March 1, 2015 – Take it up

Lent 2   March 1, 2015 Psalm 22,   Mark 8:31-9:1   Take it up

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Jesus has just asked his disciples “who do others say I am?” And– “ who do you say I am?” And Peter has named Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, the Christ. Good answer.

Jesus then starts teaching that he must undergo great suffering and rejection and death. And Peter objects strenuously. Jesus says “Get behind me Satan! You’re setting your mind on the world, not on God’s way.” Then Jesus calls the whole crowd of followers (and people even thinking about following), and says “if anyone wants to be my followers, let them deny themself, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s sake will save their life.”

I’m guessing there probably wasn’t a big stampede of people lining up to take up the cross and follow. But – as we read on, we do find crowds… still following Jesus…even all the way to the cross. (Peter included, though he famously turns aside, denying Christ three times in one night; still Peter comes back and follows….)

And the path to the cross for most of us is seldom a straight line…Taking up the cross and following Jesus still doesn’t come naturally for most of us, most of the time.

I love Jesus. We love Jesus. We love what he’s done for us on the cross. We try to be his followers every day. Still I confess, I’m still struggling with the part about taking up my cross and denying myself.

I’m all for it, in theory. If Jesus says it, I’ll try to believe it and do it. But when it comes to self-denial, I’m Joe-average at best. Many of you are much better than I am at self-denial.

I’ve been trying to follow Jesus nearly 45 years now. But I still struggle with taking up my cross – “the emblem of suffering and shame.” Embracing the cross, losing my life, is still part of the gospel that I continue to find challenging.

Which may be why I’m fascinated with the artist Marc Chagall’s portrait of himself – painting Christ on the cross – that graces our bulletin cover today. (I’m the adult child of an artist on my mother’s side, and Chagall’s my very favorite artist. You may have noticed how often his pictures appear on our bulletin covers.) He was Jewish, and very familiar with the long, sordid history of Christian persecution of Jews. He grew up in Russia where anti-Semitism was rampant, and lived through the era of Hitler and the holocaust. As a Jew, he could probably think of reasons not to be interested in the founder of Christianity. And as an artist, Chagall loved life in all it’s colorful diversity. He painted many scenes from the bible with great sensitivity. He also delighted in painting scenes of sensual beauty…And as an artist, he probably could think of reasons to avoid Christ on the cross… But here’s Chagall, inspired by both the Spirit and the flesh – not only painting Christ on the cross – but painting himself into the picture with Jesus…

Chagall in fact painted Christ on the cross many times over many years. He came under some criticism for this from within Judaism and from the secular wing of the arts community. But he saw Jesus as a Jew, and a symbol of all Jewish suffering. And he saw Jesus, especially Christ on the cross, as a sign of God’s universal love for all suffering humanity. He saw, in other words, Jesus very accurately.

And Chagall’s self-portrait with Jesus sticks with me and won’t let go… Because the best bible interpretation always involves painting ourselves into the biblical big picture. Painting ourselves into the bible’s stories and psalms – it’s characters, strange and familiar – it’s proverbs and prophetic poetry – it’s gospel truth – always seeking to find our places in the biblical story… And paint ourselves into the picture.

Painting ourselves into the picture is, of course, a metaphor for seeing ourselves in the story. The artist’s task is to see – and help others see – all that’s good and excellent to be seen, that often goes unseen.

And we’re all made to be artists. God has made us all in our Creator’s image, so we all have creative powers. We don’t have to be especially gifted as artists, writers or musicians to be able to see ourselves in the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation… We can see ourselves – and help others see themselves – in the story by faith… God gives us this power through the Holy Spirit. And as the body of Christ, the church, we’re able to paint ourselves into the picture of Christ on the cross… Because…

Surely we’ve all known times when we’ve felt like we’re right there with Jesus, on the cross. Sometimes I can identify with the thief on the cross next to Jesus, who cries out, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom...” There’s also times when I’ve found myself praying the opening verse of Psalm 22 – the words spoken by Jesus himself from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We’ve read to the end of that psalm today. So we know there is a sharp turn, midway through the psalm, from despair to rejoicing. As the psalmist who began with “why have you forsaken me…” now says –

“From you comes my praise in the great congregation”… Continuing on to say–

“the poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord shall praise the Lord!” … and–

“All who sleep in the earth shall bow down to the Lord. All who go down to the dust shall bow before the Lord, and I shall live for God…”

The psalm that begins as a song of deep and dark lament is transformed abruptly into a joyful resurrection hymn. And the joy of the psalm’s ending depends, somehow, on the lament that precedes it… As does Jesus’ promise to the crucified thief – “Truly I tell you – today you will be with me in Paradise.”

New birth begins with labor pains… Every baby enters this world with tears… Every life has it’s valleys and mountain peaks, it’s joyful high points and sorrowful low places… Joy and sorrow are partners in life. And to try to teach and profess Christian faith without the cross is fruitless. There’s no life eternal without the cross. No rebirth without dying to the old world of Me-Myself-and-I-First. No heaven without following Jesus and abiding in his love. No love without sacrifice. Love and sacrifice are inseparable.

Sacrificing our narrow self-interest for God and one another is what keeps the human race alive. And God has equipped us for sacrifice. Every parent has God-given instinct to nurture and protect their children, even at whatever-cost-to-themselves. All children come into the world hard-wired to know how to love and serve.

Of course all of us children of all ages always need training and practice. Because even though sacrifice is essential for life – there’s no real life without sacrifice – still the world is in obsessive denial – and it can still be easy to forget even what we know in our bones…

Which is why Jesus has to say more than once, “take up your cross…Lay down your life…Follow me… ”

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But… when I look again at Chagall’s picture, what I notice most now… More than any hint of suffering or sacrifice – is Jesus, to be sure, in the middle of the picture – but especially Chagall’s face – looking to Jesus.

And in the face of this artist who truly loved life’s joys and pleasures – some one I might not think willing to lay down life and take up a cross – now I see the artist, looking so intently to Jesus…And in seeing Jesus, becoming Christlike…

Becoming more Christlike – meaning totally, truly Alive. Fully Alive

No one else has ever been anywhere near as Alive as Jesus…

Chagall, the artist has noticed…And thanks be to God, he’s not the only one who has seen –

Jesus, radically Alive – the reason why so many people, including the apostle Peter, and even me, keep trying to follow Jesus. Even when he’s preaching death to ourselves and forsaking one’s own self-interest.

Because there’s always something about the presence of Jesus – his warmth, his truth, his Life – his calm presence even on the cross – something in the person and the presence of Jesus that attracts so very powerfully…

The cross of Jesus is still challenging indeed, but –

When we take up the cross of Jesus… and follow… (let us understand) –

We’re taking up Life.

Life everlasting that glows with the splendor of God’s pure love…

Life without end… given freely… for us and for all.

So we look to Jesus… We hear again his word… Saying –

Take it up –

Take it all up –

Take up the cross – the resurrection – the life of God in Christ.

Take up our calling to be the body of Christ… for Jesus and for all….

Take it up. Take it all up.

Take it up.

Amen.

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Communion Bulletin – March 1, 2015