The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams
Lent 2, Year B:Genesis 17:1-7,15-16;Psalm 22:23-31;Romans 4:13-25;Mark 8:31-38
Jesus told the crowds, “If any 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 lost it, and those who love their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
So I think it’s time we had a little talk about the cross. As hard as this is, the time seems right doesn’t it? We’re surrounded by crosses this season. We’re singing about them in almost every hymn. Crosses are in the gospel every time we turn around, and this whole 40 days and 40 nights is headed straight for Good Friday and Easter. Given the theological and liturgical trajectory we’ve got going on here, the cross can’t be avoided. And according to the gospel passage it shouldn’t be avoided. We should even be picking up our own crosses as we go! Starting now. And so this morning I want to ask what a cross is and try to identify what it isn’t.
I’m going to start with the “isn’t,” because if there is any symbol that is misunderstood, misused even it’s this one. And just as an opening disclaimer, I should let you know that I don’t fully understand it either. There is holiness, there is God here and whenever that happens, there’s an element of mystery and we need to leave room for that mystery’s presence. And so while I can’t speak to you from a place that involves absolute, conclusive proof, I can speak to you from a place of faith which is seeking understanding. And that understanding ebbs and flows and grows over time. And I hope that speaking from that place will at least give us room to talk and to pray about the cross together.
OK – what a cross is not. I don’t believe that a cross is something that is from God. Which might sound strange, or wrong or borderline heretical, so let me explain a little more.
I don’t believe God wants crosses, or wills crosses for us or for anyone. The cross is not what God is ultimately about which is why the gospel story, the story of Christian faith doesn’t end on a cross. And it’s why the story didn’t begin on one either. I don’t think that when God saw that Creation was good, God had already tucked a cross over in the corner of paradise in order to make the world complete.
I think that we put the crosses in this world. And that evil – however you explain that put crosses in this world. The cross is of our making, and occasionally it’s simply because of our limitations, but what I want to emphasize is that I don’t believe that crosses are of God’s intentions. And that distinction matters a lot.
And it leads us into what I think a cross is.
I actually think that the cross symbolizes everything God does not will for us – crosses are injustices on the backs of so many, illnesses that steal away wholeness, inner and outer demons. Crosses are poverty that demeans and kills, policies and practices and even pieties that bring about some sort of death – inner, outer, spiritual, or physical death – of a child of God. And so God mourns crosses. God doesn’t will them.
Remember that in the gospel the cross was a tool of torture used for public shame and punishment, and in the case of Jesus, it was a tool used by those who were afraid of losing their own power. And none of that is what God’s will played out looks like. It is, however, what occasionally our wills, our frailties, our fears played out to extremes, or sometimes just plain evil look like. Crosses are where we suffer, where we hurt, where this world misuses or warps creation and hurts, we all hurt (and I believe God does too) because of it.
So I believe that the crosses in our lives and in this world are those places in which we we are missing out on what it is that God wills for us. Crosses are places where our neighbors are missing what it is that God wills for them.
And so here in this gospel and in this season that is Lent we are being asked to take up those places in ourselves and in this world and it’s some of the hardest work that we’ll ever do, because first we have to look at those places and acknowledge how wrong they really are.
Which means that we have to let something in us die before we can even take it all in. And that’s part of what we risk this season. We risk the death of a naive sort of hope. We risk the death of that part of us that rightly holds tight to a vision of a kingdom coming now, present now. We risk awareness of our pain and the pain of others in this world. All of which means that we lose some innocence, some distance, some privilege when we take up a cross. It means that we lose at least pieces of our lives.
But here’s the amazing thing, the amazing grace of it all, the holy paradox if you will: While God does not intend crosses, God is there with us on them, in them, helping us, even carrying the cross for us when we can’t bear it any longer.
God’s love is so great that God goes to those places that are not of God in order to do the work that is redemption. And I think that that in itself is the mouthful that is Lent. The cross is not a sign that God wills pain or death, but that God is present with us in those realities pulling us and re-birthing this world into something new, something beyond the cross. God’s love is so great that God goes to those places that are not of God in order to help make something else, something new happen there. God goes to those places that run contrary to God’s will, in order to redeem them, to redeem us, ultimately to save us.
And so we take up our crosses and the crosses of this world because they are neither the beginning nor the end of the story. From the cross there is more, there is always more. The cross is neither a beginning nor an end. Due to forces beyond what God has chosen to control, sometimes free will, sometimes just plain evil, sometimes physical weakness or limitation, sometimes sin – due to so many things that come together to make this world not the kingdom of God yet, there is suffering and there is pain. And due to a love that is greater than all of it, God is there too working what theologian Jon Sobrino called “the theology of love in our real world.” The theology of love in our real world. God is there on the cross willing something new in the midst of all that runs contrary to that grace.
“What is this rising from the dead all about?” we asked as we headed into the season of Lent. Well, pick up your crosses and together let’s awaken ourselves to the crosses of the world and stand with those who carry them. And in those places we will grieve. And in those places we will pray. And in those places we will sing! And in those places we will proclaim God’s vision and help birth a new hope, a deep and real hope, because in those places we will love. And then, by grace, we’ll come to discover what rising from the dead is all about.