Sunday, March 4, 2012

Baptism and the Cross

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.

What a courageous, brave, and uniquely strange prayer (bizarre, really): Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of the cross and find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.

This prayer appears most frequently in its capacity as the collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer, both rites one and two, pages 56 and 99, respectively.  The prayer also serves as the collect for the Monday of Holy Week, just after Palm Sunday, which means that - not counting this sermon - you could very well encounter this prayer 53 times over the course of a year.  Not as often as you brush your teeth (I hope), but enough to be regularly shaped by it: the brave, strange prayer to walk in the way of the cross.

The collect for Fridays and the Monday of Holy Week is not your run of the mill prayer or your run of the mill understanding of the cross.  But it’s the prayer you end up with when Jesus teaches his disciples 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.  It’s the prayer you end up with when that same Jesus turns to each of his disciples, to each of us, and says, “take up your cross; follow me.”

Do you suppose the disciples flinched a little?

Walk in the way of the cross.  The cross, which is, says St Paul, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.  Even among contemporary Christians, many people mistakenly view the cross from a bit of a distance - as the thing Jesus does for us, so that we don’t have to.  (Like the old Scrubbing Bubbles commercial slogan: “We work hard, so that you don’t have to.”)  To this mistaken understanding, Jesus on the cross becomes a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that allows us to keep living the lives we were already living, where Jesus is at best a divine stamp of approval and at worst the promise of forgiveness in the end.  Something for which we’re thankful but by which we’re not actively engaged or challenged.

While it’s true that Jesus’s dying on the cross saves us in a way that we cannot and need not add to, it’s also true that Jesus’s own words invite us to follow him into the salvation that he wrought there, on the cross.  “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. 

The words perplex us.  Evidently, Jesus’s cross does not excuse but makes possible our own.  Put differently, precisely because Jesus saves us on the cross, you and I don’t have to fear the cross.  Jesus lays out the cross like it’s an opportunity that he makes possible.  And maybe it is.  We can dare to follow Jesus into the kind and quality of love we had thought was just for fools.

If you were here last week you remember how I talked about this church in North Carolina in which the baptismal font was deep, like a tank, this large, stone cross, and that the cross was situated between the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth stations of the cross, the stations in which Jesus is crucified, dies, and is taken from the cross for burial.  We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And this is where we put our children.  This is where we put our hope.  The way of the cross made open to us - the way of life and peace.

So it may sound simple, but it’s significant, I think: Jesus on the cross does not protect us from the cross.  But because Jesus saves us on the cross, you and I don’t have to fear the cross - which becomes our opportunity.  Now we can dare to follow Jesus into the kind and quality of love we had thought was just for fools... 

Like the woman who poured out a year’s worth of wages in oil and washed Jesus’s feet with her hair.  Foolish, extravagant, costly love.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, says the psalmist, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Take up your cross, and follow me, he says.

To Jesus’s invitation to take up our cross, I pose two honest questions:

What does this look like, and why would I want to?

To the first question, I am sure that it looks like more, but not less, than the baptismal promises we mentioned last week.  The five questions of the faithful.  Do you remember them?  They’re not going away, guys... (I was tempted to buy a Starbucks gift card as an incentive to the faithful, but Rebekah said that was too gimmicky for this crowd.)  The five visible signs of the death and resurrection we are baptized into...

Will you:

Keep breaking bread, keep meeting for prayers,
Ask God's forgiveness, when (not if) you fall into sin,
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,
Seek and serve Christ in all people,
Strive for justice and peace?

We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  These are the visible commitments of your baptism.

In the moment just before the first Easter morning, the millisecond before the breaking dawn and the Good, Great News of the empty tomb, creation is said to have sat on the edge of its seat with a question.  The question was this: Will the God of all things really stand to be affiliated with a Son who hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, made friends with the ungodly, loved his enemies, even died for them, put the sword away, drank the cup of judgment so that we might drink forgiveness; will the Maker of all that is really stand to be represented like this, by this One?

And Easter morning rang out with God’s glorious and resounding “yes.”

Now, our baptismal promises pose the same question to us: Will you also stand with the one God stands with?  Will you stoop to be affiliated with a Savior who looks like this?  Whose way is the cross; whose path is forgiveness, mercy, truth, who overcomes the powers of the world by exposing their weakness, by not availing himself of them, whose life is the unbroken announcement that God’s love has come near and that God’s love takes a shape: the very particular shape of the cross. 

Father, forgive them, he said.  Self-giving.  Restoring.  Reaching.  Friends with the thief.  Poured out.  Naked.  Not hiding.  Bringing all things to God.

Before the cross, the best we could manage or imagine was some version or another of “do unto others as you would have them to do unto you,” itself an admonition from Jesus, but which in our hands quickly became a kind of altruism thinly veiled in self-interest.   A kind of calculated investment based on probable - or at least desirable - return.  But now, at the cross, we can say with the saints, “Love one another as Christ as has loved you.  Love him, love her, as Christ loves that person.”  Love foolishly.  Love with your life.  Love when it costs you to love.

Twentieth-century nun and philosopher Edith Stein asked, “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified?  If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer, healing and salvation.”  It is here, on the cross, that we find the fearless love to love as God loves us.  Because God has loved, does love, us first.  It’s only here, on the cross, that we discover what God’s love really is. 

So that is some foundation for what it looks like.  But why do it?  Why walk the cross-shaped path? 

Not just because Christ is at the end of the path.  Like a leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  But because Christ himself breaks in the Kingdom, there, in that moment, on that defining hill. 

So John Howard Yoder writes:

“Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.  The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.”

I want the way of the cross, because the cross is where I receive the Kingdom of God.  God, give me, grant us, grace to follow where You lead.


[Sermon preached March 4, 2012, Lent 2, at St Christopher's]

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