Jesus calls us to follow him on his path, the way of the cross, and we follow, because on his path all our pain, our vulnerability, our loss is met by the one who can hold it all.
Vicar Anna Helgen
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24, year B
texts: Mark 8:27-38
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Follow me, Jesus says. It doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Almost like a game of follow-the-leader. To follow Jesus, however, is to follow the God-made-flesh. It isn’t some carefree childhood game; it is a way of life. A re-orientation to how we live in the world with God and with others.
If we are to follow this God-made-flesh, as Jesus bids us, it will help us to know about Jesus’ identity and where it is he leads us. Because, while the act of following is important, it is the who we are following that is key.
As readers of Mark’s Gospel, we’re privy to some insider knowledge. In chapter one verse one, we learn that this entire book will tell the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. While we know this good news, at this point in the narrative, the disciples don’t yet have it all figured out.
Up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has demonstrated his authority and power through biblical feats of strength: walking on water, feeding the 5000, healing the sick. But, here in this passage, we come to a shift as Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, fully describing for us and for the disciples the future of this Messiah. No longer will his ministry be focused solely on healing and miracles, for now Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, his journey to the cross.
Peter can’t believe what Jesus describes. Because it doesn’t make sense, does it? That the Messiah who comes to usher in the kingdom of God and a reign of peace will be put to death. It’s ironic. Unbelievable.
Because for the powerful, winning often comes through strength and force.
Through exerting will at the expense of others.
By taking care of your needs first.
By obliterating your enemies.
But the kingdom of God doesn’t follow the rules of this world, and neither does the Messiah. In God’s kingdom, the way of death is actually the way to life. And it is this Messiah, the one who walks to the cross, who bids us to follow him.
“For any who want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This summons to follow Jesus is not only for the disciples, but also for us. But do we want to follow when the end seems so bleak? When the burdens and responsibilities are too many to count? Where denial rather than indulgence is the way to fulfillment?
Some days, I prefer the path that offers quick fixes and easy solutions. Where I can distance myself from the messy and confounding needs of my friends and family. Where I can keep my fears and anxieties to myself. The path where I can do my own thing: go to work, fold the laundry, feed my cats. The path where I don’t have to give up my life, my needs, my desires, my dreams.
The thing is, I’m well aware that losing is a part of my life as I know it is a part of yours, too. A spouse loses a job. A dear friend dies. A relationship crumbles. Trust is breached. Lifelong dreams for retirement are sidelined by illness. A parent becomes dependent on adult children. The list goes on and on.
When we experience these losses we feel discouraged, angry, lonely, and afraid. We feel as if we have lost control. We wonder where God is in the midst of it all. And sometimes we even ponder why God can’t come and make the pain go away. Why God can’t offer the quick fix or easy solution to our problems.
We pray: Help us, God. If you are all powerful and almighty, do something. Make me happy. Heal my friend’s disease. Help my teenagers make good choices. Open the hearts of people and leaders to embrace those fleeing war in Syria. Strike down those who pollute our world with toxic waste and hurtful words.
Like Peter, we cling to a notion of God who dazzles crowds with feats of power and whose pockets are full of miracles, who cleans up messes and puts things right.
But we soon discover that God doesn’t act with brute force. That God, in fact, responds to the powers that destroy by succumbing to them. So it is here, in our own places of loss and darkness, in our own surrendering over to God, where God meets us. Where God promises to show up.
So perhaps because Jesus leads us to the cross is exactly the reason we ought to follow him. Because on this path, our pain, our vulnerability, our loss is met by the one who can hold it all. Because God has become incarnate in Jesus, God enters our pain, too. And while God cannot necessarily make it go away, God will carry us through. All of us. Because within the mass of humanity, God sees the pain and tears of each of us. God hears us. Knows us. And we are not alone. Ever.
We choose to follow Jesus because in following him, we find ourselves. We learn that to live as God intends, we must die to ourselves and live for others. And as we bear our burdens and the burdens of others, we relinquish control so that others can step in. So that we become incarnate in one another, just as God becomes incarnate in us.
This is the journey of death and resurrection:
Where the opportunity for relationship is given to us.
Where forgiveness is offered when it is not deserved.
Where friends show up with dinner just because.
Where we learn to live again.
This is God’s kingdom breaking into our midst.
Where new possibilities spring forth from our old wounds,
where brokenness, pain, and all powers that defeat us are put to death,
where by losing all, we save all.
This is our journey, where through death, all things are made new.
Amen. And thanks be to God.