Second Sunday in Lent
This Second Sunday of Lent we come face to face with the hard news of following Jesus. Last week we read of Jesus in the wilderness facing Satan and wild beasts. That was hard, but that was about Jesus. This week there is no skirting the issue; Jesus is talking to us about what it means to follow him. This is hard and it’s about us.
It’s interesting to notice in the paragraph introducing our particular passage that verse 27 says while “on the way” Jesus was talking with his disciples. This was not a lesson for which they had set aside time; no appointments or class schedules had been made. They were on the way, in the middle of following Jesus, watching him serve and heal and preach and touch, and in turn, they helped and learned what being on the way with Jesus looked like. Out of breath, walking as fast as they could to keep up, and looking at each other as they wondered what Jesus would do next, Jesus starts asking them questions about what people are saying about him. Who do they think he is? And more, what do you fellows think about me? Of course, Peter spoke first, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus responded, “Yeah, but you guys need to be quiet about this. Let me explain what being the Messiah is.”
Then he began to teach the hard stuff; he began to teach that he would suffer and die and be raised. Peter interrupted, “No, No! We’ve got a good thing going here. People are having their needs met and more and more of them are joining up. For Pete’s sake, we have a movement started. We’re going to be successful. Some of the boys are already drawing up the blueprints for a new Center for Ministry complex in Capernaum. James and John want to be co-directors and I’m putting together ‘Jesus Tour: A.D. 31’ with t-shirts and kid’s action figures and a possible book deal. Jesus, just think, you could become an author. People might even start quoting you.”
Jesus whirled around, “You don’t get it! The stuff you’re talking about is satanic! It’s the complete opposite of what God wants and who I’m called to be.” And Jesus got back to the hard teachings: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me …” This is not what we want to hear; it’s counter-cultural and it’s counter-intuitive to everything we believe about what’s important in life.
So what do we do with the way of the cross? This is the hard stuff and we have a hard time getting people to show up for the nice stuff. How do we lead a congregation to follow the hard way of Jesus and the cross?
Like so much of the work of ministry, it is rarely the big or grandiose that have much to do with God. It’s in the small and mundane where God seems to start working. So start small and take it a step at a time.
I remember the wisdom from major league catcher Rick Dempsey who said that good baseball players can’t think about winning the World Series or winning 162 games – the big questions. He said that you have to break the game down to its smallest parts: one game, one inning, one pitch at a time. If you’ll play it one pitch at a time, you’ll eventually look up and see that you won the game.
Following Jesus and the way of the cross begins with small steps. Later, we’ll look up and discover where he’s led us.
A good while ago, back in 1991, our small, struggling congregation was faced with caring for some men with HIV and AIDS, many of whom were gay. It was controversial: we were small and did not know if we were going to survive as a church or not. We were desperately trying to attract young families and here we were talking about caring for gay men with AIDS. We couldn’t come to any resolution about homosexuality and we were afraid of our church dying, but we knew here were some particular men who were sick and alone and who needed someone to help them buy groceries and take them to the doctor (when we could find one who would see them). So we started there. We knew that Jesus wanted us to do at least this much.
Over time, one small step at a time, our care expanded into creating a new organization, putting together worship services of prayer and healing, and becoming friends with people we never dreamed ahead of time we could befriend. On the way, while serving and caring, we occasionally asked the big questions but no longer abstract we learned to ask them better and think about them differently.
Was that following the way of the cross? I don’t know. At the time it seemed to be the hardest thing we had ever faced. We had few doubts about Jesus wanting us to care for these sick and dying men and we became so focused on the many small steps that we rarely looked up to see if our church was dying or if we’d end up on a cross or not.
Twenty years later we’re still here although we’re still small. We didn’t die although we buried many good friends who died from AIDS. I do know that we don’t panic as much when Jesus starts talking about taking up the cross. We’re more likely to cinch up our belts and ask, “Okay, where do we start?”