Sermon September 16, 2012

“See It Real: Cross-Shaped Suffering”

 

September 16, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

Introduction to the Scripture

Last Sunday Skip taught us that the ultimate hero’s quest – following Jesus – is a path of sacrifice.  This morning we come back to this topic in our Scripture lesson from Mark’s Gospel.

Today we’re on the path of discipleship with Peter, whom we think of as the ideal disciple.  But when Jesus reminds Peter that discipleship includes self-denial and sacrifice, Peter and Jesus actually get into a heated conflict.

This is also the lectionary reading that our children and Sunday School teachers will explore.  So this argument between Jesus and Peter can be grist for conversation around your Sunday dinner tables – maybe even an argument or two.

Mark 8: 27 – 36

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

I met my daughter Siri’s teachers at the High School’s Parent Open House last week.  And while I was impressed by all of them, something her English teacher said has stayed with me.  Michael McAteer was talking about writing.  He said that the hardest rule for his students to learn about writing was, “Keep it real.”  Mr. McAteer talked about just how hard it is for any writer to not fall into dead clichés.  And, for his teenaged students, the hardest part of this lesson isn’t the writing, but the seeing.  How can I see life as it really is, and not in stereotypes or slogans.  How can I “see it real,” as he put it.

Mr. McAteer, I have a new pupil for you, one more student who needs to sit in your class, and learn to see it “real”: Peter.  The Apostle Peter.  In this morning’s scripture, Peter exposes his own clichéd vision of life.  In Peter’s vision of Life, you just sign up with the right leader – Jesus – and life from here on is up, up, and away:  the good life, the God life, beautiful, pain free, trend lines all upward to the right.

I understand Peter.  I’ve been like him – looking for a leader, looking for a savior who promises all upside.

Looking for a church. . .

When John and I moved to Portland, Oregon 15 years ago, one of the perks of not being in the pulpit was that we got to go church-shopping.  Just like you do!  That was fun – it was like Goldilocks sampling the porridge: “Oh, that minister is too long-winded.” “That minister is too simplistic.” “Ah, that minister is just right.”  Frankly, we were drawn to Sunset Presbyterian Church[1] because of the Christmas-card, picture-perfect families we met there.  We couldn’t believe how unified these families were!  Even the teenagers sat with their parents!  

One great family from Sunset Pres. was the Resnicks.  I got to know them by teaching Sunday School with the father, Scott.  Scott Resnick was an airplane mechanic and pilot, and the hilarious, high-speed daddy of four little redheads with his wife, Holly.  And Holly was something else – a beautiful woman inside and out, the host of a local TV program of funny advice for moms, a songwriter, singer, and worship leader.  One of my favorite songs Holly sang goes:

 

Blessed be Your name

When the sun’s shining down on me

When the “world’s all as it should be”

Blessed be Your name.[2]

 

I wanted that, where the sun would shine down on me, where the world’s all as it should be,” symbolized by this happy, lovely family, the Resnicks.  A Christmas-card, picture-perfect family.

I wanted that. Jesus, sign me up.  I’m right there – with Peter.

Peter looks at Jesus, and says, “You’re the one.”  “You’re the messiah we’ve been waiting for. Let’s go have this great movement, a great life, because now we’ve got You, we’ve got God on our side.”

And Jesus’s response?  He silences Peter!  Not so fast, Peter.  Before you run off, proclaiming me Lord, let me tell you what that really means.  “The Son of Man must undergo sufferings, be rejected, and be killed.”

Peter doesn’t want to hear this.  He’s not ready to see the reality of discipleship.  Peter, acting like a political handler, takes Jesus aside and begins to scold him.  “Jesus, you’re off message.  Stop this talk of suffering and death!”  And Jesus whirls around and rebukes Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  What a conflict!

The real path of Jesus involves misunderstanding, suffering, trials and death.  This path of troubles is so integral to following Jesus, so in the DNA of discipleship, that if you deny this, Jesus says, “You’re not my follower.”

But you already know this.  You already know this because you are followers of Jesus, and your lives know trouble.  In the six weeks I have been here, I’ve become acquainted with some of your burdens – chronic illness, the uncertain course of cancer, handicaps, humiliating mistakes, divorce, 9/11, the deaths of children.  If we’re looking for a Christmas-card, picture-perfect life, it’s not in our cards, not in our Christmas cards, not in our Jesus cards.

You get this, even if Peter doesn’t.  That’s the first point of our scripture lesson.

But, here’s the second point we must draw from this lesson:  Jesus isn’t just being realistic, forecasting trouble and suffering.  If that’s all he offers, why join His movement?  If Jesus’s message and movement amount to, “Life is Suffering,” well, we could follow the Buddha.  The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is, after all, “Life is suffering.”  If the climax of the Christian life is troubles, suffering and death, then, as the Apostle Paul says, “We of all people are to be the most pitied.”[3]  If Jesus is just warning we’ll suffer, what’s the point of following Him?

But He’s not.  Jesus is offering us so much more.  Jesus leads us, not so much on a path of trouble and suffering, but on the path of the cross.  The Cross.  And that is different.  Jesus’s path is carrying the cross – and we, we carry our crosses.  That makes all the difference.  All the difference in suffering.

Frankly, it’s hard for us to hear this phrase, “Carry your cross” and grasp what Jesus is offering.  Allen Hilton, in his Yale Bible Study commentary on Mark, suggests that the phrase, “carry your cross” conjures up less-than-helpful images.[4]  Maybe it makes you think of your Aunt Mildred and her interminable, whiny complaining about the crosses she carries:  her children who don’t call, her catty sisters, her husband’s golfing. If that is “carrying the cross,” well, “No thanks,” you might say.

Well, what does Jesus mean then when he asks us to carry the cross?

Suffering is the experience of being overpowered, overcome, enveloped and smothered by tragedy, injustice, pain.  Suffering occurs in passivity.  But to carry the cross is active.  To carry the cross is a choice, it is our forward motion.  We take hold of our suffering and spread it out on that cross; we take those sufferings and make them cross-shaped.  And then, we can lift up that cross, and carry it toward the goal.  The cross is active, the total opposite of passive suffering.

The world gives suffering, but God gives us the cross.  That’s why Jesus rebukes Peter with such strong language:  “Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  It is human to suffer, but it is divine to carry the cross.

So, the first point of this scripture is that being Christian doesn’t shield us from suffering.  But our second point must be:  Christian suffering is cross-shaped, and that makes all the difference.

What does that mean? What does that mean, “to make our suffering, “cross-shaped”?  Down through the centuries there has been a cloud of witnesses who have experienced this, and they teach us two things.

First, there is consolation in knowing that you are not alone in carrying your cross.  John Calvin wrote that we are “holding fellowship with the sufferings of Christ,” and that fellowship is the most profound form of consolation.  I carry a cross, but so does Jesus.  Jesus, the archetypal human, the Son of Man, the one whose design is the blueprint for our lives – he carries a cross, like ours.  We are not alone.  Here is the deepest kind of fellowship, true friends who share the same burden.

That is the consolation of the cross.

Second, there is power in carrying our cross. Thomas a’Kempis, in his classic work, The Imitation of Christ, wrote about this mystical, uplifting power:  “To carry the cross, to love the cross. . .strength will be given you from heaven.  .  .(T)he flesh will be made subject to your word.  You will not even fear your enemy. . . if you are armed with faith and signed with the cross of Christ.” [5]  Imitating Christ, as he carries his cross, can bring a power of courage, calm and self-control that will surprise us.  Indeed, this is an experience of Easter power, and believers across time have testified to it.

That is the uplifting power of the cross.

When we re-frame our sufferings and troubles into a cross that we willingly take hold of, that we even love, then we experience consolation and power.

 ***

Let me make a final point.  Across Christian theology and philosophy one hears a recurrent dynamic, a pattern to religious experience:  that of being pushed down and then raised up.  All encounters with God – with the real God – involve this sense of our being pushed down – chastened, decentered, exposed, humbled.  And our being raised up – saved, healed, empowered, released.

Calvin called this two-part motion, “mortification and vivification.”[6] Immanuel Kant recognized this descent and ascent as the dynamism of our moral awareness.[7]  And my own mentor, Gordon Kaufman, termed this “Revitalization and Humanization.”[8]  Whatever language is used, they all express what we learn in the experience of carrying the cross:  We are burdened, even crushed.  And then we are lifted up, by consolation and power.

But Peter doesn’t understand this.  He thinks life with Jesus is all about being raised up – a “trend without end.”  But life with Christ has both this crushing descent and upward fulfillment.

This is a lesson that takes a life-time to grasp. To trust!  But, some may learn this lesson in just a season – a season of suffering.

I watched such a season unfold for the Resnicks, that Christmas-card, picture-perfect family from Portland.  On May 24, 2009, Scott was flying his small plane to Arizona for a family event.  Inexplicably, he crashed into the side of a desert mountain and died, leaving Holly and their four children, Kiel, Reilly, Ireland, and Kelton.[9]

That favorite song that Holly sang in church, “Blessed Be The Name of the Lord”?  About a year after the shock of Scott’s death, Holly walked onto the stage at church and sang that song again.  And now I began to understand what it means to carry the cross, just by watching Holly.  This is what she sang – no, not just “sang,” but what she testified to:

Blessed be Your name

When I’m found in the desert place

Though I walk through the wilderness

Lord, blessed be Your name.

Blessed be Your name

On the road marked with suffering

Though there’s pain in the offering

Blessed be Your name.

This lesson is ours to learn.  What Peter is not yet ready to learn.  What I began to learn, witnessing Holly’s testimony.

Learning this may take a life-time.  Or, it may take just a season, a season of suffering.

When we carry our troubles and tragedies as a cross – a cross Jesus bears with us – consolation and power are ours.  And we can say, on that road marked with suffering, “Lord, blessed be Your name.”

Amen?



[3] 1 Cor 15: 19

[5] Thomas a’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter 12  (http://www.catholicarchive.org/thomas_a_kempis/the_imitation_of_christ/2/12.html)

[6] Calvin, op cit.  III.iii.3,9

[7] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Harper Torchbook, 1960), cxxxiii ff.

[8] Gordon Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method (American Academy of Religion, 1995), 68.

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