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The Way of the Cross: Sunday, February 25 2024

The Second Sunday in Lent:
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38

I remember years ago, I think changing for karate class, an acquaintance of mine saw I was wearing a cross around my neck. He remarked: “What a weird thing, to wear a cross, and hang them up everywhere. If Jesus had died in an electric chair, would people be wearing electric chairs around their necks?”

My first response to my sparring partner is that electricity hadn’t even been discovered in Jesus’s day.

My second response is: yes. We would, technically, wear little electric chairs, had that been the ancient Roman form of most cruelly disgracing and eliminating troublesome slaves and other disturbers of the peace. It’s helpful to remind ourselves, now and again, that — though we stylize and beautify it, and have grown quite used to it — the cross was not originally a ‘religious’ symbol; but a shocking and countercultural statement of Christian hope. In the face of humiliation and death, and the worst of human inclinations, we believe that Jesus brought life out of death. It’s meant to be shocking, or as St. Paul said, a stumbling block, or folly, to ordinary people. Shocking that we find hope in this. Shocking that we cross ourselves. Shocking that we mark crosses upon the newly-baptized. Shocking that many of our places of worship bear the shape of a cross.

Though understandably some of the earliest Christians symbols tended to be of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or ‘Jesus fish.’ Maybe one of the oldest depictions of the crucified Jesus is actually a piece of Roman graffiti — meant to offend. The inscription at the bottom says something like “Alex worships his god,” and above is a person (this Alex), looking up at a large cross. And upon it hangs a person, but a person with the head of a donkey. Again, it was meant to offend Alex and other Christians. Because ‘respectable’ people couldn’t wrap their heads around how anyone could possibly worship someone crucified: that humiliating form of state torture. Death for the lowest of the low.

“[Jesus] said all this quite openly: 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Because the cross is folly; a stumbling block. The kind of thing you avoid at all costs.

But that’s what we have been given. We “confess the faith of Christ crucified” and “proclaim his resurrection:” something we say as part of our welcoming of a person that’s just been baptized. And in the blessing of the water we use for that baptism: “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus, is rather assertive and stern in that moment (in what must have been embarrassing for Peter, the leader of his colleagues): “get behind me, Satan!” Last week here we heard the story of the temptation in the wilderness. (Though Mark’s very short version. But we probably know Matthew and Luke’s longer versions, too.) Satan, the Tempter, offers Jesus comfort and power and prestige. Everything that the cross does not. To this Jesus replies “get behind.” Either ‘get out of the way,’ or maybe “get behind me,” as in, follow me, ‘where only I will lead.’

Jesus calls his hearers, and us, to “take up our cross” and follow him. Jesus invites us, specially, to follow this way of the cross in the season of Lent. Lent is our small way of conforming our lives more closely to the way of the cross. And we, like Peter, might struggle with this. The rest of the Twelve will struggle with this, too. Trusting in their own strength and courage, they will all fall away, and will disappear come Good Friday.

But what Jesus calls us to is to open ourselves to risk and vulnerability. Which, in some cases, is a big ask. The other readings today evoke Abraham and Sarah. The ancestors of nations: not by their own power, and not by their youth; for they were past the age of child-bearing. But their faithfulness was in being open to the surprising things that God wanted to work through them. A preview of Easter: unexpected life out of what the world would judge as dead, and useless.

The Christian hope in the cross is that God brings life out of death. “There’s no Easter Sunday without Good Friday,” as some will say. And as true as that is, today and through Lent we’re reminded — as I said last week — that we can’t take a shortcut through these lengthening Lenten days. “Dying you destroyed our death,” we say in some of our Communion prayers.

We might sometimes, like Peter, struggle with the cross,. We might ask “Just because Jesus fasted, why should I?” or “Jesus suffered, so why should I?” But when we trust that there is good news in the cross, we might reverse the equation, and look at the cross with new eyes. Remember how shocking it is that God would humble himself so much. And we realize: God has heard the cries of the people. God recognizes our afflictions. God sees our struggles, our pains, and our burdens. Taken to its end, there is death. The good news, though, is that God chooses to take on, and be with us, in this. In our bumps and bruises and in so much worse. In hospital and hospice; in institutions; on the street; in war zones; and on the street. All of this is taken on by, and taken up into God. As one end-of-life prayer I uttered just a few days ago concluded: “we pray through Jesus Christ who understands and carries all our pain.”

That ancient Roman graffiti artist couldn’t conceive of such a god. Peter, too. But that is what our gospels and whole New Testament point to. Summed up in words we usually associate with Christmas: Emmanuel, “God with us.” In our pains, in our hurts, in our limitations, in our loneliness, in our grief, and even in death: God is with us.

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter