Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Lent 2 B – Sunday, February 22, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
What Peter’s response was after Jesus rebuked him, Mark doesn’t tell us. But we do know that Peter had already acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah in the beginning of this chapter. Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” said Peter. Then Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. A few verses later, Jesus tells his followers again, and more openly, that he will suffer and die, but for the first time he explains why.
|Pick up your cross and follow me|
He uses the image of the cross. The people of his time would have understood this reference better than we do today. Romans used the cross for execution. Crucifixion was terrifying and humiliating---a control freak’s nightmare: stretched out, bound, and naked, unable to care for our own basic needs, hours in unrelieved pain, people mocking, all the while knowing that you’re dying. It emphasized every aspect of our vulnerability as a human being. In 6CE the Romans crucified two thousand insurrectionists in Galilee, where Jesus grew up. Imagine the impression that two thousand crucified men must have made on the young Jesus. The people knew exactly what it meant to take up the cross. When Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, he knows that this is what it will come to. He chooses this vulnerability. He chooses obedience and courage and tells the disciples that if they’re to follow him, they must choose this too.
We often refer to the cross as something we personally carry in life---a sickness, a difficulty, a problem, or even a person. This isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. What he’s talking about is discipleship. He is laying out the cost of discipleship. He reminds us that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it will save it.” If we are serious, really serious, about being Jesus’ disciples, then we will lose our lives, as we know them. He isn’t saying we might lose it, but we will lose it. Life will be different. We won’t fit into the world in the same way.
The idea of a vulnerable, suffering God is as unacceptable to us as it was to Peter. Peter saw the Messiah as an invincible war hero who would lead the Jewish people to freedom and protect their vulnerability. The Church itself, once it was part of the Roman establishment, was embarrassed by the powerless One, Jesus. They had to make his obvious defeat into a victorious triumph by gilding the cross and covering his wounds with imperial robes, just like the emperor’s.
Aren’t we all like Peter in our own way? We want a Messiah who will save us from all that threatens us, including those parts of ourselves we would like to do without---a tame Messiah who will come when we call, and keep the bad things at bay. Who wants to be like Jesus on the cross, the very icon of powerlessness? Our human tendency is to remake Christ in our own image, rather than letting ourselves be transformed into his image. We want to be winners, not losers, we want to be powerful and on top. Our impulse to dictate these terms comes from our shadow self. Blinded by our prejudices, presuppositions, and preconceptions of the way things must be, we arrogantly assume that we know what must be done. Those on the margins of the social and economic success systems we create represent that which we fear and most deny within ourselves. We make them the enemy, which is why we must learn to love the enemy, if we are ever to be whole.
The image of losing our lives isn’t only physical, though many of our sisters and brothers around the world pay the price with their blood as martyrs. One day we will all confront physical death, but there are many smaller deaths awaiting us on this road of transformation and conversion. Most of us will be the “white martyrs” of early monasticism in the daily faithfulness to our small deaths in our continued conversion. We will face the death of our pride, of our comfortable ideas of who God is, of what God is calling us to be and to do.
Richard Rohr recently posted a meditation in which he wrote that no doctrine or dogma has ever converted anyone. He wrote, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” One of the most transformative experiences is entering into some kind of solidarity with the powerless. I found that in my years of work with our youth in South Africa. A year and a half after returning, it still serves as a catalyst for conversion for me. This gospel lesson is full of truth that is hard for us to hear. High hopes are dashed with the prediction of defeat, arrest, execution, and loss.
It had immediate relevance for Mark’s community, which was persecuted and powerless. For them the message was clear: the way to salvation, to wholeness, is through faithful endurance not avoidance. Denying oneself has significance even when not undergoing persecution. At its most basic level it means removing oneself from the center of one’s concerns, relinquishing status and power in favor of transformation and service to others. Discipleship is costly, and the urge to take Jesus aside and rebuke him as Peter did, can make more and more sense to us. Of course we don’t rebuke Jesus with our words. Our rebukes are of a kinder, gentler nature. We respond with benign neglect or insipid indifference to him and to those who are most vulnerable.
As long as self reigns, we will forever seek cheap, painless shortcuts to the kingdom. We will try to substitute another way for the way of the cross. But only when we deny self and take up the cross can we follow Jesus. All of our attempts to save our lives are futile. All our efforts to make another way are a denial of the One who showed us the way. True discipleship is when we are finally willing to accept Jesus for who he is, the Vulnerable and Suffering One who lays down his life for others. Only then can we understand who we are to be. As God came to be fully human in Jesus, so we too, understand what it means to be fully human through Jesus. The cross reminds us that faith is not certainty, hope is not optimism, and love is not painless.