Lent II 2021
"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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
The version of the Daily Office that the Scottish Episcopal Church offers during Lent is called “Returning to God” and this is a helpful reminder of the meaning of Lent. Our experience of returning to God will, of course, be shaped by the mental and spiritual picture of God that we have. Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings might not seem to offer the same image of God but that is because those challenging words of Jesus at the head of this reflection have often been taken out of context.
They immediately follow a passage in which Jesus has asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter has replied: “You are the Messiah”, using a word loaded with all kinds of hopes and expectations. Jesus then challenged those hopes and expectations by saying that he “must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
This was not what Peter was expecting to hear. His image of the Messiah was all about the restoration of an independent kingdom and the purification of Temple worship, a Messiah who would be welcomed by elders, chief priests and scribes, not condemned by them. That is why Peter rebuked Jesus and, in rebuking him, reprised one of the temptations that Jesus had experienced during his forty days in the wilderness – the temptation to take the shortcuts offered by political power. It is this reprising that caused Jesus to say “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Our images of God are sometimes based on human things rather than on the divine reality. If we took Jesus’ words about taking up the cross and losing one’s life literally and took them out of context, that might make us think of God as a demanding disciplinarian, a cosmic version of the PE teacher who in the 1960s repeatedly told me “You’re not trying hard enough”.
When Jesus challenged his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross, he wasn’t imposing a discipline on them. Rather he was teaching them about his own way of living. He knew that most of those who had encountered him, including his closest disciples, thought of him as a person of power – a powerful teacher, one who spoke with authority, a powerful healer able to cure physical and mental ailments. That was why Peter and others believed that he would use this power to achieve the political liberation and the religious revival for which they longed. In this Gospel passage Jesus is saying “I’m not about power, I’m about love.”
To have power is to be in control of one’s life and circumstances. To live lovingly is to give up that kind of control, to be vulnerable, to be open to bearing the burdens of other people. To live like that is to surrender power and to live by faith.
Our Old Testament reading encourages us to think about the nature of faith. God’s covenant with Abraham included the promise that he and Sarah will be the ancestors of many nations. The promise was improbable for Abraham was very old, and Sarah was apparently beyond child-bearing age. Yet, as Paul writes, Abraham had faith in God’s promise despite those realities and grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
That is a very helpful definition of faith – an open-ended and loving trust in God’s promises. That is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do when he invites us to take up the cross and follow him. It is an invitation to follow him by living open-endedly and lovingly, by learning to be a person for others. That is not easy, but faith, as Abraham understood, involves trusting that God will provide the resources we need to do that and the most important of those resources is love.
One of the teachers whose memories I cherish was the redoubtable woman who did her best to make a pianist of me, without much success. Her mantra was “You need to practise more”. Lent is an opportunity to practise, to find time to reflect on God’s infinite love for us and for everyone, to find ways of being receptive to the love of God. Lent in lockdown has sent me back to the writings of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic who chose to be walled up in a cell attached to a church in that city in order to live a life devoted prayer – a drastic form of voluntary lockdown. That was a time of pandemic disease – between a third and half of the population of Europe died of bubonic plague during Julian’s lifetime - and most of her contemporaries believed that this catastrophe was a punishment sent by an angry and judgemental God. Julian rejected that idea completely. She believed that there is no wrath in God. These words of hers may help us properly to understand a Gospel passage that might seem harsh and demanding:
“...do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same."