Second Sunday of Lent
March 1, 2015
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome, Italy
It must have been quite a shock when the disciples heard Jesus say he was going to Jerusalem to suffer, be rejected and ultimately be killed.
They were so full of hope that he would be the one who would finally put an end to the political-religious collaboration between the occupying Romans and the local Temple authorities…the one who would liberate them from the domination that they had always known.
He certainly had the power to do it.
They had seen him heal the sick, cast out demons, and feed the multitudes…never before had they witnessed someone who had all the markings of a natural born leader….and who could back up his wise words with extraordinary supernatural powers.
So why in God’s name was he now talking about his imminent death?
Curiously, he also mentioned this business about the Son of Man rising again after three days, but that possibility was inconceivable to them.
Death, on the other hand, was a tangible reality that they lived with on a daily basis.
Death by sickness, death from war, and death because that is what Rome desired.
Peter was brave enough to say something on behalf of them all, voicing their deep concern and incredulity.
“Jesus, are you kidding me? How on earth can all this hope you are giving us end in just one more failure…one more cross outside the walls of Jerusalem?”
Who knows what Peter actually said to Jesus…what we do know is that Jesus quieted the chatter with rebuke, just as soundly as he had quieted the demons who spend the entire gospel announcing who Jesus really is.
In fact, the demons, the twisted powers of opposition to God’s reign, are the only beings in the gospel of Mark who announce Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God… before it is finally revealed by a Roman Centurion at the conclusion of the crucifixion…
…the only ones that is….except for Peter.
A few moments in narrative time before this passage, Peter announces that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus does not argue with him.
But he does argue with Peter’s mistaken idea of what Messiah-hood looks like.
Surely it can’t be death at the hands of the Romans Jesus?
Surely the reign of God will not be initiated with your crucifixion, my Lord?
Get behind me Satan! There’s more going on here than you are currently able to see.
As soon as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and what will happen there, he begins preparing his disciples for the reality that if they want to follow him, they will share his fate.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
We who are now well on our way to observing the 40 days of Lent have often misconstrued this denial of self with the practices of fasting and abstention that we take up in this season.
I show my love of God by denying myself chocolate, wine, carbs, meat, a particular vice or habit…This is what it means to deny myself.
At one level, it is true.
If abstaining from these items causes us to be more conscious of our connection with Christ and neighbor, and prepares us to set our face toward Jerusalem with Jesus, then they can be helpful.
But I imagine that all too often, they are seen as yet another way, albeit a holy and well-intentioned one, to distract us from the reality of what Jesus is really asking of us.
Take up your cross.
For those crowds who were following Jesus, and for the disciples, taking up their cross meant literally being prepared to face execution with Jesus.
Jesus threatened the world order of his day, and the ruling authorities had well-established ways of dealing with dissent and sedition.
In fact, crucifixion was a crime reserved especially for those who dared challenge the authority of Rome, and the legitimacy of Caesar to call himself the “Son of God.”
Any challenge to that narrative was swiftly dealt with, as the preservation of the imperial system was of utmost importance to those who benefitted from it.
So when Jesus tells all those who wish to follow him that they must be ready to face the same fate, he is not just asking them to bear their specific burden in life…to bear their cross in some metaphorical way…
…he is literally telling them they must be ready to die alongside him.
Military leaders have long used such speech to rally their troops into battle, sometimes in the face of impossible odds.
The great difference here is that the battle is not to be fought with sword and spear, but with soul and sacrifice.
I’ve spent time this week thinking about how those of us who are the inheritors of the martyrs’ legacy…the faith that was passed down to us because Jesus’ earliest followers did go to the cross, and the gallows, and the lions because they took this passage literally…how can WE be faithful to this call in our day and age?
Yesterday, as we celebrated Eucharist in the tomb of Saint Sebastian, a former Roman captain who was martyred because of his new-found Christian faith… this question arose once more.
We live in an age in which Christianity is not the rebellious upstart it once was.
In fact, too often over the past 1700 years, a Post-Constantinian Imperial version of our faith has played the role of the Jewish Temple in the time of Jesus…
It has enabled a system of domination to continue, and has stamped out those who would dare threaten such a system.
My question remains: What does it truly mean to take up one’s cross when the dominant context in which we live doesn’t threaten us with physical death?
When I see the horrors and idiocy of those who claim to be doing God’s will as part of the Islamic State…when they destroy history and humanity in the name of religion…
…Then I think that maybe taking up my cross is boldly standing up to such actions.
Certainly a confrontation with those IS leaders would lead to my death, and in a sense, “I would lose my life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel.”
Perhaps such sacrifice would truly save my life, or better yet, the lives of others who could yet suffer under these monsters’ hands.
But when I really think more deeply, it is clear to me that Jesus is not just pursuing a death wish here.
His call is not just about going to search out one’s own demise, but rather about confidently facing the consequences of standing up to that which places itself in the seat of God in our world.
It’s about exposing the idols of our world for what they are, and being willing to suffer their backlash as a result.
The demons gnashed their teeth at Jesus as he approached them, Herod and Pilate and Caiaphas and Annas will go to great lengths to prevent Jesus and his movement from upsetting the imperial practice and peace, and the earliest disciples who heard this clarion call to radical discipleship faced the wrath of a world order unwilling to change quietly.
So the question I ask you today is: What are the idols that we need to call out and face together as a people, a church, and as individuals?
Those denying practices of Lent might represent a bit of the spectrum of what idols we need to deny as individuals, and if so, keep them up…they are worthy practices.
But will we be crucified for giving up chocolate?
Maybe if we lived by the principles and teachings of Christ in our secular workplaces, we might face some kind of derision and backlash.
Maybe if we spoke out against how the global economy in which we participate benefits the few at the expense of the many…then that might expose us to serious suffering.
If we boycotted like the leaders of the civil rights movement, if we put our faith out front and dared challenge the shadow version of Christianity that supports and undergirds the domination system of our day…what would be our fate?
There is only one way to find out.
As Jesus makes his journey this Lent toward Jerusalem, each of us needs to decide if we are willing to take up our cross and follow him in our time.
We need to honestly discern what the idols of our day and age are, and we need to be willing to face the consequences of confronting them.
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus.
That is the way, hard as it may be, that leads to true and everlasting life.