Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent 2012

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A while back I came across a publication entitled Church Songs. It includes a number of well-known hymns, but the titles and lyrics have been revised to purportedly make them more palatable to some segments of the population. Let me share just a few of the revised hymn titles with you:

“A Comfy Mattress is Our God”

“Joyful, Joyful, We Kinda Like Thee”

“Be Thou My Hobby”

“O God, Our Enabler in Ages Past”

“What an Acquaintance We Have in Jesus”

“Where He Leads Me, I Will Consider Following”

“Lift Every Voice and Intellectualize”

Here’s a good one for Lent:

“I Lay My Inappropriate Behaviors on Jesus”

And perhaps my favorite:

“There is an Alibi in Gilead”

Obviously, this is satire. It’s poking fun at tendencies in our culture to reduce Christianity and spirituality to the therapeutic values of comfort, self-esteem, and warm, fuzzy feelings. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with those things. They have a rightful place in our lives. But if they become the sole values that guide our choices and determine how we understand the Christian faith, then we run the risk of failing to hear and respond to the message at the core of the Gospel. And that message is grounded in the way of the cross.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark hammers that message home. The action takes place immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter gets it right: Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the One through whom God will deliver people from bondage to sin and the fate of eternal death.

In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means for him to be the Christ. He tells them that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious establishment, be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter, who has just made the good confession, immediately lays into Jesus, saying: “No, Lord! This must never happen to you!” And in response to that outburst, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan” and ordering him to stand down.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of how it’s possible to say all the right words about Jesus and yet still miss what it means to be his follower. And just to clarify what discipleship entails, Jesus says: “If you want to be my disciple, then you’ve got to deny yourself and take up your cross. Then and only then are you ready to follow me.”

“Deny yourself and take up your cross.”

That doesn’t sound like fun, does it? It sounds difficult. It sounds painful.

It would be so much easier if I could have my own personal Jesus! My personal Jesus would not only love me unconditionally; He would also insure that I’m happy, prosperous, and well-liked. My personal Jesus would always conform to my expectations and never ask me to do anything difficult. He would affirm that sin isn’t really a problem in my life so there’s no need to repent and, with God’s help, live a life of holiness and righteousness. I’m fine just as I am!

Today’s Gospel reading confronts me with the fact that I tend to want a Christianity without sacrifice, discipleship without cost, and a faith that not only affirms all of my yearnings and desires, but that also reflects my values without ever challenging me to change. But the real Jesus we encounter in the pages of the New Testament will have none of it! He continues to say to me and to everyone attracted to him: “If you want to be my disciple, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

So where is the Good News in that?

There’s a prayer in The Book of Common Prayer appointed for Fridays in which we ask God to “mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, p. 99). That’s an important prayer, because our knee-jerk response to Jesus’ words about self-denial and carrying our cross may be to run for cover. We may fail to see the Good News that the way of the cross is not about punishment, shame, and guilt. The way of the cross is Divine Medicine.

If, as Christianity claims, the right diagnosis of the human condition is that we are infected by the predisposition to seek our own wills rather than God’s will, then the way of the cross is the antidote. Taking concrete form in practices such as self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, giving to the poor and needy, and meditating on Holy Scripture, the way of the cross is the path of healing that leads to new life beyond our wildest dreams. But receiving that new life requires completely surrendering ourselves to the care of Jesus the Physician of our souls.

In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it like this:

Christ says, 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'

The goal of the Christian life is to so receive the healing of God’s grace that, dying daily to self-will, we become more and more like God. God’s desire is that we become little Christs. And that only happens as, one day at a time, we walk the way of the cross. Yes, God loves us as we are. But God also loves us too much to let stay the way we are. God has far bigger and better things in mind for each of us.

Once again in the words of Lewis, God wants to transform each of us “into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly … His own boundless power and delight and goodness.” That is the true self God created each of us to be.

The way of the cross is the central paradox of the Christian life. It says that we find our true selves by denying our selves, that we save our lives by losing them, and that we enter eternal life by dying. The way of the cross is so deeply counter-intuitive, and runs so hard against the grain of our natural instincts for self-preservation, that many balk at it. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” writes the Apostle Paul. “But to us who are being saved” – for us who have found the way, the truth, and the life in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus – “[the cross] is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

As we continue our journey through these 40 days of Lent, may each of us discover the healing power of God’s grace by walking the way of the cross in the footsteps of our Lord. And by God’s mercy, may we find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.

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