No Shortcuts: Thank God
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 17 October 2021 [Proper 24]:
Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
“Why did Jesus have to die?” The question was not expressed as an abstract curiosity or casual conversation with a priest. She had too much intelligence and faithful integrity to be so surface-oriented. Besides which, her troubled face matched the tone of her voice. There was painful concern and confusion in both. For she was not looking for some bumper sticker answer that would solve the problem once and for all.
It has been decades since that encounter occurred; and over the years I have pondered this exchange that we shared in the parish kitchen. Gradually, I have come – not so much to an answer – as to an understanding. I have a clearer grasp now of what her question was really about, but at the time neither of us had the capacity to say the words out loud, which is the reason no easy answer would have been sufficient.
I think her question: “Why did Jesus have to die” was rooted in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, what following Jesus truly entails. And following Jesus with integrity and faithful awareness was an issue that she always took seriously. Specifically, if Jesus is the incarnate reality of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God, if folks like us have pledged ourselves to following Jesus to the extent that our life-goal is continually to grow into being “like” Jesus, we will have to face what Jesus faced. No shortcuts
This brings me to a theme that I have shared with you more than a few times before. It has to do with the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior that I want – the one you want, too, the one that would fill all these pews up and more so. The liberator I desire is the one who will come and rescue me from all that I fear, from all that I loathe, and make me and my life all better. I want Jesus to be my personal savior in that he intercedes to take on all I want to put away and leaves me – and those I love -- with the “good” life. Jesus the saving sponge, soaking up all the mess and leaving a spanking clean life behind. Jesus the sacrificial sugar daddy and supreme payer of all the debts, freeing me and you to live unencumbered and on the road to happiness.
That’s the unvarnished, bumper sticker answer to why Jesus had to die. And the problem I have with all these types of answers is that they do not really satisfy because they are not true. They are not true because these kinds of answers do not change life or transform us. These answers do not help to make us “like” Jesus, who is God’s true and eternal “image”. These answers, like candy, taste good – for a while – and leave us to prosper and succeed with a life that meets our wants but not our deepest needs. In this palliative form of following Jesus, discipleship seems to be about getting vaccinated (with baptism or whatever the church or some spiritual guru peddles) so that I don’t have to follow Jesus, just praise him for saving me from the cross. He does Good Friday so that on Sunday you and I get the jellybeans.
But this is not the gospel. This is not the Good News; nor does it speak to the reason Jesus died. In all this misplaced “religion”, we have a great deal in common with James and John Zebedee, who want Jesus to do for them what they want.
Whereas Peter was a bit of a lug-head and Judas was a schemer, James and John Zebedee were (from all appearances) spoiled brats. Named “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus, they must have held a soft spot in the Lord’s heart because he tenderly recognized and accepted their brashness and self-centered behavior. What further evidence is required than the gospel scene for today? That James and John (“Sons of Thunder”) unabashedly come us to Jesus and ask him to do for them whatever they want emphatically makes the point. Who does this sort of thing?
And as we have witnessed in these recent chapters in Mark’s gospel, Jesus manages once again to detach himself from an outrageousness confrontation (this time from James and John) to ask calmly, “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.” Without flinching or concern for anything else, James and John sing out, “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one at your right and one at your left.”
Is that all? Are you sure you don’t want a unicorn or at least a pony?
That the Boys are so self-consumed is made evident by the fact that the other ten disciples are so fed up with the two of them that they would like to take James and John out back and thrash them. Perhaps they should have, but the important point lies in Jesus’ response to the Zebedees’ request. In a voice that I hear as calm but steely, Jesus simply says this: “You have no idea what you’re asking for.” Our Lord continues, “Are you capable of drinking the cup I must drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”
Are we surprised then by the answer James and John give Jesus? “Sure,” they say. “Why not?”
“Come to think of it,” Jesus says stroking his beard, “you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But the rest is not up to me.”
No jellybeans. No shortcuts. No special deals.
Let me conclude with a few questions and some suggested answers.
Here are the first. What is the purpose of our lives? And what might our baptisms have to do with our answer to this question?
As St. Paul teaches, in our baptisms we “put on” Christ. Like a Hallowe’en costume, we dare to play God’s grown-up; and by God’s grace and mercy, we are meant to fill-out the clothes of Jesus. The Greek term for this is Theosis, and Theosis is the goal of being God’s people in following Christ: We are made in God’s image and the point of following Jesus is to be like Christ. And this includes facing death in all its forms because Jesus’ unique contribution is that in his death, he unmasks death and thereby destroys death’s pretense; and in his rising our lives are restored to what God has always intended them to be: free to be the Holy One’s creative and life-giving partners.
Another question is this: What does it mean when Jesus says that he gives his life as a “ransom”?
In the history of Christian theology, the issue of Christ’s “ransom” has been contentious; and in those people who still care about such things, Jesus’ ransoming still can be contentious. The contention lies in what a ransom is and what it is for. Some followers of Jesus maintain that Jesus paid the debt of our sins. Yet, the piercing question is: To whom or what was this debt payment made? And if the response is “to God”, is our connection to God a matter of a transaction? Or could Jesus’ ransoming us be much more than a payment? Could it not be seen in larger terms of a proclamation, a declaration that God is God, and life with God is not defined or determined by fear and death?
And if we follow Jesus and seek to experience life on God’s terms, two things happen that transcend theological accounting. The biggest and most important thing that happens is that all life changes. While Jesus is and needs to be known as “my personal savior”, the overarching and transcending reality is that Jesus is more than that. Jesus is the Cosmic Christ, by whom and with whom and through whom God demonstrates and makes all life to be in Communion with the Creator of all heaven and earth.
Jesus’ ransoming sets us free from our puny notions of what is real and what brings life. We are set free in Christ to be “like” Christ to proclaim God’s life now. And while this freedom does entail following Jesus to the cross, it also always includes allowing us to see all things the way they really are in God’s eyes – ourselves and all that is. This is not a price that is paid. It is gift that is given in restoration and love for life.
No shortcuts, just Thanksgiving. Thanks be to God. Amen.