Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8: 31-38
We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
How would it be if each Sunday, as we leave this service, this church, we were to pick up a cross at the door and carry it very obviously with us through the week? What would it do to our sense of peace and community as we leave to have a rough hewn cross shoved into our hand, a reminder that our walk of faith involves personal discipleship to a man who died on a cross that we might find ours. This second week of lent is a hard week – the journey has begun to Jerusalem, the words of recognition have been spoken – yes Jesus, you are the Messiah – the teaching about betrayal and suffering and death has begun with a new intensity, the drama of Holy Week is still a long way away and the joy of Easter Sunday not really on anyone’s radar at all. And in the midst of it all is the knowledge that something crucial has changed -for them, for us.
It is no longer ok to just be the bystanders, the students at the knee of the master, the followers who stand back and let Jesus be the one who preaches, who heals, who feeds the hungry, who forges unlikely relationships and challenges and disrupts in the name of love. Step up, Jesus says – this is your journey as well – your life is to be put on the line too and I am asking you to walk this way with purpose and belief.
This was indeed a difficult time for the disciples who were with Jesus – not that life had been easy or predictable before but suddenly the reality of the words of Jesus begin to take hold.
‘To be my follower, take up the cross and follow me.’ After the euphoria of naming Jesus as the Messiah, this message of suffering and death must have seemed full of doom and gloom - and Peter was having none of it. It didn’t fit in with his understanding of the way in which Jesus would be the Messiah – Martin Luther calls it the theology of glory versus the theology of the cross. For Luther, the theology of glory anticipates what people want in their God, sees what ‘should be’ based on what seems self evident – power rather than a cross, accomplishment rather than helpless suffering. The theology of the cross is the path Jesus is taking – God’s self revelation found in the weakness of suffering and death – Luther believes that to know God truly is to know God in Christ, which means to know God revealed in the suffering of the cross.
This theology of the cross is a counter intuitive approach for many of us including Peter. He was looking for wisdom and strength in this newly declared Messiah – Jesus was telling him it involved what the world saw as foolishness and weakness. Imagine being those disciples, without the assurance of the resurrected Christ, grappling with the concept of death and suffering being the ‘good news’.
Do we do much better, understanding the cross to be the good news of Jesus Christ and does the knowledge of resurrection invite us to skip lightly over the moment of absolute grace that is the cross? Perhaps we can find some guidance in the story of Abram and Sarai and the covenant God made with them.
For it was a covenant of grace – a promise for Abram and Sarai to receive and it was on God’s terms – asking no response. ‘I will be their God’ - there is no rejoinder of ‘and they shall be my people.’
We can recognise their faithfulness as the fruit of the covenant but God’s promise was not dependant on their faithfulness. And it is the same with the cross - we are on the receiving end of God’s movement to bring life and freedom – found in the unlikeliest of places - the cross of suffering and offered for all of humankind. Open and unconditional extravagant grace – the good news indeed.
And as Sarai and Abram committed to the covenant with God, they received not only promise but the recognition that, in becoming the faithful people of God, there was a new beginning, a clear sense of purpose, a new path to walk with God. And to write that on their hearts they were given new names – they became Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarah meaning princess.
And for us, through the extravagant grace of God, our life in the church and the waters of baptism, the covenant established with Abraham and Sarah and brought to fullness on the cross has been opened to us too. And when we too choose to respond to the grace of God we also gain a new name – we become a ‘disciple of Jesus’ signalling our new purpose as people of faith.
We think of others in the bible and in life who choose to take a new name – and why they might do it.
Jacob was renamed Israel, Hoshea became Joshua, the mute Zechariah writing his son John’s name on a tablet - and we continue in our contemporary world – birth, circumcision, baptism, kings and queens and popes, entry into monastic life, gender change, marriage, immigrants and settlers alike.
A new start, an acceptance of new direction or responsibility, a desire to lay aside that which was not fruitful or safe or healing and begin again. A new name for a new purpose.
What might that mean for us, and how might reflecting on our ‘new name’ be significant for us this Lenten time?
One of the things we encounter in a new name is that people see us differently. When I began the journey of becoming a minister one of the most difficult things for me was realising that people approached me with expectations, that there was an assumption of some wisdom, of compassion, of knowledge, of certain behaviour. As Christians, newly named or long committed, how are we perceived by others? Does our behaviour reflect the good news of Jesus Christ or is there very little change in the direction of our lives to others?
And we see ourselves differently - a decision has been made, a commitment embarked upon that has changed our lives. No longer are we our own person but walk the path that Christ has walked – much of it needing a great deal of trust and faith. We embrace servanthood and forgiveness and vulnerability, we enter into the pain of the world so that we might transform the world – a far cry from being in control or persuasion from a position of power.
And we see each other differently – we build relationships based on selflessness and hope, we engage with those we would not normally approach and discover Christ in the least and the different. We hear the voice of Jesus in those whom we discuss faith and scripture and theology with. We see the hands of Jesus in the people who we minister with and who minister to us. We know the love of Jesus in the saints that surround us and the stranger we encounter in the strangest of places.
I want to finish with some lines from the poem by Andrew Norton called ‘Hello’ that we shared at Wednesday worship. For me it gathers together all the threads of what it means to respond to the faithfulness of God, the new journey that we embark upon when we become disciples of Christ. At this Easter time we remind ourselves of what we greet when we choose to follow Christ.
Hello by Andrew Norton
I search the horizon but cannot see beyond today’s unfolding
Hello to the unknown.
Hello to the unknown.
My bones ache, my breath is short, my feet and hands hurt – Hello to pain.
The grace of tears – Hello to love.
Light painting an azure sky with puffs of white clouds – Hello to wonder.
A pathway into the mist – Hello to mystery.
Now you have it, now you don’t – Hello to loss.
A hand written card, pure gift – Hello to kindness.
Thicker than blood because it is a choice – Hello to friendship.
Stories of endings – Hello to grief.
As champagne to a weary heart – Hello to laughter.
“Hosanna” fades as the crowd turns – Hello to forsaken.
I ask God “why?” so I may gain wisdom – Hello to silence.
In the shadows I’m at home in the womb of creation – Hello to darkness.
Sunlight through the rain – Hello to hope.
Hello to life, yes, to all of it!