Many years ago, when I started wearing a cross, perhaps at my confirmation at the age of 35, one of my brothers-in-law asked me why I would wear a Roman instrument of torture and death around my neck. I have to say that I had never thought of a cross in quite that manner and was rather stunned into silence. Yes, the cross was a Roman symbol of torture and death, but it’s not only that. It’s also a symbol of resurrection, of hope, of my sense that death is not the end. But it’s not something to wear lightly.
For in following Jesus, in speaking out against prevailing community norms, speaking truth to power, you take the risk that you will be metaphorically crucified. Let’s listen as Jesus speaks about picking up his cross as written in Mark 8:
8:31 Then 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.
8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
8:33 But 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.”
8:34 He 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.
8:35 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.
8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Take up their cross and follow me.” In this passage, Jesus is telling his disciples, and telling us, that there is a cost to following him. Are we ready? Are we ready to set aside our individual wants to embrace the way of Jesus? Are we ready to shift our focus from ourselves to how we can best serve the community?
Next month, we are hosting a Community Round Table, community leaders will be invited in to see how together we can help alleviate whatever is breaking God’s heart in this community.
Are we ready to start shifting our focus from mostly inward to outward? Are we ready to set our aside our individual needs, or perhaps a better way of saying it is, is our individual wants, in order to best serve the needs of the wider community?
Rev. Jan Edmiston, in her blog: A Church For Starving Artists, asks this, “Does your church exist for your congregation or for the people outside your walls who need the love of God? In healthy congregations, the answer is “both” but one is always dominant.If our congregation exists dominantly for its own members, then we are dying. And we basically deserve to die. We have missed the point of the Gospel.”
Harsh words, but relevant.
Our second reading speaks of God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. Abraham and Sarah are old, beyond child-bearing years, it is written that Abraham is 99, although that might be just a number chosen to denote a great age. In that society, to be without children, was not only culturally suspect, but also economically risky. Who would care for you in your old age if you did not have family?
What would it be like to be old and to hear God’s promise that ‘you will be the ancestor of many nations.’ Would you believe it? I am not sure that I would…
In this reading, we don’t hear Abram’s or Sarai’s response… the reading it taken up almost entirely with God speaking. Let’s listen as the story unfolds in Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.
17:2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
17:3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
17:5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
17:7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
17:15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.
17:16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
You might have noticed that in the first part of the reading, the people we know as Abraham and Sarah are called Abram and Sarai. But God gives them new names.
Establishing a new covenant with them. And this tradition of new names has continued down through the centuries.
It was often the custom in Roman Catholicism to give a new name at baptism, along with the chosen ones by the parents. Even now, it is customary in the United Church, to ask, “What is the name of this child” as I did when I baptized Annabelle.
When sisters and monks take final vows, they are given a new name.
For us as Christians, it’s to denote a new life in Christ, that we are changed because of our baptism. Not that we are any more loved by God… God doesn’t need our rituals to love us… our rituals are for us, to help us mark a significant event. I can almost wish there was a ritual for the day when you start to wear a cross. For so many people, it is an almost meaningless piece of jewelry, in fact, in one flyer I saw, it was grouped together with ‘charms.’
But for us, who identify as Christians, when we put on the cross, in effect we are saying to the world, “I am picking up Jesus’ cross.” We are saying, “I am following Jesus’ way.” We are saying, “I will act like Jesus acted.”
Big, awesome, terrifying words!
What does following Jesus’ way mean to you? How does it look to you? It may look very different depending on who you are and what your experience and understanding of Jesus’ mission. Jesus did not shy away from being in community with those who disagreed with him, rather he engaged them. And while many understood his wisdom and way, we know that there were many who did not. Many of the powerful of his time. And he was put to death.
By picking up our cross, we can experience the life, death and resurrection that Jesus offers. We experience his life when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, when we care for others at least as much as we care for ourselves. We participate in his death when we die to ourselves… to our ego, to the idea that only our desires and wants are the most important. We participate in his resurrection when we live transformed by the cross.
This is not to say that we negate ourselves, for surely in God and Jesus’ sight, each one of us in made uniquely in the image and likeness of God. The way I understand it is that we are to bring ourselves, our whole selves to God, and God’s work. But it’s not just our individual selves we bring. We bring our collective selves to God. How can we more fully be the body of Christ in the world today? How does this church reflect Jesus life, death and resurrection? What would the community say about that?
So, my friends, let us live in the light of God’s covenant that was with Sarah and Abraham, a covenant that continues with us.
Let us live in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Let us live in the light of blessing.
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Mark 8:31-38
February 25, 2018 – ECM