Our Cross Seen Through the Spirit

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)
August 31, 2014

The Rev. Eric Jeuland —

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised. … Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Isn’t this too hard? On first blush, this really does sound too hard.

One of the chief mistakes we can make in understanding the gospel reading today is to conflate Jesus’ cross with our own—to think “Oh, Jesus, he’s so extreme, marching to his death—and look, see, he wants us to do that too?!—No thank you!”

Although this could seem to be the plain meaning of the text, this is precisely the opposite of what we should hear in this passage. Jesus’ primary call to his followers was to intimate relationship. God’s closeness and care must permeate our understanding of all this cross talk. Any discussion of crosses must assume God’s closeness and care.

One key fact to remember is that Jesus’ cross is NOT our cross. We are called to follow AFTER Jesus, not be Jesus. We CAN pick up OUR crosses BECAUSE Jesus first picked up HIS CROSS… AND conquered that cross, paving the way for OUR victories over evil and darkness.

Although the passage today puts Jesus’ self-understanding of his own cross right side by side with his call for us to bear ours, that account is missing something fundamental but often forgotten in many churches: Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s descent; the necessity of the Holy Spirit in making this make any sense.

We are never left alone—without God close at hand—at any point in all this: Jesus—God—went to the cross to conquer all sin, and the Holy Spirit—God—enables us to bear our crosses and live into that victory ourselves.

Thus, the second key fact is that we bear our crosses—ONLY and COMPLETELY—informed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We can’t embrace our crosses without the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

So this puts Jesus’ simple and direct words in the context of a more complicated process for the people of God.

Regardless of Jesus’ injunctive to his hapless fishermen friends—and us—in Matthew’s gospel this morning, it is on Pentecost that the call actually gains real traction.

WE would have no inspiration to follow Jesus if it weren’t for the day of Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit empowering those friends to become apostles, and enabling us to step into the victory over evil and darkness that is our inheritance.

When Jesus calls us to follow him, he knows we are merely human and he knows we are STAYING human. What he’s counting on, that we so often forget, is that we have the Holy Spirit and THAT makes all the difference.

Obviously then, the Holy Spirit makes all the difference. But how is this real in our lives on a daily basis? What does God’s closeness and God’s care actually look like?

One of my favorite accounts of God’s care and closeness is Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before the Fall, when they first breathed in life, the very breath of God, the Spirit of God. Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic Cistercian monk wrote well about this:

When God made [humanity], [God] did more than command [them] to exist [like the rest of creation]. Adam [and Eve], were to be the son [and daughter] of God [in a wholly unique way—] and God’s helper[s] in the work of governing the world … “Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7).

The life […], that is to say the “breath” which was to give actuality and existence and movement to the whole person […], had mysteriously proceeded from the intimate depths of God’s OWN life. [Adam and Eve were] created not merely as living and moving animal[s] who obeyed the command and will of God. [They were] created as a “son” and “daughter” of God because [their] life shared something of the reality of God’s own breath or spirit. For breath is the same as spirit [in Latin and Hebrew]. The creation of [humanity] was not only a giving of [biological] life, but also a giving of love and of wisdom, so that at the very moment in which he came into being Adam was, by virtue of the supernatural gifts … which accompanied all his gifts of nature, in some sense, “inspired”. If the expression may be permitted, [humanity]’s very existence was to be a kind of [divine] “inspiration.” God intended not only to conserve and maintain […] bodily life. He would also foster and increase, even more directly and intimately, the spiritual life and activity which were the main reason for [humanity’s] existence. Adam [and Eve], then, [were] meant from the very first to live and breathe in unison with God, for just as the soul was the life of the body, so the Spirit of God, swelling in Adam [and Eve] was to be the life of [the] soul. For [a person], then, to live it would mean to “be inspired”—to see things as God saw them, to love them as he loved them, to be moved in ALL things ecstatically by the Spirit of God. And so for [humanity] ecstasy was by no means a violent interruption of the usual routine of life. There could be no violence, no alienation in such a life: [Merton ends] in paradise ecstasy is normal. (Thomas Merton, The New Man, section # 33)

It may seem odd to you that I chose this account because it is of PARADISE, Eden BEFORE sin and evil enter the world—so of course there is no experience of the cross or sacrifice—so what does this have to do with today’s Gospel? taking up our crosses?

The reason I picked paradise is PRECISELY to counter our far-too-typical assumption that Jesus came to call us ONLY to sacrifice, to give up of things, to a life of trouble. In some sense he did—yes, of course—but not in the most important sense, NOT in the ultimate sense.

The fact is: sin and evil have taken away our life already—our closeness to God and our experience of God’s love—and God is pleading with us to reclaim our true lives by giving up what is only the illusion of life: autonomy, self-righteousness, self-ownership. Sin and evil have HAD their day, they have BEEN HAVING their day.

Jesus came 2000 years ago; and today, August 31st, 2014, the Holy Spirit is back again to tell us that sin and evil have robbed us of our inheritance: everyday intimacy with God, daily experience of God’s love, and, as Merton put it, an “ecstasy [that] is normal.”

It took Jesus’ victory OVER violence to bring us back into communion with God. It is our role to welcome and desire God’s love as THE usual routine of life.

Trusting that God breathed God’s very own breath into us at our creation, AND has paved the way to victory over all evil,

Are we bold enough

To dream of a God THAT relevant and active?

Are we bold enough
To follow through with that ask and expectation? … that God would fill our lives to bursting with wonder, wisdom, and love?