Saturday, March 3, 2012

Take up your cross!

RCL Lent 2B
4 March 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

‘Take up your cross’

            If we believe the scholars who have tried to piece together the chronology of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we are led to think that the events of his last week in Jerusalem took place in late March or early April of the year 30 or 33 ce.  At some point earlier in that year Jesus made the decision to travel to Jerusalem to participate in the celebration of the Passover.  From a distance of two thousand years it is difficult for anyone to try to imagine what Jesus was thinking, but it is clear from the four gospels that Jesus knew that conflict was very likely.

            The Judea of Jesus’ time was filled with conflicting understandings of how a descendant of the tribes of Israel was to follow the covenant made with Moses on Sinai.  We are familiar with stories about the Sadducees, a group of Jews closely associated with the Temple, and the Pharisees, another group who were more closely associated with the synagogue, an institution had been growing in its influence on the lives of many Jews.  Between and beyond these two ‘parties’ were any number of other groups, some fiercely committed to the liberation of Judea from Roman occupation, others who were no doubt committed to finding a way of living in peace with Rome.

            Major celebrations such as Passover where large numbers of Jews gathered in Jerusalem were always fraught with danger for the Romans and for the Temple authorities.  If we think that Question Period in the House of Commons is an exhibition of bad manners, then we can only begin to imagine what religious arguments could be like in a time when picking up sticks and other weapons to attack one’s opponents was a familiar dimension of public life.

            As they turned their way towards Jerusalem, Jesus, as described in the gospels, takes the time to prepare his apostles and disciples for the likelihood of conflict.  Just prior to today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus asks his followers, ‘Who do you say that I am?’  After a number of different answers are given, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and is praised by Jesus.  But when Jesus begins to describe the likelihood that he will be killed, Peter reacts in a perfectly expected way, but Jesus rebukes him.

            In rebuking Peter for failing to see the consequences of following a teacher who questions the status quo, Jesus issues a challenge which Christians have been trying to understand and to meet for our entire history:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8.34b)

Training for the Christian Life

            What does it mean for you and me to take up our cross and follow Jesus?  My time today is too short to explore all the possible answers to this question, but I do believe that I can offer a few reflections on what this means to Christians living in a time when following Jesus is not particularly easy nor welcomed in polite society.  Beginning today and the four Sundays that follow I shall share with you why I believe faithfulness to the baptismal covenant is one of the ways we take up our cross and follow the one whom we believe reveals the living God to us.

            You may not know that I am a member of the Fellowship of Saint John, a group of lay and ordained Christians who are affiliated with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Anglican religious order for men (  During Lent the Brothers are offering brief video and print reflections on the importance and implications of a rule of life, a plan for deepening our relationship with God and with each other.

            Early in the series Brother Geoffrey, the Superior of the Society, pointed out that the spiritual life is similar to athletics.  No athlete ever reaches her or his potential without a plan and without a commitment to regular practice.  Those of us who are aware of the physical challenges of aging make similar plans and commitments:  Barb Dawson and I participate in a weekly programme of cardio risk reduction and exercise that we hope we enable to continue to live well even as we grow older.

            Following in the way of Jesus requires a plan and a commitment to practice.  I find it interesting that the very first question asked of us in the baptismal liturgy after we have confessed our faith in God is this:  “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers?”  To this question you and I have repeated responded as individuals, “I will, with God’s help.”  So, what does this mean for us?

Will we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship?

            My late theological mentor, Father James Griffiss, once said to the members of my class that the essence of Christian theology can be summed up in one simple sentence:  ‘When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God.’  Everything else, as important and as insightful as it may be, is commentary on this fundamental Christian belief.  This is what the apostles taught, what the theologians of the early Christian generations struggled to explain to Mediterranean culture and what we still struggle to share with the people of our own generation and society.

            Sharing this message with our contemporaries requires a commitment to on-going teaching and fellowship.  Regardless of whether a Christian has a Ph.D. in theology or has only participated in her or his congregation’s educational programmes, we all need regular times to deepen our understanding of what it means for us to encounter the living God in Jesus.  And we need to do this together!  I am impressed by the Jewish tradition’s commitment to learning together; no one can claim to have studied Torah, God’s wisdom, if he or she has not studied with someone else, whether that other person is a well-known teacher or a friend with whom one sits and tries to tease out of the Scriptures all the possible ways the text can help us be faithful to God.

            If we want to follow Jesus, then we need to do so in the company of others who share as well as challenge our convictions.

Will we continue in the breaking of the bread?

            There is no place I know of where a group of strangers will come together to share in bread that is broken and in a common cup of wine.  It is a reminder that human autonomy can only thrive when it is balanced with mutual dependence.  Luther once said that we are free in Christ to be slaves of each other.  To eat this bread is to remember that bread only achieves its purpose when it is broken and shared.  To drink this cup is to remember that wine only achieves its purpose when the bottle is opened and poured.  To share in this meal is to remember that we who share this bread and wine only achieve our purpose when we break open the love of God that has been given to us and when we pour out the compassion of God that we have received.

             If we want to follow Jesus, then we need to do so in the company of others who share as well as challenge our convictions.

Will we continue in the prayers?

            If you ask a group of clergy about which aspect of their lives they would like to improve, I can guarantee you that a deeper life of prayer will surface among the top ten if not the top five answers.  The Book of Common Prayer states simply that presbyters and deacons are expected to say morning and evening prayer every day, but it is an expectation that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.  Clergy crave time for prayer and we respect those of our peers whose lives manifest their mastery of regular prayer.

            I have never asked you as a congregation whether a deeper life of prayer is among your top five or top ten spiritual desires.  I will not ask you to give me an answer now, but I hope that we will have that conversation in the near future.  Without a deepening life of prayer we may well find our hopes for the future shape of ministry in this community will run aground on the shoals of twenty-first-century North American spiritual but not religious culture.

            It is good that we participate in the public prayer of the church, especially when we lift up our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings to God in the context of the eucharist.  But our public prayer cannot be the sole spiritual sustenance of any follower of Jesus.  Whether we are young or old, single or married, lay or ordained, regular personal prayer can fuel how we engage the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the fertile and infertile periods of our lives.

            If we want to follow Jesus, then we need to do so in the company of others who share as well as challenge our convictions.

A lifelong commitment

            Today Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him.  This is not a new invitation for most if not all of us here today.  But this invitation reminds us that following Jesus requires the same discipline that any athlete who desires excellence will undertake.  It is a discipline that is learned and practiced in community, a discipline that leads us from selfishness to openness, a discipline that enables us to hear the voice of God that is always speaking to each one of us, if we will pause to listen.

Let us pray.

O God,
you have called your servants to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. 
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 317

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