Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Last week, I ended my sermon with the question: What wonderful proclamation will possess you on the other side of the desert? The teaching from today’s gospel may not be exactly what we had in mind for a wonderful proclamation.
We don’t want to hear about Jesus’ suffering, certainly not on this day when we celebrate our patron saint, David—this is supposed to be a happy occasion! Happy because it is our feast day, because we share this time with friends from Bryn Seion and the Welsh Society, because of the wonderful feast of creativity happening across the hall in the form of the SE Portland Art Walk, and—never last nor least—the grand re-opening of our history room upstairs. It is also a bittersweet day, because for the first time in a long time, we are celebrating the feast of St. David without Tom Owen, who died a tragic and untimely death a few two weeks ago.
I like to think that Tom is celebrating St. David’s Day this very moment with St. David himself, surrounded by leeks and daffodils, and perhaps enjoying a glass of something beyond David’s self-imposed diet of bread and water.
My sense from what we little we really know about what kind of a disciple Saint David was, leads me to believe that he would not have had a problem hearing about suffering and death.
Jesus teaches his disciples—and anyone else who happens to be listening—that part of what it means to be the Messiah is that he must undergo great suffering, and rejection, and be killed. This is not the kind of messiah the disciples have signed up for! This is why Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Ah…with all due respect,” Peter might say, “ we were kind of expecting a savior who planned to kick out the Romans, and become a great king, maybe like David, and all of us, well you know….we could all be your top advisors.”
“Whoa!” says Jesus, loud enough so all the disciples can hear, “You’re talking like you’ve been listening to someone else besides me—Satan even! God’s plan is not about that kind of worldly power!”
To define discipleship as picking up one’s cross would have been a shock for Peter and his motley companions. We’re used to it. Crosses are all around us, in churches, on bumper stickers, around our necks, or tattooed on our shoulder. Crosses are how we mark ourselves as disciples of Jesus. So we often don’t think about what this really means.
When Jesus said to the disciples that if anyone really wanted to follow him, he must take up his cross, no one knew that this was the way that Jesus was going to die. They certainly knew what a cross was, and how the Romans used it, but hearing this from Jesus would have been new and shocking information. Have you ever found a new hero—a great boss or a wonderful professor or an amazing musician or political activist who makes you say: I’d follow that guy anywhere! Imagine that person saying to you: If you really want to learn from me, be prepared to die a miserable death. I wonder how many of us think about this when we hang a cross around our neck.
When we are called as followers of Jesus, we are called to die, over and over again. Not necessarily the same miserable, bloody, and painful death that Jesus dies, but we are called to die to our own needs and expectations, die to our own agenda, die to our own idea of how things are supposed to turn out, just as Peter must die to his idea of what a Messiah is supposed to be.
We are called to lose our lives as we conceive them to be. This kind of loss, this kind of death, can be excruciating.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther talked about two different theologies. Remember that “theology” is an intimidating word that is simply shorthand for the question: “What is God up to?” The theologies Luther articulated were the theology of glory, and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is built on assumptions of how God is supposed to act in the world. God rewards the good with riches, good health, and long life. God punishes the wicked, God brings strong, right-thinking people to power and prosperity. Those who do not succeed, or who fall victim to loss and failure, have surely done something wrong, or simply do not matter in God’s eyes.
The theology of the cross says that what God is up to is that God reveals himself to us as Jesus rejected and suffering on the cross. That where there is suffering, loss, disappointment, abandonment, and unspeakable grief, that’s where God is. God suffers with us. God is present in our suffering when we rage against him for inexplicable events, when we mourn the loss of a loved one, or when we suffer as the result of our own inability to hold our lives loosely for the sake of the gospel. God suffers with us when we suffer, and God suffers with us when we should be suffering but aren’t, when we aren’t seeing the poverty and heartache around us, because we’re too busy looking for signs of God’s glory and triumph.
Well, this is a cheerful message this morning, isn’t it? I do think it’s good news that God is a suffering God. To the extent that as we, as disciples, are willing to suffer with and for God, God suffers with us.
The other good news is the part of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel that none of the disciples pick up on: the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed—we got that part—and after three days rise again. After three days rise again. When we are willing to let go of everything we think we are, everything we think we’re supposed to have and supposed to be, God transforms our loss and suffering into new life, just as he raises Jesus from the dead. Just you wait and see.