Later this morning we are going to gather in the parish hall for our “Homecoming” lunch, to mark that summer vacations are over and our whole community is coming together again in this, our spiritual home. And after lunch we are going to have a sort of fair in celebration of the work that we are coming together again to do. Leaders and representatives of the many working groups that are active in the congregation will be there so we can recognize each other and share information and generally rev our engines for another year of worship and learning and service. It should be a lot of fun and the thing that is most exciting about it for me, personally, is not just that it gives us a chance to see how many different kinds of ministry are being done, with how many different leaders, but that all of us together form one ministry.
I was thinking about that this week as I was reading today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark, and it struck me that this story gives us a way to describe what that one ministry is, the ministry of St. John’s Petaluma, and of the church in general. It gives us one idea, to sum it up, which is “discipleship.” Whatever formal shape our different ministries take, in the parish organization or outreach programs in the community, or simply attending worship and saying our prayers and putting something in the offering plate, all of us are called to be disciples of Jesus. This story is, in some ways, the essential passage in all the gospels about what discipleship means, and Jesus begins his instruction on the subject with two questions: first he asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" and then, after they have answered, “But who do you say that I am?”
Taken together, these questions imply that his disciples must know Jesus in a way other people don’t. There are lots of opinions out there on the street about who he is, and that’s as true today as it ever was, but that’s different from the true knowledge that comes from intimate acquaintance. So one way of understanding discipleship, and the ministry of the church, is that it is about telling the world something about Jesus that it doesn’t know. That’s the approach that Peter takes, and he’s not the only one. There are still a lot of people for whom discipleship means saying as loudly as possible that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Our Lord and Savior, and so on, in hopes of getting everyone to agree. But as far as Jesus is concerned, what we say about him is not that important. In fact, he sternly orders his disciples not to say anything. What does matter is to trust him enough to do what he does, and to follow him on the way of life that is really worth living.
And that means making a journey. We have to go through something. And the thing we have to go through, says Jesus, is the cross. Now in this passage he talks about the cross in two different ways. First, as a fact that is going to happen to him. In this way he makes clear that whatever else we think we mean when we say that he is the Messiah, it has to include that he suffered, and was rejected by the people who were supposed to know about God, and was killed, and on the third day was raised. And all that’s true, but if we only think of the cross in these terms it can become just another opinion about Jesus.
So he also talks about the cross symbolically, and the thing about symbols is that, unlike facts, you have to do something with them. You have to dialogue with them and make your own decisions about what they mean for you. When Jesus talks about the cross this way it is no longer a fact we can consider from a distance. If we want to be his disciples, we have to pick it up, and put it on our shoulders and start walking.
I’ll be honest with you—as many times as I’ve heard this saying, it still makes me afraid. It makes it sound like being a disciple of Jesus means signing up for pain. And I’m afraid of pain. One of my earliest memories is of screaming and crying at the doctor’s office when my mother took me in for my shots, not from the pain of the injections, but from fear of them before they ever happened. But what if this teaching is not about gritting our teeth and psyching ourselves up for an extra big helping of pain, so that we might gain some reward from it later? What if it is about transforming our relationship to our pain that is already here? What if it is about accepting it, and really looking deeply into it, rather than trying to push it away or blame it on others? What if it is about taking up the suffering we already have, simply because we are human, and carrying it to God?
That makes me afraid, too, but with a different kind of fear—not the fear of pain per se, but the fear that the Hebrew wisdom tradition calls the fear of the Lord: the fear of laying aside my conventional assumptions about the purpose of life, and what makes for happiness; the fear of losing the image of myself that I have constructed with such great care so as to be accepted and admired by the people around me; the fear of losing the things I’ve acquired with that image—possessions, position, and esteem. It is the fear of looking squarely at the face I try to hide from others, the vulnerable, aging, needy, sometimes deeply sad, often conflicted and confused face of the person that I also am. And it’s the fear of knowing all that and still having to make the decision that no one can make for me, the decision I have to make again every day, sometimes under the pressure of great doubt—the decision to have faith.
Jesus invites us to become his disciples, and to make that decision, as he has, and to choose a life centered on God. But with that choice the illusions of the false self are sacrificed, the attachment to the un-life is broken. The promise of Jesus is that this is not only a process of dying; it is also rebirth. From acceptance of our own suffering we become sensitive to the suffering of others. We also become aware of how much of it, theirs and ours, is needless. There is that which is the inevitable consequence of life in a mortal body in a world of continual change. But there is also the great mass of suffering that is due to the misuse of human freedom. There are the self-inflicted wounds of self-destructive vice, of fruitless anxiety, of revolt against that which cannot be changed, and of clinging to what cannot remain the same. And there is the suffering we inflict on each other, in personal acts of cruelty, coldness, and abuse, and in systems of collective violence, exploitation, and injustice.
The knowledge of needless suffering inflicts its own kind of pain. Perhaps the sharpest wound it gives is the vision of liberation. Because to see how much suffering is needless is to see how much better everything could be. It is to awaken the deep yearning for a better world, the burning desire to do better, to be better than we have before. And that is also a cross to bear. To act on that desire requires effort, against our natural inclination to drift with the tide of time. It brings us into conflict with powerful enemies, the inner demons and the outer tyrants who are fearful and resistant to healing and change.
And it means living with failure, with constant reminders that our capacities are limited, that even with heroic sacrifice we will always accomplish less than we imagine we could and less than the world so badly needs. But Jesus, the crucified and risen, has a message for his disciples, a message for them to administer to everyone. It is that failure of this kind is nothing to be ashamed of. This desire is for something better for the world is not naïve, this effort to realize it is not wasted, this suffering for its sake is not futile, because God is faithful in ways we cannot be. And in Christ, God shares the desire, shares in the effort, even shares the suffering.