This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018 at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Lectionary texts for this Sunday were Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38. You can listen to the sermon here or read the text below.
It's not very often that the Bible introduces us to characters who are old. The Bible is chock-full of stories detailing the accounts of kings in the prime of their adult life, prophets in the middle of their ministry, or, even accounts of significant characters from their very young age. Abraham, however, doesn't fit into this paradigm, and, if my Bible education has taught me anything thus far, it is that when there are anomalies within the text–accounts that differ from the norm–we ought to pay attention. These anomalies teach us something. They ought to make our ears perk up and ask "why is this the case?" Therefore, when we read the account of Abram earlier in Genesis chapter twelve and see that his story starts when he is seventy-five years old, we would do well to take note of that detail. However, our Old Testament reading for today does not take place when Abram is seventy-five years old. That is only when he is introduced. In our text today, Abram is the ripe old age of ninety-nine. And, as the wisdom of St. Paul tells us in Romans 4, in our story, Abram was "as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old)." Abram's age is reiterated throughout the biblical text not for mathematical purposes, but its common reoccurrence should tell us something.
The words of St. Paul, stating that Abram was "as good as dead" are fascinating to me, and are actually repeated in Hebrews 11:12. They are so abrupt, so unexpected, in light of everything we usually associate with the great patriarch of our faith. Abraham is the one whose descendants would number the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. He is the one who left his entire household behind to follow the call of God into a land unknown to him. This Abraham, this man who was as good as dead, is the one whom the Lord appears to, and says, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Why this man? Why this man who is as good as dead? Surely God would be better off choosing someone younger, more spry, with a bit more spring in their step to carry forth his promise. As rational as such a choice may appear to be, that is not the story which we are presented. The story which encounters us tells us that Almighty God covenanted with Abram, the man who was as good as dead.
It is likely the case that I am the person in this room who is the least qualified to speak on death, whatever "being qualified to speak about death" entails. I have no experience with death. I have never encountered death. I have never 'looked death in the eye and won.' I don't know how to speak about death. Even if I were to speak about the death of others, and how I have been affected by it, to speak meaningfully of my own death remains an impossibility, an ideal that can be grasped at but never possessed this side of the second coming. Yet, I suspect this struggle to speak of death may be true not only for me, but for others in this room as well. For many of us, death makes us uncomfortable. Death reminds us of our own mortality, and when we are reminded of our own mortality, we remember that despite all of the advances in modern medicine, we remain powerless in the face of death. Death doesn't fit into our modern paradigms of autonomy, power, and freedom. As a result, it may even be the case that our society has forgotten how to speak about death.
If I must say something about death, however, perhaps these words from Karl Barth may help. According to Barth, "Death is the end of all present possibilities of life. Dying means exhausting the last of the possibilities given to us. However we wish to interpret dying physically and metaphysically, whatever may happen then, one thing is certain, that then there happens the last action that can happen in creaturely existence. Whatever may happen beyond death must at least be something different from the continuation of this life. Death really means the end" (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 117).
In our Gospel text today, we encounter death. Initially, the death we encounter is familiar to those of us who have grown up in and been schooled by the church. We read that "Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man 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." While we may pray for fresh ears to hear the text anew, we have heard this story before. We know this story. These words are familiar to us, and their content forms the bedrock of our Christian faith. We know that Jesus has to die, and that he will rise again. Where the text gets particularly prickly, however, is when that call is reversed; when it is no longer Jesus who must die, but anyone who wants to follow him. In our text for today, we read that Jesus "called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, '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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?'" 'Take up your cross, lose your life.' We react against these difficult in part simply because we would rather be comfortable, rather be safe. "Live your best life now!" our culture tells us. Yet, this death which our text presents us is not any death, death generally speaking, but a particular kind of death. The death that Jesus calls us to is his own death, his death on a cross.
In this text, Jesus sets out a threefold command for those who want to follow him: self-denial, cross-carrying, and accompanying Jesus. In our text, these are not isolated actions, as if we can take our pick of the litter and form our own spirituality with what we like best. Jesus' commands here are only his commands in their threefold form. Anything less than denying one's self, taking up their cross, and following Jesus is not Jesus' commands here. This is because, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us . . . Only when we become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake" (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 8). It is only in denying ourselves and picking up our cross that we can follow Jesus. Conversely, we can only follow Jesus if we first deny ourselves and pick up our crosses.
This task seems nearly impossible. To deny ourselves and take up our crosses seems like such an impossible that one may ask the question "then who can follow God?" This may be a valid question for any of us to ask, however, I believe that focusing too much on our role in the story may be a misreading of the text. Our action in taking up the cross is only a mimicry of Christ's taking up of his cross. Even this action of ours is only possible because Christ has already done it. Thus, the focus of our discipleship should not be our selves, but Christ. We follow Christ down the road Christ has already trodden. We deny ourselves and take up our crosses on the journey towards our death because Christ has already done the same. Thus, on this journey, we are led to the cross. Because of this, in being like Jesus, we must see "in his cross the summary of his whole life. Thus to be like Jesus is to join him in the journey through which we are trained to be a people capable of claiming citizenship in God's kingdom of nonviolent love." So with Jesus, we travel towards our death.
However, we are a resurrection people. We know how the story ends, and death is not the last word. On the other side of death lies the resurrection. Yet, as Rowans Williams has declared, "The resurrection isn't just something you can point to, as if we could say, 'There is Jesus, walking out of his tomb and showing the High Priest and Pilate and everyone else how wrong they were.' [The resurrection is] the re-creating of a relationship of trust and love on the far side of the most extreme human realities, suffering, abandonment, death. That is what the resurrection story points us to" (Williams, Meeting God in Mark, 66). This is the good news of the Gospel of Mark, that on the other side of death there is a resurrection that transforms us into whole creatures who are actually able to live life alongside Christ, finding the fulness of our humanity in our call to be with Christ.
Jesus is not reluctant to speak of glory, but it is located on the other side of his death and resurrection. The way of the cross is the way of glory. The glory of Christ is only possible once we tread the road towards our own death. Like Abram, we must be "as good as dead" to our selves, recognizing that on our own we are incapable of salvation. On our own, we cannot walk this journey towards death. But the promise of the Gospel is that we do not walk this life on our own, for when we are as good as dead, Christ comes alongside us and walks with us on our journey towards new life. There is an odd logic to discipleship. It flies in the face of the world and instructs us that sometimes the way of Christ seems incomprehensible. Yet, the promise of Christ is that he will walk with us on this difficult road of discipleship, no matter how incomprehensible the task. Thus, we can say with Luther: "Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend--it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and [Christ] will help you comprehend even as [Christ does]. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. [Christ's] comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father and not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to [God's] knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey's end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let [Christ] lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but [Christ himself], who instruct[s] you by [his] word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire--that is the road you must take. To that [Christ] call[s] you and in that you must be [his] disciple. If you do that, there is the acceptable time and there your master is come."