Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I’ve heard it suggested that if the apostles were really listening to Jesus when he said “take up your cross, and follow me,” there would have been an extra twelve crucifixions on Calvary on that first Good Friday. No doubt this might at first strike us as hyperbolic. If all the apostles had died at the same time as Jesus, after all, they would not have then been able to be witnesses to the Resurrection and the early church’s efforts to spread the Good News would have been stymied. What’s more, all but two of the apostles–Judas the betrayer and John whom we believe to have died of old age in Ephesus sometime during the reign of Trajan–were, indeed, martyred for the faith. The point is well-taken, though. We are all awfully quick to claim that Jesus was speaking literally when we like what he has to say and metaphorically when we don’t, and we might assume the apostles were capable of the same rationalization.

To Peter’s credit, though he tried to deny Jesus’ hard words in this morning’s Gospel, at least he realized that he wasn’t speaking in mere metaphors about matters of life and death. That is why he rebuked Jesus; he did not want to see his Lord and master and friend die. Perhaps he was still convinced that Jesus was to be the kind of Messiah who fit the mold generally assumed among faithful first-century Jews–a warrior king who would push the Romans out, unseat the puppet regime of Herod and his family and reestablish the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem. Or maybe Peter’s reaction had less to do with his assumptions about Messianic expectation and Ancient Near Eastern geo-politics and more to do with his unwillingness to lose a friend.

In any even, while wildly missing the mark, we can probably appreciate Peter’s reaction, and we might find Jesus’ rebuke of Peter a bit disproportionate. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Remember, though, Jesus’ previous experience with Satan. During his forty day sojourn in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus with both power and escape from death. Here, Peter is doing the same thing: don’t let yourself get killed; become our earthly king instead. Whatever Peter’s intentions were, the sinless one was still a human; the second Adam could have theoretically given in to temptation, and here Jesus nips that possibility in the bud, as it were, just as he had done in the wilderness.

Now, lest we say “poor St. Peter got it wrong so much, and we know better” I think his reaction reflects our own unwillingness to take Jesus’ words and the reality of God’s plan for us more than we might like. One of the handful of dead horses I continue to beat from this pulpit is that we live in a death denying culture. I will spare you on this occasion from another recitation of all the ways in which we run away from death and pretend it’s not real. Peter seemed to suffer from this sort of death denial, even in an age in which death and decay were far more “in your face” than in our contemporary, rather sterile Western World. Peter rebuked Jesus for sharing the hard, but by this point rather obvious fact that he was going to die, as are we all, and if we’re following Jesus it may even be sooner than we’d like. Hear again Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, and remember that at this point in the story Jesus was no longer speaking just to the twelve but had gathered everyone following him to hear these words:

Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever shall lose his life for my safe and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.

We sometimes refer to a pinched nerve or an unpleasant neighbor or some other minor inconvenience as “our cross to bear”. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Our cross is the sacrifice of our lives to Christ and His Gospel. It means, quite literally, the courage and conviction to die in the service of the Gospel.

Now, as I said last week, the reality is that in the United States of America in the year of Our Lord 2024, none of us is likely to be called upon to die for our convictions. For most of us, the Cross will be a less literal, but nonetheless difficult death: a death to self-interest; a rejection of the modern idols of safety and security and success. If we’re not willing to experience that little death, we’ll certainly not be willing to literally die for the Gospel.

It is far too easy to equivocate while in the pulpit, far too easy to focus on comfort rather than challenge, but this, I firmly believe, is central to the Gospel. We must be willing to die for Christ and the Gospel if we are to follow Jesus’ mandate. This is not as a sign of despair but as a sign of hope. That none of us is likely to have to make that ultimate sacrifice is beside the point. Do we have the courage to follow our Lord to Calvary? If things were different, if we still lived in an Empire hellbent on hunting Christians down and feeding them to lions, would we stand up for Jesus in that final hour?

We must at some point ask this question of ourselves, not because it is likely (it’s not anymore), but because it will help us understand where our priorities lie and how we might be called to reorder them. That is a scary and uncomfortable proposition, but, believe me, it will put our lives in the proper perspective; this, my friends, is the hard work of this Holy Season. Be assured, though, that that work leads to life eternal.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.