Year B, Lent 2 March 1, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…”
Look around the nave, that’s the technical name for where you all are sitting. Look at the walls, at the Stations of the Cross hung there. In past years they were up only for Holy Week. We broke them out earlier this year, and we are actually using them, walking the Way or Stations of the Cross each Friday morning in Lent. We use a version of the Way from our Book of Occasional Services, and it is very well done. Who has prayed the Way of the Cross before? Any thoughts on it?
I was always horrified by it. Like the bloody corpus’ on so many crosses, such vivid depictions of His sorrowful Passion, I never really got it. Theoretically, theologically, sure, I get why seeing the blood can be constructive, but not the actually doing it; I have not appreciated the practice of engaging it ritually. Like that terrible Mel Gibson movie of ten years ago that I mistakenly saw. I’ve had glimmers, we walk the Way every Good Friday, and I’ve said plenty of Rosary’s, but I am only just in these past few months, even past few days begun to grasp what the whole experience of the Way of the Cross is supposed to do for us. But man, it is so horrible. So disconcerting and that has always gotten in my way.
So on Friday morning, after our silent meditation, a few of us began praying the Stations. For each station is designated a verse and response, a brief narrative or scripture selection which is answered with another verse and response, then there is some silence then a collect. Of course there are also visual and movement components, as all of these words are said in front of these haunting pen and ink renditions by our brilliant Mike Van, and we physically move from station to station. It is good ritual. But right off the bat on Friday, I started feeling kind of antsy. During our meditation time before the Way, I had prayed a rosary. A rosary has five sets of ten beads. As you say Hail Mary’s on each of the ten beads, you also are to meditate on a set of mysteries, which are indicated by day of the week. It is great prayer, your full mind, the part that can keep a mantra up AND the part that can still wander around is occupied. Friday’s Rosary involves meditating on the five Sorrowful Mysteries. On other days you meditate on Joyful or Glorious or Luminous mysteries, but Fridays and Tuesdays (and Saturdays in Lent) are for the Sorrowful Mysteries. The Sorrowful Mysteries are the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Post, the Crown of Thorns, Carrying the Cross and in the final decade of beads, the Crucifixion itself. So I had already been engaging this stuff interiorly for 15 pretty directed minutes, that is about how long a rosary takes me, and we get to the third station, “Jesus falls for the first time” and my inner skin was just crawling. I didn’t want to be doing it anymore. It was so disconcerting. I was so uncomfortable!
We did the verse and response, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you/Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world,” then we prayed a paraphrase of the ancient hymn found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” and then I got it, I understood differently then I had understood before: it isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Huh! There’s a revelation. It is supposed to be disconcerting. We are not meant to feel all warm and fuzzy while meditating on the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Why? Why are we to feel kind of icky when praying on the cross? Well, because God is rarely what we want God to be and bumping into that holy knowledge is obviously uncomfortable. That is disconcerting. Who wouldn’t want a God that promises you everything you want? That’s the crux of the Prosperity gospel; that God wants you to be successful, God wants you to be wealthy, accumulated wealth is even a sign of God’s favor upon you. Who doesn’t want a god that promises you that everything is going to be ok: that she won’t suffer, that the test will be negative, that you will make rent this month, that that call in the middle of the night is a wrong number… I’ll tell you what, if some celestial power is promising you everything you want, here’ an important tip: THAT IS NOT GOD! God doesn’t promise that we won’t suffer, that we won’t want. God, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. The promise is that if we let God in we can bear the suffering. If we trust God we can hold the grief. If we have faith in God we can deal with scarcity, with the lack of things we need and that we can even be of use to others along the way. But goodness, who wants a God like that?
That is what Jesus was teaching when he told His disciples that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, would be rejected by every conventional authority, every civil, religious and cultural authority would turn on Him, and they would not only reject Him, but his own people would help the Romans execute Him in the worst way they could imagine. It is only then, after all of that, and after an additional three days, only then would His reward come as He rose from the dead. That’s a pretty tough road to hoe. No wonder Peter rebuked Him. He must been like, “Sir, you can’t say that out loud! No one is going to come with us if you keep talking like that. No one wants a God like that.” I don’t know if Jesus wanted a God like that, but Jesus knew God, and knew that God was, God IS like that. And He begged us to realize that, too.
“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 lives for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” And He means it.
Martin Luther talked a lot about this, about the God we want to see, that we try to see as opposed to the God that is. The God that we want to see, Luther describes in terms of theologia gloriae, the theology of glory, while the God that actually is is described in terms of theologia cruces, the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is built upon what is seen (as in “…maker of heaven and earth, all that is, seen and unseen.”). It is based upon what seems self-evident, on assumptions we make about how the world works, largely, it would seem, based on how we want the world to work, how we want God to be. For example, a God who wants you to be successful or wealthy or widely read; a God who blesses our nation over others; a God who fully supports your views of who is in, who is saved and who is out, who is damned. That is the theology of glory and it confirms everything people seek in God. But you know, there is no glory on the Way of the Cross.
The theologia cruces, the theology of the cross, is not based on observation of the world (with our inevitable human meaning making and projection), rather it is based on the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ crucified. The life and witness, teaching and healing of our Lord are of course holy and blessed revelations of the nature of God, but they are holy and blessed only in the context of the Cross, in the totality of the Christ event which spans from His miraculous birth, through His rising in Glory. The whole story though, whether we like it or not, whether it makes us liberally squeamish or not, the whole story finds its gravity in the Passion. God’s self-revelation is most particular and poignant and powerful in the suffering and weakness and humiliation of our Lord; in the rejection of by His own people; in the spectacle of torture and horrific public execution by the imperial forces of occupation; in the abandonment by His own friends and disciples; and then, and only then after all of that did He rise on the third day, mysteriously restoring all faithful people’s relationship with God in a new covenant in His body and blood. The theology of the cross contradicts not only everything that we want in a God, it contradicts what we even imagine God should be.
One writer sums it up well. He writes, “A theologia gloriae prefers accomplishment to suffering, glory to the cross, wisdom to folly, and thus evil to good. The theologia cruces knows God only in Christ, and Him crucified.” God is most revealed in foolishness and weakness to a world that values strength, victory, wisdom and success. And not only do we value those things in our culture, we project a god that values those things too.
What we need to realize is that all the simple, cut and dry, feel good, won’t upset grandma answers that we want about God, they don’t exist. That is my Christianity is a narrow path. There are no easy answers about the meaning of life, about what happens when we die, about why bad things happen to good people and why the worst traits of humanity seem to earn the greatest earthly rewards. The church is not the kingdom of God; faith is not the same as certainty; hope is not optimism; religion requires sacrifice (our own); life ends in death, and love, true love, agapic Godly love is never, ever painless. I am learning a lot of these lessons very poignantly in my own life right now, and it isn’t any fun, it hurts, but it is true.
This is why I sometimes lament that we don’t have a Corpus Christi up there. This is why we walk the Way of the Cross in Lent. This is why we meditate on the Sorrowful mysteries as well as the Joyful and Luminous and Glorious ones. As hard as it is, I encourage you to hold the darkness of our story in your heart this Lent. It might help you remember that God may not be what you want, but that always, God is what you need. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. AMEN