r m p






This Irresistible Cross


Old Testament Reading: Job 5: 6-7

New Testament Reading: Matthew 18:6-7

Text: Mark 14:18-21


This, as I'm sure you know, is the first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent. Lent leads up to Holy Week, to Good Friday and Easter. It anticipates the sufferings of Christ and prompts us to share in them by imposing penitential discipline upon ourselves. Some sort of self-denial that would put us in mind of the self-chosen suffering of Jesus.

Here is an important point in itself, it seems to me: the cynical among you might be inclined to say. "Listen, I've got more than enough trouble that I didn't choose! Why make things even rougher?" Excellent question.

Here's the answer: what we are commemorating in Lent and Holy Week is precisely the suffering that Jesus needn't have endured, that he went through voluntarily for the sake of others. Much like Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi: they could have lived quiet lives like anyone else and incurred no danger at all, but then they wouldn't have helped anyone either.

As it is, they made quite a splash in the pond both by their lives and by their deaths, and few do not feel the ripples even now. And so with Jesus. The small sacrifices to which Lent invites us are reminders that some suffering need not be shirked or shunned if it seems it may be for the good.

But that's not really the point of the sermon. To make the point I need to detour into a bit of New Testament exegesis. Did you notice any similarity between the New Testament reading and the third text I read a moment ago? Let me read them again. and you will see the similarity.

I do not think Jesus referred to himself as "the son of man." The phrase originally meant" humanity," "every mother’s son," or "Everyman." Sometimes Jesus used the phrase in this sense when he was making some, usually pessimistic, statement about the way of all flesh. This is one of them. He said that, given the condition of the world, there is just no way temptations to sin won't come your way.

It is so inevitable that we can say. human life is actually a script containing a temptation scene for every protagonist, many in fact. "The son of man goes as it is written of him.” His implicit advice is that, in your role as the one tempted, you must strive to be prepared so you can meet the challenge. And, more explicitly, you must be careful that you do not take the role of tempter in someone else's script. Someone will do it, that's inevitable, but it need not be you. And despite the fact that someone will do it if you don't, don't think that it might as well be you, since the tempter role brings with it a terrible price.

Paul is at one with Jesus here: he, too, says that temptation is the common lot of mortals. But he is optimistic enough to think that God will always have provided an escape hatch. He thinks God will never lead us into a temptation we stand no chance of resisting. Is that true, do you think?

Beforehand, you think not: that temptation seems so alluring that you tell yourself God should have made you of sterner stuff if he expected you to do any better! So you stop struggling against the vortex, you compromise morally, telling yourself that you couldn't help it. Though if that were the case, you wouldn't be making these excuses to yourself in the first place, would you?

And afterward, your guilt tells you that, yes, you could have done better. What you needed at the time was the perspective you have now. It's easy to get it after the fact. In fact, you can't help having it! That's the moment in which you ask, "What was I doing? What could I have been thinking?"

Here's a little trick to keep in mind: you need that perspective before you come to the moment of temptation. The way to get it is to try to envision the range of temptations that you know come upon people. You're not that much different, you know. Sooner or later, you might very well find yourself facing this or that temptation, even though now you don't think so.

You've seen your friend succumb to it, and you thought: "What's the matter with So-&-so? I'd never even have been tempted to do that!" So you think you're immune. But the day may come when you can see the attraction, and suddenly there you are with no strategy to resist it. “You like to think you’re immune to the stuff, but it’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough.”

So I'm suggesting that in-the meantime you try a series of thought experiments. Make sure you understand why it would be better not to do something you'd enjoy in the short run that would cost you your integrity or the pain of a loved one in the long run. And once you face the situation you'll be able to say to yourself, "Not so fast, buster!" The temptation will be seen in its true colors, or something like them. The down side will be visible.

The prospect will not seem so rosy. The price tag will be all too apparent, and you won't be willing to sign that blank check, hop­ing you're not ruining yourself. Temptation works so well because it is so often a surprise attack. So be prepared. As Paul says of the tempter, "we are not ignorant of his devices." Are you?

So the way to temptation is scripted for you. Play your role well. But eventually, I would argue, someone in the early church took the saying in a whole new direction. By this time Christians had applied the Daniel chapter seven text (about the heavenly figure like a son of man) to Jesus. He was the Son of Man par excellance. What did the sayings mean as applied to him? It was read as predicting his Passion, his trials in Gethsemane and all the events leading along the Via Dolorosa to the thorny cross. And the one by whom he goes his way to the cross? Judas, the immortal scapegoat, of course.

In a sense this reinterpretation was a distortion. The saying was made to say something not about human existence and its vicissi­tudes, but rather about the unique mythic epic of an incarnate redeemer. Yet even as such, I suggest, the saying reflects back on the common man and woman who were first the subjects of the saying.

Some months ago I preached on the phrase “the son of man." There I said it is hard to draw the line between Jesus the Son of Man and the least of his brothers and sisters. All the glorious and larger- than-life things said about the Son of Man Jesus are in some measure the secret truth about the least of his brothers and sisters.

In fact I would say that one of the most important truths about the story of Jesus and his Passion is that there we see the human situation, the scripted drama of human existence, writ large, so no one can miss the meaning. In fact, you will only fail to grasp it if you draw too bold a line separating Jesus from the rest of us. But, as I see it, what you say of him you are saying of us. Is he the Son of God? Then so are we all God's sons and daughters, as Luke has Paul say in Athens, quoting the Stoic Aratus, "For we are indeed his offspring."

Is he a being of two natures, divine and human, conjoined and not mixed? So said the Council of Chalcedon. But it is equally true of you. As Niebuhr said, human beings are both spirit and nature, and from this strange fact arise our moral conflicts. Paul had said the same: in each breast the spirit strives with the flesh, so that we can never do perfectly what we wish we could. Because with each different nature we wish for a very different thing!

When it says that Jesus the Son of Man trod the marked-out path of suffering, and that this suffering was redemptive in effect, cosmic in scope, and tragic to an unfathomable depth, we must learn that the same is being said of the suffering you and I are undergoing. It is not meaningless.

Oh, I am far from saying it is happening in order to accomplish some particular purpose, as if you were a rat in God's Skinner Box, and he were experimenting with you. That is one of the most detestable of the crazy ideas Christianity has managed to spawn.

No, given the way the world is, trials and tribulations must come. Why do they surprise us? Look at the flesh you're made of; why should it surprise you that it aches and dies? There is a life-&-death cycle written into the genes of all life. The son of man, like the ant and the frog, and the Pterodactyl, goes sooner or later, as it is written of him. There is no mystery about that. We do not need philosophers to explain why death and pain exist. Biology explains it quite well.

You are a mere animal. Yet you are also a god! A spirit! And that you should suffer the anguish of loss and illness, of frustration, of the stymieing of destiny or the death of dreams--it is a crime against the cosmos! You wear the crown of thorns! Your arms extend upon the splintery cross!

Lent is the time that tries, as I see it, to teach this lesson. Christian devotion has always known this fundamental fact, though it has not always known very well how to express it. Nor do I. But when you suffer, you must remind yourself of the dignity of your suffering. It is your cross to bear!

The words I just used are a cliche, have become a cliche. Isn't that interesting! The insight that your own sufferings partici­pate in the Passion of the Christ, once glimpsed, once grasped, is lost again! The fact that suffering is rightly described as a bearing of the cross, a walk to Golgotha--even this realization becomes trivialized simply because it must be invoked so often, every time there is suffering, and that is all the time.

Luke knew this. He rewrites the original saying "If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me." In his version it reads, "take up his cross daily.”

It doesn't have to be martyrdom, like Martin Luther King's, or even the slow martyrdom of commitment to a demanding cause, like Mother Theresa. Just making it through the day can be a walk to Golgotha. You know that. The shadow of Good Friday's cross is your own shadow, cast long by the setting sun. I t is the divine spirit in you being crucified slowly by the thousand natural shocks we inherit simply by virtue of being flesh. Incarnation is crucifixion!

Granted, thank God, it is not unremitting for many of us. But don't let the good moments make you forget the lesson the bad ones should have taught you.

The cross must come. Chances are you are spread-eagled on it even now. You must go as it is written of you. Death has begun to come, in increments. And it cannot finally be fended off.

But here is the strange paradox of the slow death of the cross. The more of death, of pain, of nonbeing, you can take in, the stronger you will be! It is like tempering steel! Ask Rosemary Guenther! Do you think she is weaker or stronger than she was before she began her ordeal with cancer?

This, I speculate, may be what Paul has in mind when he speaks teasingly of the experience of bearing about in the flesh the death of the lord Jesus so that the life of the lord Jesus may be more clearly seen, of sharing in his death in the hope that he may also know the power of the resurrection. One knows them in the same moment. As the outer person wastes away the inner is fortified.

And perhaps the key is the simple knowledge of the profound mys­tery that is human suffering: it is the ordinary that conceals yet reveals the extraordinary. What neither therapy nor medicine can treat is no demon but rather the divine dignity of the crucified God. In your mundane suffering is seen, through the opened eye of faith, the very Passion of Jesus Christ.




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