Here’s the second sermon in my Lenten series. This one is one fasting and self-denial. Without further adieu…
Lent 2B — March 8, 2009
One of my favorite prayers of the Book of Common Prayer is the one designated for Fridays for the morning office. It includes the lines “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.” I appreciate the weekly reminder that we are walking in the way of the cross, and that it can be for us the way of life and peace. But there are times, of course, when I wonder if I fully grasp the meaning of those lines as well; I wonder if I comprehend the call we all have to follow Christ.
This is certainly where this call begins. It wasn’t too long ago in our readings that Jesus, following the temptation we read about last week, began calling his disciples. He simply says to them, “Follow me,” and they do. They do not stop and ask for logistics, or where he is headed or what it will cost them in terms of time or energy or whatnot. He invites them to follow him, and they do.
Along they way, they learn more and more what it means to follow him. They see him heal the sick, and cast out demons, and feed the hungry. And finally, just before our reading today, he asks if they understand who he is, if they get it. Peter’s the one who tells Jesus that he is the Messiah. For many in that day, and for Peter too, the Messiah was someone who would overthrow the occupation of the Romans. The Messiah was the one who would bring about the reestablishment of David’s kingdom.
Once Peter makes this declaration, Jesus begins to tell them explicitly that his is the way of suffering. That if they were looking for an earthly king, they got it wrong, because he was going to be executed. And Peter, having his hopes on the Messiah who would bring earthly freedom begins telling Jesus that somehow he had gotten it all wrong, and that he wasn’t meant to die at all, that what he was saying was impossible.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, of course. He goes on to say to those gathered around them that not only would he die, but if they wanted to be his followers, they would also need to deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him. That if they were after saving their own skin, well they couldn’t be his disciples. And if you really wanted to save your life, then you would certainly have to lose it.
This was the fine print missing early on when they were called to follow Jesus. His way was the way of the cross.
Let’s be clear about one thing at this point: picking up our crosses doesn’t mean enduring the hardships common to humanity in general. I often hear people say, “Well, this is the cross I have to bear” when they are talking about difficulty dealing with an annoying family member, or about an illness they’ve contracted. Poverty and disease usually don’t care if you are a Christian or not. The cross Jesus is talking about is the one that comes from following him, the one that is a result of being a disciple of Christ.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to partake in fasting and self-denial during the 40 days of Lent. These are some of the most misunderstood aspects of our Lenten journey. We think that if we can somehow just forgo chocolate for these 6 weeks that we are making spiritual strides. Yet giving up chocolate isn’t really what this is about, especially if we do it just to show that we somehow have some willpower.
This year I am joining with some others here at St. Mark’s and many around the country how are eating more simply this Lent in solidarity with the poor. Many in our world don’t have access to clean water, let alone enough food to eat. And yet we have an unbelievable choice of foods that we have access to each day. Have you ever stopped and thought about the chip aisle at Stop and Shop? We’ve got a whole row dedicated to snack foods, and we somehow think that this is not only normal, but our right as Americans. By intentionally eating more simply, I recognize that many in our world don’t have these choices and that I can give away the money I might normally spend on foods of all kinds to worthy organizations seeking to alleviate those who face hunger and water issues every day.
Self-denial, and following Christ on his path to suffering is difficult, demanding and harrowing. Especially in light of a culture that often tells us to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we are comfortable and getting what we want. If difficulty strikes—when it rains on the just and the unjust—we look for comfort. And when it is sunny out, we often do the same thing. But Jesus tells us that following him will have a cost, and that cost is our lives.
I am utterly convinced that the prayer I mentioned earlier is true: the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. There is an irony in this, to be sure, because as Jesus declares, if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it and if you lose your life for his sake and the sake of the gospel, then you’ll end up saving it. If life and peace are to come from self-denial, how do we go about this?
Jesus himself asks the question this way, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
A pastor tells the story of a parishioner who came to see him because he was troubled by what he saw in his workplace. This man watched as the boss he worked for promoted some people and did not promote others based on the color of their skin. His boss would often overlook people who were better qualified than the ones promoted. He felt that he needed to say something about this. This pastor advised him to carefully see if he could find some other employees to support him, and then to gingerly and gently approach his boss. He finally did approach this man, and within one month’s time he was fired without cause. This man was unable to get a job for over a year’s time due to his boss’ poor reference of him, and the job he finally got paid less than he had originally been making. He picked up his cross.
You may be saying, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that was that guy’s decision to do that,” and you may be completing that sentence by thinking, “And I wouldn’t be that stupid.” Yet notice that Jesus’ words are pretty direct. “If you want to be my follower, you need to deny yourself and pick up your cross.” In other words, the suffering and self-denial part is not optional. Put even more concise, following Jesus leads to the death of self.
I think that is really what fasting and self-denial remind us: that we are not in control, God is. God desires for there to be justice for all of us who live on this earth, be it in relation to food or in how people are treated or if they can get adequate housing or health care. If God has blessed us (and I think God has quite a bit for many of us) how do we share that blessing with others? How do we share in the way of life Jesus promoted through his ministry?
During this holy and solemn season of Lent, can we, with the help of Jesus Christ, more intentionally take up our cross to follow him? Can we recognize that it is far better to lose our life and those things our culture tells us are so important, in order to gain our souls? And can we trust that when we follow Jesus on the way of the cross we will find it none other than the way of life and peace?
 Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol 37, No. 1, Year B, 44.