Take up your cross, not just for Lent but for life. Jesus seems to be saying: If you want any part of me have it all – the teaching and the desolation, the outrageous company and the garden of bitter tears, the healing and the suffering. If you would be my disciple take up your cross and follow me. (RCL Mark 8:31-38)
Dear old Abraham and Sarah – both at various points fall about the place laughing in response to God’s promises. And yet they do both cooperate with God’s plan, even with whatever misgivings they have. And because of their faith they are accorded as being righteous. Paul hammers this home and reminds us that under the law we and they would have been done for, would have failed the test, but by faith we are included in the promise of God.
We do need to be careful at this point, because having accepted – at least theoretically – that we cannot make the grade on our own moral merit the temptation is to think that the quality of our faith means we earn God’s approval another way. And yet no, all is grace, even faith. All is gift and freely given.
Faith, spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving, all that we strive to do is our response to God’s grace which we do out of gratitude, wonder, desire, fear, love. We do not earn salvation any more by our Christian dutifulness in worship and good works – seen and unseen , the cleverness of our theology, or even the goodness of our hearts (compared to our neighbour!!) than we do by keeping the law. It is all gift. It is all grace. It is free. And yet it costs us everything.
Only the second Sunday of Lent and already the cross looms menacingly large. We know that on Good Friday Jesus dies on the cross for us – the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for all of us. If that were all the cross were about then why would he have told his disciples to take up their crosses? They – we – are not simply told to follow Jesus while he prepares for the cross but we are told to take up our cross, that we shall have fields of persecution, the same bitter cup to drink. The different gospel writers express it slightly differently but all point to an engagement with the central story of sacrificial living that is to be ours, not simply done for us.
How did we get from free grace to costly taking up of the cross? A holy paradox – two apparently opposite things both true. As humans I thing the closest we get to understand it is as parents and loving adults to children. (I have just become a grandmother for the first time and so the all consuming love of a child is on my heart at the moment.) A child is always a total gift from beyond ourselves, even when of our flesh. To be entrusted with a child is to be given the most wondrous gift. A gift which ends up costing everything – your dollars, your sleep, your hopes, your fear, your shame, your joy, your everything and you spend the rest of your life with your heart threatening to split asunder with joy and pain. We are, in the cross, invited into the heart of God, into an all consuming love. God’s love of us, our love of God, our love for others. Only the cross is confronting enough to convey the demand of everything that God gives and asks of us.
Now the cross is not just a symbol of death it is the symbol of shameful and unnatural death. Jesus didn’t die of old age or illness or accidental injury. He died of wounds inflicted by a religious and political system enacted by particular people in the presence of others who could not or would not intervene. He died a death designed for the criminal. He died a victim not a hero or a patriarch. No peaceful drawing up of his knees and going to sleep with the ancestors.
The cross is the ultimate challenge and transforming contradiction because it is the place where the victim, the broken one, the outcast takes hate into himself and transforms it into love, takes suffering into his flesh and lets death die so that life might live eternal. The cross is the lightning rod of the universe that attracts uncontrollable forces of hate and death and transforms them into life and love.
And this can only be lived – albeit timidly – it cannot simply be observed from afar, from a safe distance. To be a Christian is to be a follower of the way, it is to be a participant in life and death and life. To have faith is to fall on our faces in fear and doubting laughter and to be consumed by a love and a life that has no end.
And in Lent part of our repentance is of all the ways in which we have watered this all consuming love down, all the ways in which we have struggled to be nice and merely good rather than loved and loving, of all the ways and times we have listened to other life commandments – be successful, be seen, be strong, be secure … rather than love your God with all that you are and your neighbour as your self.
Part of the reason that we are encouraged to be still, to spend time in prayer and reflection, is that we need to let the busyness of life and all our distractions settle for a moment so that we can’t help but make eye contact with Jesus and risk hearing “Get behind me, you are thinking as a human rather than from the divine perspective. Repent, turn around, re-orientate yourself toward the things of God. Choose life, eternal life.” These harsh sounding words are actually words of life, words that bring us back to our true direction, words that are spoken by the beloved in love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.