spring he’s managed to generate is an illegitimate son by his wife’s handmaid…a child conceived in a desperate attempt by the old man to force God’s hand and work out the promise for himself. You can almost hear his self-justification: “Well, God’s not moving very quickly on this; I guess I better get busy.” And yet it is to this rascal that God comes and says “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” No wonder that Abram falls on his face; and the Hebrew here is rather suggestive that it’s not to worship, but in laughter BTW. The chuckling continues as God announces that Sarai…the princess…is now to be known as Sarah…honored mother. The fact is that she hasn’t given birth to anything, although there is that grudge she’s still nursing against the same handmaid that bore Ishmael. The old couple must have gotten a real hoot out of all this. That God…such a character…just announces stuff and then acts like it’s going to really happen. Hoo, hoo, hoo…that’s rich.
And then, just about a year later, the old woman gives birth. And the child she bears…the child of the covenant from whom those nations will spring…is named Isaac…son of laughter. And Abraham and Sarah turn out to be just the right names after all. And God…the faithful, steadfast keeper of covenants…well, it appears that God gets the last laugh.
This name-calling persists into the New Testament. Peter didn’t always go by that name. Used to be Simon, right? But Jesus looks at him and says, “You are petroV…the rock upon which my church will be built.” That, of course, happened right after Peter did a little name-calling of his own, correctly fingering Jesus as Messiah. And now Peter has been re-named yet again…at least temporarily…as Satan, the accuser, the one who would throw stumbling blocks in Jesus’ way as he journeys from the wilderness to the cross. And in each case, the names turn out to be true. Jesus is the Messiah. And Peter, despite his setback here, does come to embody the very confession of faith upon which Christ’s church is built.
And none of this is a surprise. What else would we expect from a God who speaks and the cosmos springs into being? Day. Night. Seas and skies. Heavenly lights and creatures of every stripe. Father of nations. Blessed mother. Messiah. Redeemer. Savior. Church. The words are spoken by a loquacious God and truth springs into being right down to you and me. Child of God. I have called you by name, and you are mine.
So when this same God invites us to pick up the cross and go where he goes, it’s not so that we can demonstrate anything about ourselves. It is so we can bear witness to the relentless promise-keeping of the God who calls us to share the divine life…the everlasting life that has always been our heritage and our destiny and even (dare we imagine it) our present reality.
Child of God…come take up the cross. Yes, there will be struggle and rejection and even death. But that’s not the whole story, and we know it. There is also a new creation into which we are born every time we seize the privilege being Christ for the sake of our neighbors in the same humble and life-giving way that Christ gives himself for us. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood poured out for you. And this is the way…the way that allows us at last to honestly embrace all the hurt and pain and suffering of this world…the way of the cross that bears us with Christ from the reality of brokenness and death into the joy of a life that truly is life.
God says it. You can believe it. Child of God: that is your name. Church of God: that is who we are. God says it. You can believe it, and it is so. Consequently, you can also believe that we are called to this moment and called to this place for God’s own good purpose…that we might embody the astounding news of relentless love and unfailing mercy for each and every sick and hungry and needy neighbor around us. And we’ve got plenty of those.
So, come. Take up the cross…because…oh, my…what hope and promise there is in that cross for us and for the world. Thanks be to God.