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The Cross and Us

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 19 September 2021 [Proper 20: Yr. B]:

Wisdom 1:16-21, 12-22; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

In Mark’s gospel Jesus speaks three times to his disciples about his dramatic fate in Jerusalem[1]; and each time this predictive news creates strong, negative reactions. So too it is with our way of thinking. Harboring our deeply housed, fearful needs, we instinctively views the cross’ message as a foolishly unnecessary approach or, at best, a bad marketing strategy. In today’s lesson from Mark, we encounter the second time Jesus mentions his Messianic fate. In contrast to what we heard last Sunday, today’s lesson reports no outright rebellion to Jesus’ upending prediction. It seems that Jesus’ smackdown of Peter at Caesarea Philippi has forced the disciples’ insurgent feelings underground. In place of such open opposition, an uneasy, blank-faced silence blankets the disciples’ painful confusion. Almost in a conspiratorial whisper, Mark tells us that the disciples’ silence stems from their fear of asking Jesus for any further explanations: a strange situation no effective teacher wants to be in, since it is often said that there are no “stupid questions”. In my own experience as a limping follower of Jesus, I can find myself among the confused, remedial Twelve. I hear what Jesus is saying about the cross, and I have the ability and training to explain the meaning of Jesus’ passion and death and resurrection. But you see, my problem is that I’d rather not have to follow Jesus to the cross. More to the point, I’d rather the cross be something Jesus took care of by himself, once for all, leaving us immunized by God’s scapegoat. And so it is that the voice of Peter reverberates in me and in all of us, just as it is that we who claim allegiance to Jesus and his Movement learn to keep quiet and keep our heads down, just as the chastened disciples do in today’s reading. The cross of Christ: The hard truth is that (like the disciples) we find it easier to distract ourselves with talk of who is the greatest and whose spiritual resume is the most impressive. Mostly, like the Twelve in today’s gospel, we just keep quiet and don’t say much about the cross and our lives. When I was a priest and rector in South Carolina, one parishioner of whom I was fond, gave me a present just before I left for a month’s sabbatical as a Monastic Guest in a Cistercian community. The gift was a tee shirt that had printed on its front a rather unmonastic message. It read: “Jesus loves everyone, but I’m his favorite!” That I dared not wear it among my monastic brothers was more a matter of prudence than true humility. So, in order to avoid any problems, I gave it to a young monk, a recent Notre Dame graduate, who upon receiving the shirt, stifled a great guffaw and knowingly winked at me for my seditious gesture. You see: I would like to be Jesus’ “favorite”. Like James and John Zebedee, I would love guarantees that my faithfulness will be worth my efforts, that being a “good boy” (not to mention an eldest son) would put me in a special, protected place. Irrespective of how shallow this position is, there are times when I still yearn for this type of Messiah. I have said this publicly to you before, that the Savior I want to request would rescue me from all that I fear and loathe; that this saving would be like a once-and-done vaccination; and more to the point, this saving action would protect me for ever and ever in a life where I am ok. Jesus as Superhero: That’s the unvarnished Savior that gets my silent, blank-faced vote – and not mine only. Beyond our addiction to fear and our worshipping of death, Jesus and his unnerving predictions remind us of the reality unbound by such damning limitations: something the ancient Biblical Wisdom truth-tells in our midst: The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. For they reasoned unsoundly … they were led astray … [for] they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls.[2] The cross may be a poor marketing strategy, offending our native instincts and pushing us to seek alternative short-cuts; but the cross’s point declares what life is like on God’s terms. The “secret purposes of God” (as the Wisdom tradition puts it) are revealed in and through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That “secret purpose” is that with God and in God and through God fear and death are unavoidably real but nevertheless are overcome. Their enslaving barriers, real as they certainly are unavoidably real but nonetheless overcome, broken open to reveal the truth of life on God’s terms: life, full, abundant, and eternally real. In other words, what we see in Jesus can be -- is meant to be – what God wants for us all. Being so familiar with fear and death, the question is: To what extent will we also embrace the life that is larger than death? In C. S. Lewis’s set of stories, known as The Chronicles of Narnia, the Christ figure, the mighty lion, Aslan, allows himself to be the ransom captive for the selfishness of one of his favorites, one of his chosen. The evil White Witch, ruler of all that is winter but never Christmas, celebrates her victory as she humiliates the great lion by shaving off his superb mane and then executing him. The reality of Aslan’s death is stunning, and so is the consequential grief of those who hoped in him. Yet, in the bleakness of death’s apparent triumph, the great stone altar upon which Aslan was sacrificed is cracked open by … by God’s power of life and love. Why did Jesus have to die? There are many explanations about the cross of Jesus and of his resurrection, but they all must give way to the deepest truth. They all must give way to “the secret purposes of God”. And God’s purposes have always been life, demonstrating the God-life for all the Holy One’s people – no matter what. The cross is nothing short of an overwhelming demonstration of what the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord is all about – a demonstration for all time of what is really real: that God is God. In Christ’s cross and resurrection, the “secret purposes of God” are secret no more. This is the reason in our Eucharistic celebration that we proclaim with new words and phrases the ancient and abiding truth: Dying, you destroyed our death. Rising, you restored our life. Christ Jesus, come in glory![3] At its heart, what the cross means to me and I hope to you pertains to our learning how to die. The more favorable and contemporary words for this learning is “letting go”. The key issue in my eyes is that if we could manage by Holy grace and mercy to appropriate the deep and central meaning of the cross, the result would be that we would only have to die once. And then, we would be free: free from anxiety’s weighty anchor; free from the tyranny of hateful accusations and emotional manipulation; free from the crippling dread of not being good enough; free especially from the record of our own mortality’s incompleteness. But, as I say, I am a limping follower of Jesus. As the father of the epileptic son confesses to the Lord in another Marcan gospel scene, “I believe; help my unbelief.”[4] So it is that the unbelief that is in me causes me to die not once but by 50,000 paper cuts; and from what I know and see in you, I am not alone in this. How can we help one another learn how to die so that we are free at last to live? How can we remind one another that the “secret purposes of God” have been spelled out to us in the cross of Christ, that there is more to our life -- to all life -- than what we make or don’t make of it? Jesus is not a superhero, who swoops down and grabs us from the jaws of all that we fear and detest, making us feel good in our own skins. It doesn’t work that way. If it did or if this was what we present, then undoubtedly these pews would be over-filled. But the “good news of Jesus Christ” is not about a superhero but of God’s life in our midst, as one of us, to reveal the fullness of God’s life and to lead the way for us to bring that true and saving life into our souls, our minds, our hearts, our lives. Like the disciples, we “rebuke” the way of the cross. It strikes our instincts as too hard, too frightening, too expensive, too impractical. Like the disciples, we find it easier and safer to hunker down in our pleasantries and keep quiet about it all, as if by magic our prayer to be delivered “from the time of trial”[5] will mystically and suddenly sweep us up to be ok. No, it doesn’t work that way. Following Jesus, limping or not, means facing death in all its biting forms. Only then can we behold in ourselves what we have seen in Christ and have what we need but cannot provide for ourselves. I think that this is a big part of what it means to be the church: Gathering and working together in order to die to all that holds us back and then to discover – again and again – there is more life to be lived. God’s life and God’s love remain – no matter what. Amen. [1] Mark 8:29b; 9:31; 10:33f. [2] Wisdom of Solomon. 1:16-2:1, 12-22 [3] Enriching our Worship. Eucharistic Prayer 3; page 64. [4] Mark 9:24 [5] Book of Common Prayer. “The Lord’s Prayer” [contemporary translation], page 364.

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