Deuteronomy 30: 15 – end; Luke 14: 25-33
My first reaction on reading today’s gospel is how contrarian - one might even say difficult - Jesus could be: I could understand if his disciples felt frustrated at him.
For here they are, riding a wave of popularity. His message is getting through, the crowd is growing. But Jesus, it seems doesn’t like crowds, he recoils from popularity. You will recall in other parts of the gospels how often he pleads with those he heals not to tell anyone, how often he tries to slip away from the crowd.
So he turns to them and introduces a new teaching which might perhaps have been calculated to offend, to cause them to change their minds about him and go home.
You cannot be my disciple unless you hate your family, your wife, even your life itself. You must take up your cross. You must give away all your possessions.
I should say that here the words he uses are all about what you do: the word translated as “hate” is not about a feeling but rather about our priorities in the way we act. Even so, in a pre-modern society where the family dominates, it would have been a perplexing, unsettling message.
This is not the Jesus who has attracted them up until this point. They have seen him perform miracles of healing. He has spoken about a more person-centred interpretation of the law. He has railed at the religious authorities, accusing them of burdening ordinary people, the poor. He promises that the mighty shall fall and the lowly shall be raised up. He seems on their side. He has compassion.
This former message fits within the framework of the Hebrew Scriptures which would have been familiar to them, as we find it in our reading today from Deuteronomy. Honour your God, love him from your heart, and you will live, and you will receive that chief blessing which is children and grandchildren, and on through the generations. The question then is how we should honour God, that by doing so we should receive these blessings of life. The crowds could see Jesus’ teaching as a refreshing, new answer to that question.
But his new message is very different. Here suffering and death are not the punishment for those who reject God, they are the path we all must take. But how can this new way of the cross become a blessing, if those who travel it must first reject family, possessions, life itself?
Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus is asked for a sign for this generation, and he points to the sign of Jonah, who went into the belly of the whale, a symbol of death, before being spewed up on the beach into a new life.
This is the way of the cross, a way through suffering and death to eternal life. It is the pattern of Jesus’ life and the very heart of his message. It is a strange teaching, a hard teaching, running as it does against the grain of all our everyday hopes. None of his followers understood it, not until he had lived it out in the crucifixion and resurrection. He invites us to follow where he has led and promises to be with us.
So today we too are challenged by this teaching about the way of the cross. How are we to apply it for ourselves? The gospels do not spell this out. It is enough, it seems to point to the cross – to hold it up and show us what happened. The Roman Centurion looks up at Jesus on the cross, having not heard a single word of his teaching, and says, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
For much of my adult life I shied away from this message. I felt what one writer calls, “success guilt.” For I led a charmed life, devoid of those many kinds of suffering I saw on the news or in shop doorways.
Then, five years ago now, I had my first encounter with serious illness. Though shaken by it, I was able to look suffering and mortality in the face. What surprised me was the richness of life in its shadow. I have learned that the way of the cross need not be grim. There is the unexpectedly strong love of those around me – I have described this before as like an anchor rope snapping taut in a gust of wind. There is also a strange freedom. And then there are moments of joy and humour – based in a new appreciation that so much of life need not be taken quite so seriously.
I came to understand the way of the cross also through our Eucharist. For we meet to remember Christ who suffered, died and was raised, we meet under the sign of the cross. And the bread we share is broken (I look forward to the day when our Covid precautions are fully lifted and we go back to breaking all of the bread again each Sunday).
We each are broken in some way, at some point, in our lives. To deny it is foolishness. To embrace it, to follow where Christ has led, is the way to fullness of life.
Richard Young (Rector)