August 31, 2014, Pentecost 12 – The Way Forward
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I noticed recently – though it might not be a recent thing – that the Watertown Times has begun to run horoscopes, so that people can look up their sign of the Zodiac and check out what’s going to happen to them in the next day or week or month. I think, or I hope, that most people just read them for laughs, and I’m pretty sure there are some people who take them seriously – but really, how many people actually want to know their future? If someone had told you – fifteen years ago, or fifty years ago, or eighty years ago, when you were young and had barely begun to live – if someone had told you all the things that were going to happen to you, how would you have felt?
It would have taken a lot of courage, if someone could truly have told you all that you would have to go through, it would have taken a lot of courage for most of us to keep going, to wake up every morning and head into each day, knowing all the losses and pain and sorrows you were going to have to face, all the stupid things you were going to do, all the mistakes you were going to make, all the people who were going to hurt and betray you. But if you didn’t get up and keep going, that would have been the end of your life. You would have lost your life before you lived it. Because there was no way to get from there to here, no other course, than walking through everything that made up your life in the in-between.
But if some prophet had laid out your life story for you from the beginning, you might have done exactly what Peter did, when Jesus began to tell the disciples what was about to happen to him. When Peter had made his confession, and they all seemed to understand that Jesus was the one God had sent to bring his kingdom to earth, then Jesus began to prepare them for what that was going to mean. “We’re heading toward Jerusalem,” he said, “and here’s what you need to know. The chief priests and elders that have been hunting us down are going to catch me, and they’re going to torture me, and they’re going to kill me. I’m going to die, and then I’m going to rise on the third day.”
I don’t think Peter even heard the last part, about the resurrection, and I’m sure none of them understood it if they did hear, at least not at that time, because they were too horrified by the whole torturing and killing part. I imagine you or I would have reacted in the same way. Probably we too would have recoiled in horror and refused to believe what we just heard. “God forbid!” Peter said to Jesus. “No way! This just can’t be true; these things can’t happen to you. You’ve got it all wrong. That is not the way it’s supposed to go.”
And Matthew reveals Jesus so clearly in his humanity here, because you can see that what Peter says so clearly strikes a chord with his human fears and anxieties. Jesus, as a flesh and blood man, was as horrified at the idea of the suffering ahead of him as Peter was, as horrified as we would be, and that is why his rebuke is so harsh. “Get behind me, Satan!” he tells Peter. “You’re just making things a thousand times harder for me. You’ve got your mind set on things of this earth, not on the things of God.”
Jesus was moving forward, even though he did know what was ahead of him, even though he understood how much pain and shame he would suffer, even though he knew that every step forward brought him closer to the people who hated him and who were determined to put an end to him. He felt the human fear anyone would feel, anticipating and dreading that kind of suffering just as surely as an inmate on death row knows and dreads what is coming. But he moved onward to Jerusalem and the cross, because he also knew that this journey, and only this journey, would lead to the perfect joy of being himself, the Messiah of God, bringing life and light to the creatures he loved, who had walked in darkness for century after century, awaiting his coming. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.”
And Jesus not only shouldered his cross willingly, but he called his disciples to follow in his footsteps. He warned them ahead of time that what was facing him was also facing them, even though that was so terrible that Peter had cried out in protest. He warned the followers he had gathered around him, who were to be the first members of his Church, that their road was going to be like his – that their feet, too, were destined for suffering and death. It almost seems like it was too much to ask of mere human beings, to go on, knowing what was ahead.
But two things are true, and the first is that the cross, which is the ultimate representation of suffering and death, does not only lie in the path of Jesus, nor in the path of his disciples. Every human being that has ever lived or ever will live walks day by day toward the cross, whether they know it or not. In Jesus’ day the Romans made the cross a most terrible instrument of death. But in every age and in every place the world has had its crosses, its instruments for robbing mankind of his life, of his very self. And in our time the cross comes in many forms.
There is the cross of loneliness and isolation, and so many people live under its crushing burden, alive but not truly living, surrounded by talking heads and flashing screens, flooded with text messages and images but with hardly one real human touch or kind word. There are people – there are a lot of people – whose only ‘friends’ are names and photographs they see on facebook or tumblr or instagram, but whom they have never met.
And there is the cross of infinite options – we live in a world in which people have been severed from everything that ties them to the traditions of their past, whether it is family history or cultural ties or religious affiliation. So many people, especially young people, stagger under the weight of a create-your-own identity world, where morality and faith and gender and truth are just options on the menu, so that no one seems to really know who they are at all.
And there is the cross of despair. How many people, especially young people, live from day to day without any real expectation or hope for their future, growing up in a world that seems bent on self-destruction and that promises little more than a growing dependence on a system that doesn’t really care if they live or die? How many elderly people are shut away in nursing homes doing little more than waiting for death? Because the great cross of death awaits everyone, sooner or later.
But there is a greater truth, and that is what Jesus was teaching Peter and the disciples. The great and wonderful truth is this: Jesus’ death on the cross at Jerusalem was going to change – forever – all the crosses that this world has laid on the shoulders of all mankind. Through the cross of Jesus Christ the human journey from birth to death was being completely re-written, and given a new and glorious meaning. The grave no longer has the strength to swallow mankind up in nothingness. Death no longer wields the power to return mankind forever to dust. The cross – any cross – no longer has the ability to rob us of ourselves; instead our cross becomes a path to finding ourselves, abundantly alive and fully ourselves, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ who, as Paul wrote, was “the very beginning, because he was the firstborn from the dead.”
And that is why we, his Church, are called to follow in his footsteps in this world. We who still bear, as we walk, the heavy cross of human suffering and weakness along with all our fellow creatures, can bear our crosses with courage and with hope and even with joy, because in Christ, and by the assurance of his Spirit, we know that the journey to Calvary is no longer a death march, but a journey into life. We walk every day among those who are nearly crushed by the weight of their own crosses. We live next door to those who have allowed themselves to be un-named by the powers of this world until their only identity is that of victimhood. But we, his Church, are called to be like Simon of Cyrene, who bore Jesus’ cross for a little while. So we are called to come alongside our neighbors and to help them bear the weight of their cross, with the life-giving balm of compassion, the grace of a listening ear, the healing ointment of forgiveness, or just the comfort of a loving presence that lets them know they have been known, recognized as a work of God’s own hands, and accepted as a brother or sister in the name of Jesus Christ.
We, who are certainly broken and wounded people ourselves, have been called to minister to the broken and wounded around us. That is what Jesus is calling us to, when he calls us to take up our crosses and follow in his steps. He is the one who made the way; he is the one who transformed the journey of the cross into the path to life. And now he calls us to follow him, and in following him, to show others the way.
Henri Nouwen wrote that it is not the task of the Church to go around trying to redeem people, – because we are redeemed, once and for all. The Church, which is us, is called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in our daily lives the fact that behind the dirty curtain of our painful symptoms – under the heavy cross of our humanity – there is something great to be seen: the face of Him in whose image we are all shaped. For it is only in beholding his face that we find our selves, and it is only in letting go of our own lives that we find true life, life abundant and unending.