We are obsessed with dying and yet, we want to live forever. This tension, between the awareness of our mortality and the desire to live, is tearing us apart. We’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive, as long as we don’t have to stop doing the things which kill us. Case in point: the debate which is currently polarizing American life.
More than ever before, we are aware of the many diseases and illnesses which can end our lives. So are the pharmaceutical companies. Death is big business. The idea of keeping us alive makes some people rich. We take pill after pill and treatment after treatment to prolong our lives and fix our problems. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it’s not enough. We still die.
If we’re in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, crossing the intersection a second to late or simply not paying attention; our lives can change forever. That’s how death works. Death never keeps our schedule. Our main premise is ignorance. We don’t know when or where we’re going to die. Choice is not an option. We live until something alters the course of our well ordered lives. Would it surprise you to know that, in one way, Jesus challenges this notion?
Jesus makes the radical claim that death is an option we should all willingly choose to accept. However, he’s not talking about walking gracefully into old age or succumbing to the randomness of cancer. Jesus is saying to anyone and everyone who will listen: you must be willing to lose your life (before the appointed time) because of him and because of the Good News. In this instance, I’m convinced the gospel writers want Jesus to be taken literally. At best, this is Jesus’ most audacious claim. At worst, in the wake of ancient Roman attacks on early Christians or modern massacres like the ones at Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook, some may see his words as offensive and hurtful. Why should the true mark of faithful discipleship be a willingness to embrace death? Can’t you hear a parent of a young disciple who was later crucified asking that question? Wasn’t there another way?
Those who choose Jesus, also accept his manner of death, the cross. Jesus is asking the impossible. He’s setting an unreachable goal. Jesus knows that his words will alienate, dishearten, anger, and disturb most of the crowd who’ve gather to hear him preach. This is his goal. He’s not out to win a popularity context. Again, Jesus is asking the impossible. He wants to see who remains. Who believes in the impossible?
We’re not big on contradictions and irony. When it comes to religion, we like it cut and dry, black and white, and straight and narrow. We want to be told if you do this, you’ll get into heaven. It’s what I call the 72 virgins theory of Christianity. No one wants to martyr themselves (like an Islamic terrorist), but some Christians would like it to be as simple as being told if you do “x” on Earth you’ll receive “y” in Heaven. That’s us. We don’t want to think about what we’re doing and God knows we don’t want to suffer or stand up for too long. Since that’s the case, Jesus asking us to die on a cross might present a problem.
Yes, Jesus is different. Unlike everything that drives the modern news cycle, Jesus is counterintuitive. Jesus is a master at asking us to consider the possibilities of life between two contrasting positions like life and death. We see this in his parables. God’s love is like the tiny mustard seed; small but as expansive as the universe. In this instance, to lose one’s life is to gain life. Salvation is found in loss, not acquisition. Salvation is not so much a “ticket to heaven” we acquire (in modern parlance) but a life to be sacrificed for others. That may make sense in principal or theory. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be taking this idea one step further. He wants it applied in real life. Who wants to talk? Who is ready to walk?
“Take up your cross and follow me.” That’s what he said. It’s hard to make a metaphor out those seven words. Not that we don’t do it. We (modern Christians) make metaphors, images, and allusions from “take up your cross” and redefining the “cross” all the time. It wasn’t that way with Jesus or his early followers. When they said “cross” they meant an actual “cross”; the device on which persons were executed. A “cross” wasn’t a euphemism for a personal problem, a nagging pain, an illness, or anything else you felt you had to bear. A cross was a cross, one of the cruelest devices for human torture and execution ever devised by man. We need to be clear, when they say cross they mean cross. When we water down our cross language, we’re not only losing the meaning of what Jesus is saying but we’re devaluing the lives of all those people who actually died on crosses. Do we really have crosses to bear? I’m not sure we do.
Jesus is asking those who want to follow him to be prepared to accept that they’ll bear their own crosses. This brings me back to the beginning. When you choose to bear your own cross, you’re taking the randomness out of death. You know that cross bearing will lead you on a collision course with dying. The people who control the government may control the time and the place of the crucifixion but the outcome is never in question. Jesus wants his people to understand the certainty of the outcome. The powers at be will not let Jesus or those closest to him live. What they’re saying, doing, and urging ordinary people to in response to his teaching is too dangerous. The Romans will kill him. It will be on a cross.
Jesus’ request is left lingering in the wind. How do you respond to a man whose best pitch to hang on till the end is, “we’ll all get to die together”? I know there are modern day martyrs who bear contemporary, literal crosses. The history of the church is replete with the stories of those who have followed Christ to the bitter end. Once, in Armenia, I met a man who had been captured by Azerbaijani forces during the civil war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990’s. This Armenian Christian was crucified by his Azeri captors. His body still bore the scars and wounds of this torture. I didn’t know how to respond. What does one say to a crucified man, when you meet one in person? I have no idea. No words could convey my emotions. I said nothing.
Jesus asks us to do the impossible. Cross bearing and dying are impossible tasks, especially for comfortable middle class people like us. Jesus knows this. Unless Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu is nearby, I’m not sure anyone of us is up to task. What Jesus asks is impossible for us to do. No one wants to die in bed, even at the end of a full life. We don’t want our children murdered in school hallways. The idea of accepting a painful execution as the key to saving our lives and showing we’re not ashamed of Jesus seems out of reach it appears impossible. No, it is impossible. I have a hard time recruiting help to teach VBS and fold bulletins. Volunteers to be crucified are out of the question.
We can’t bear a cross in the same way Jesus or the earlier disciples did. Our time is not his time. Their pressures are not ours. Despite what conspiracy theorists tell you, the greatest threat to religion in America isn’t the government or liberals. It is apathy. People are finding better things to do with their time. Whether your minister wears a chasuble or an untucked shirt and stands beside a glass podium, the public has caught on to our predictability. No one is going to ask you to anything stressful. We want you to comeback. Death talk bums people out.
Jesus’ impossible cross bearing standard can’t be met because no one is asking us to die or needs us to die to keep the church alive. There is too much death in our world as is. Instead of dying on metaphorical or literal crosses, Jesus is demanding a new kind of impossible: we make ourselves heard. We speak out on issues and act together on those matters that are preventing the kingdom of God from being realized in the present day.
Consider the impossibility of praying the “Lord’s Prayer”. As much a manifesto as it is prayer, these words serve as an outline for the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven. The prayer addresses the core economic and social issues of our time: inequality and hunger. How are churches addressing hunger and poverty in our pews, communities, nation, and around the world? These issues are life and death for people within walking distance of our church communities. Someone is bearing hunger because they can’t afford to buy medicine, pay rent, or meet other basic needs. The Lord’s Prayer highlights the impossible possibility of making Earth look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
We’re called to be kingdom bearers instead of cross bearers. The impossibility of bringing the kingdom into being is now our responsibility. Will we save a version of the church in an attempt to save ourselves? Or, will we consider the impossibility of praying the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, so that the words of the prayer apply beyond the narrow realm of our own lives but on all the “Earth, as it is in Heaven?” When you slow down and think about the words, it sounds impossible. That’s where the possibility begins.
Take up the Kingdom of God and follow Jesus. Jesus went to the cross so we didn’t have to.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Richard Lowell Bryant
In the lead up to this week’s lectionary passage, Jesus poses the most important question he ever asks to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” It is a question that transcends time. Let me put it another way, what do we mean when we talk about Jesus?
We don’t know Jesus as a person. None of us do. We imagine Jesus as a reality but that’s our subconscious at work. Jesus isn’t an invisible friend we talk to in emergencies. For most people sitting in our pews; Jesus as is more of an idea, the concept of the perfect man for imperfect times. In the same way Washington or Lincoln provide mythological ideals to be aspired to than lives from the distant past. We know so little of Jesus’ life. Yet, we’re certain we know who Jesus is.
Do we know who Jesus is? Jesus isn’t so sure. That’s why he asks.
In this day of trite, snarky 140-280 word answers, it almost seems flippant to say, “He’s my Lord and Savior”. Do we know what that means anymore? No. If anything, it means we’ve reduced salvation to well-worn clichés and rehearsed answers. It means we’ve not stopped to think seriously about who we say Jesus is because we’ve been repeating who everyone else says he is for decades. Jesus knew the “stock” answers. He was well aware of the knee jerk responses. Clearly, he expected the disciples to put more thought into their replies.
We’ve received spoon fed, blended spiritualized with secularized answers for so long; it’s sometimes hard for us to tell what’s from Jesus and what’s not. Maybe we need to rephrase Jesus’ question:
What do United Methodists mean about when we talk about Jesus?
- Is Jesus the United Methodist brother from another mother than John and Charles never knew?
- Do you say Jesus belongs to any political party?
- Is the Jesus you picture in your mind comfortable with those who have mental health issues buying guns?
- When we talk about Jesus, are we talking about a Jesus who is for the direction elections of Caesars, election by the Senate, or hereditary appointment of consuls?
- When we talk about Jesus, are we talking about Jesus who sees poverty as the responsibility of society? Or only the government? Or on the poor? Or no one?
- When we talk about Jesus are we talking about a white guy, black guy, Jewish guy, or Palestinian guy?
- Do you say Jesus is a Christian?
- When you say who Jesus is, does he everything you love and everything you hate? Is Jesus a reflection of your personal tastes?
- Who do I say Jesus is?
- I’m not telling you. Mark 8:30 “And he sternly ordered them to tell no one.”
Richard Lowell Bryant
The defining political narrative of the moment is one of limits. We can only have so many people in this country or not. Guns must be limited or unlimited, depending on your political persuasion. Limits, boundaries, barriers, walls, regulations; dictate and define much of our discourse as a civilization. If we couldn’t talk about limiting people, things, or ideas; what would we talk about? Perhaps we would stare at one another and imagine ways to kill each other instead of actually doing it?
Separating ourselves on the basis of language, skin color, tribe, and various measures of economic progress seems to be the inevitable direction of human history. Many people, both in this country and in other parts of the world, have accepted a divided world as the only reality. Some have and some have not. Limits are a fact of life. Along the way we stopped asking questions about who decides the limits and standards which divide us; that is until incidents like last Wednesday. It takes a tragedy of unspeakable proportion for us to realize we’re all human; breathing the same air and bleeding the same blood.
The Old Testament reading for this week, the first Sunday of Lent, is a story of limits. It’s the first such one in the Bible, where we see God’s love meet the idea of human limitation head on. And by human limitation I don’t mean physical limits, as we see at the Olympics. In this story, there is a boundary, a border, a wall between life and death. A decision needs to be made; humanity working in conjunction with God about who lives and who die. Who will be allowed to cross that border and survive? What happens when no is allowed to cross over? What happens, when even in the earliest days of recorded history, our default setting is to say, everyone must die while others live? What does it tell us that from the beginning the message seems to be, “you come aboard, you get to die”?
Survival is a political decision. God needs a people or the story ends. Why read any further? Life, on the other hand, for those left to drown in God’s second attempt at creation, is personal. The political and personal merge as the boundaries between life and death are blurred. In an episode from scripture most churches ignore and Sunday School classes treat like a trip to the local zoo, we see a disturbing model for a relationship without limits. God’s “I will preserve all living things” covenant is as believable as the wife beater who returns home with a box chocolates and flowers promising to protect everyone in the house. The promise of “never again” with the sly “by water” caveat is a cop out. The Babylonian Exile, the Holocaust, you name it; God’s relationship to God’s chosen people is punctuated by cycles of violence, tragedy, and reconciliation. No one seems to learn from their past mistakes or the promises made to (or by) earlier generations.
How can we have an everlasting (universal) covenant (to save everyone) that began with the idea of excluding (i.e. killing) most of humanity? To be honest, you can’t. Scripture says, “This is between me and all the Earth.” It’s a nice sentiment, as the phrase “no living thing” is repeated six times, that indicates everybody has God’s GEICO wrath coverage. But I’m not sure the writer of Genesis means it. I say this because I’ve read this rest of the book. I know how angry God gets at the people who have no official connection to him whatsoever. Surely the Canaanites are covered “by the no harm to every living thing” clause, right? No they weren’t. Go read Joshua.
At this point, universal salvation is a side item, more of a footnote in Israel’s history. Ruth isn’t an Israelite, there’s the story of Syrian General who sees Elisha to be healed, and Jonah goes to Nineveh. That’s basically it. It’s not until we come to the resurrection and its premier interpreter that the limits of the past begin to disappear. There are hints that God is working beyond Israel, beyond the “tribe”, but this message isn’t amplified until Jesus ministry.
For Paul, salvation is complete, total, and unequivocal. It’s for the whole human race. God wants to save everyone, no matter where you’re from. What happened on the cross obliterated the limits of the past; the myths of animals riding two by two, our desires to exclude those we despise, and even those who don’t practice what we preach. In the New Testament, in each of the Gospels, everyone on the wrong side of the wall, boundary, and line are invited to the great supper Jesus is hosting. When we create a boundary, only two by two can come; Jesus says, “Invite the whole family in.” Jesus is a firm believer in chain migration. That’s how the church was built.
Paul brings this message home in nearly every letter he writes to the congregations he plants. Here are a couple of examples:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. —Colossians 1:19-20
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:9-11
The words “all” and “every” should jump right out at you. “All” was present throughout Genesis 9. Paul says it’s for real this time. God meant it then and the people entrusted with God’s word became too obsessed with their own boundaries and limits. That’s why I said the writer of Genesis. The people speaking for God didn’t live up to God’s expansive expectations. The “all” has never really changed. We, the people who call God’s presence home, haven’t had the heart to believe in God’s “all”. God’s idea of a “limitless” boundary free kingdom is frightening to our comfortable, well-ordered lives, and middle-class sensibilities. In that way, we’re not unlike our Israelite ancestors. We want to set the terms of our religious experience; who can come in and who can come out.
Paul says, through the work of Jesus on the cross, the limit setting, two by two selection process, you’re in and you’re out days are over. God’s love is now available to everyone. This is one of the most audacious claims in human history. A single life (not thousands or millions in a flood) makes peace with death. This is a message we need to hear this Sunday because as Paul reminds us, is universal.
The church isn’t called to be idle bystanders in the wake of senseless tragedies and massacres. Christians aren’t sent to lead people back to our arks of safety, two by two, while the world goes to hell around us. Generic niceness to those who look, think, feel, and act like us isn’t going to cut it. God has admitted the broken, the hurt, the outsider, the lonely, those who claim a religion, and those who know nothing of God. They are the ones standing with candles, praying, angry, and looking for answers. God loves the broken, the dead, the innocent, and everyone in between.
Our job is to not back down. We have one story to tell. Suffering is real. Death does not win. God’s love is universal. Tell this story to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Babylonians in your life. They may go by other names but I assure you, somewhere, they are there. Tell the one story only you can tell: God’s love knows no limits.
Richard Lowell Bryant
I do enjoy watching “Father Brown” on PBS. Embedded in every Father Brown mystery is an opportunity for pastoral care. Each episode isn’t so much a murder to be solved as it is a series of relationships to be healed. Someone has died, a family is grieving, old wounds are dredged up from the distant past, veterans with untreated PTSD are identified, and emotional pains are discovered. Father Brown is there to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” in these difficult moments. He’s the embodiment of the church community, not the state or the landed gentry. Father Brown is there for his flock. What have I learned from watching Father Brown?
1. Be cautious with words. Listening and looking reveals much about the human soul.
2. Sacraments are vital to the life of the church. Look closely, the community is formed by the sacramental life of the church.
3. Forgiveness is a divine prerogative. We know what we know from our experiences. We also understand what scripture teaches. Common sense, love, and compassion are the best we can share.
4. Ministry involves taking risks. They are there and must be embraced, case by case.
5. Some people just aren’t going to like you. That’s OK. You pray and care for them too.
6. “Father Brown Mysteries”, much like Ash Wednesday, calls us to remember our own mortality. We are all going to die. Regardless of what you do or don’t believe about an afterlife, a basic recognition of our mortality is the defining feature of a Holy Lent.
7. Father Brown understands that physical, mental, and spiritual professionals need to work together. Medicine can be useful, therapy is helpful, and so is prayer in assisting people who’ve been traumatized.
8. Jumping to conclusions is never good.
9. Talk to the whole family. Especially the ones with a shady past. They have the best stories.
10. Never turn down cake.
Richard Lowell Bryant