March 1, 2015, Lent 2 – Come and Die
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There is a scene in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” that is, I think, one of the best bits of acting I have ever seen. I think about it often, though the scene is probably less than a minute long. I’m sure pretty much everyone here is familiar with the basic plot of the movie – it’s about a man named George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart – a good man with great ambitions who is faced with disappointment after disappointment, until his disappointment threatens to push him down into utter despair. In this one particular scene that I like so much, George is at the train station to meet his younger brother as he arrives home from college. The background for the scene is that now that his brother is coming home, he can take George’s place in the struggling family business, and George is finally going to be free to go off to college himself and pursue his own dreams and go places and be somebody.
But if you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens: the brother steps off the train with a surprise – he has a new young wife. And the wife’s father has offered the brother a great job, somewhere else, not in Bedford Falls. If he accepts the job, it means no college for George; it means staying right there living his old life, working at his father’s foundering business, with no chance of escape or advancement or adventure or anything that seems like a real life to George. When he hears his brother’s news, it strikes George like a ton of bricks. Everything he has been hoping and expecting; everything he has been waiting for for years, is poised to be smashed to bits in that moment unless he speaks up and asks his brother not to accept the job.
You can see the agony in his face – Jimmy Stewart’s acting is so good you can feel it even though he doesn’t say a word. And in the few seconds that he takes their luggage and begins to follow them from the train, you can watch the silent battle raging inside of George: his bitter disappointment, and his frustration, and his fear of being trapped forever and never having the life he wants so much, you can see all that moving across his face, and then as you watch you can see that his decision is made and the battle is won. His face clears, and by the time he catches up with his brother and his new sister-in-law he is smiling – not a mask of false cheerfulness, but a genuine, loving smile. In that moment, you see George let go of his life’s dreams and hopes; you watch him die a little death for love of his brother. And in the process, despair is overcome by grace; and life has the upper hand over death. It is an absolutely marvelous scene, and such a wonderful picture of what it means for us to take up our cross.
Of course, it’s just a movie, and George Bailey isn’t even a real person, but if we are honest with ourselves, doesn’t his battle look very familiar? Don’t we face choices like that pretty much every day of our lives? Pain or loss, disappointment or fear, they take us by surprise, they hit us like a ton of bricks, and every time we have to make a choice. I can fall down under the very real weight of my pain; I can wrap myself in a protective cloak of fear and anger and self-pity and righteous indignation: that “why me?” thing we all know so very well. I can just stay there in my pain, holding onto my idea of what my life is supposed to be like. Or I can choose to let go, to turn my back on all of that, and to take a step forward, along the path Jesus walked before me.
To take up our cross is to let go and take a step, like a little child who is just learning to walk has to let go of the coffee table if she wants to walk to her father. It feels to her in that moment like that coffee table is the one thing in the world that is keeping her safe and grounded. But when she hears her Papa’s voice she forgets her fears of falling and getting hurt, and she lets go of the coffee table, and she takes her first steps towards the safety of his arms.
Denying ourselves and taking up our cross is about letting go of the things we hang onto for dear life: security and comfort and respect and happiness, our hopes and dreams and expectations, so that we can set out to follow Jesus, who went ahead of us to show us the way. But at first sight, it doesn’t look like a very appealing way to follow. Mark says that Jesus was very clear about it, that he was headed for rejection and pain and death. Jesus never sugar-coated anything. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it very well, I think, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” If you want to follow me, Jesus told his disciples, come and die. Die to the world; die to your self; die to your pride; die to your ambitions; die to your rights; die to your possessions; die to your worries and fears and hopes. Take up your cross, because the way of the cross – which is the symbol of the very worst the world can do to us – leads to eternal life. And eternal life is infinitely more than the boring,cartoon version of heaven with cloud and harps and nightgowns that so many people imagine. Eternal life doesn’t just mean length of existence, some kind of vague happiness stretching out day after day after day, world without end. Eternal life is life in Christ now and always: real life, abundant, three-dimensional, technicolor life that is just dripping with every fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control.
We deny ourselves – we die to ourselves – because God has something infinitely better in store for us than anything we would have planned for ourselves. But taking up our cross doesn’t mean being a hero; it doesn’t mean being tough and strong and brave and selfless. Discipleship is not like the marines, where only a few good men make the cut. Jesus came to call the poor, and the helpless, and the sick, and the sinful – he came to call us, to hear him and to follow. And because Jesus has gone ahead of us, and we follow in his footsteps, we are not left to carry our cross alone, and that is such a great comfort. This past Friday as we prayed and walked through the Stations of the Cross, it suddenly struck me how wonderful a thing it is that Jesus, the Son of God, had help carrying his cross. We don’t know much about the man called Simon except that he was a Jewish man from Cyrene, in Northern Africa. Simon had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and suddenly he found himself pressed into service by the Roman soldiers, to carry the cross for a Jewish prisoner on his way to execution, a man who was stumbling under his burden, too weak from pain and loss of blood to carry it by himself.
That man was our Lord Jesus. Surely it is one of the most amazing and holy things that have ever happened, that the God of all Creation allowed himself to suffer the most human fate of helplessness and weakness, the fate of needing desperately the help of another human being. I believe that is a sign and a reassurance to us, that as we are called to take up our crosses and to make our way through this world, none of us are called to bear our burdens alone. If Simon bore the cross of Jesus on the way to Calvary, it is no shame to any of us if we find ourselves weak and helpless, unable to go on alone. As we meditate on the Passion of Christ during this Lenten season, hear that. Remember it. Take it to heart. Come and die to pride and self-sufficiency, come and die to fear and despair, but come and live in the knowledge and strength and love of our Lord.