One of the challenges of our lectionary is it can cause us to compartmentalize the life of Jesus into sometimes seemingly disjointed and discreet events. Last week we heard about Jesus’ baptism and how he was driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan. Many Bibles even have a heading reading “The baptism and temptation of Jesus” over last week's reading. As if Jesus was baptized, then he endured 40 days of temptation and then, well, he was done with that. “Baptized – check! Temptations – check! OK, what’s next?” It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that throughout his ministry Jesus was beset by temptations. Anytime you see Jesus being opposed by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or even his own disciples, there is an underlying temptation to sell out his message to the expectation, wants and needs of others.
This is the temptation Peter puts before Jesus after hearing him speak plainly about what lay ahead of them in Jerusalem: rejection by the authorities, suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus knew that to continue in what he had been called by God to do, it meant death … and resurrection. But the disciples, perhaps most especially Peter, couldn't comprehend rising on the third day – all they heard was “suffering, rejection and death.” And for Peter, and likely the other disciples too, the idea of the Messiah, the Anointed One, being killed was not part of their cultural and religious expectations. The Messiah was to restore Israel – death didn’t fit the image. Besides, the movement was just gaining steam – look at all the crowds who are following you, Jesus. You can’t be killed – we need you here with us! The movement won’t survive without you! While Mark is silent on the actual content of Peter’s objections, we can only imagine these might have been part of his argument. But when Jesus notices the disciples and how they were watching this unfold, he resists the temptation to sell out and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus then calls the crowd to join the disciples and continues to teach about what following him means. It means taking up your cross and dying – dying to your own small, selfish, finite, egocentric limited life so that you could be resurrected to live a larger life in God. And I don’t think Jesus was just talking about the big “D” Death of our final breath which leads to the big “R” Resurrection. I think he’s talking about a lifetime cycle of dying and rising – what I think of as lowercase “d” deaths and lowercase “r” resurrections. I consider these smaller deaths and resurrections as periodic testing to prepare us for the final exam.
I am persuaded that a big part of my vocation as a priest is to teach you how to die … and it’s a lesson I’m simultaneously learning alongside you too. I lost count of how many big “D” deaths I’ve been privileged to witness in my ministry as one who ministered to nursing home residents and shut-ins at Calvary UMC or in my work as a hospice chaplain. However, I do know some deaths were better than others. Those who did the big “D” death well were ones who could lean into the trust in God they had learned through dealing with the many little “d” deaths in their lifetime. When you trust in God, you begin to learn that little “d” deaths are followed by little “r” resurrections. And when you can trust this process to work in the micro-economy of God's creation on earth, you can be more trusting that it will work in God’s macro-economy of heaven.
And what are those little “d” deaths? Well, they take many forms in our lives and we all have different ones. Essentially, anything you experience which feels like failing, falling and frustration. Perhaps it’s getting fired from your job, or failing a test or a class, or failing your children, or failing your spouse. Maybe you lied or cheated someone and your false image of being the perfect parent, spouse, friend, or worker gets shattered. Maybe it’s the death of a relationship or the loss of people you love. All of these are little “d” deaths of one sort or another and when you’re in the middle of these deaths, you can start to wonder if life will ever be normal again.
The good news of the gospel is there is something beyond death – whether that’s a little “d” one or a big “D” one. But resurrection isn’t just a minor tweak of your existing life – it is the death of your old life and the rising of a new one. When Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. Die to self, die to your illusions about yourself, die to the attachments which crowd out God and crowd out others, die to your false idols (money, job security, possessions). Taking up your cross is daring to risk the death which must come before you can be resurrected to something new, more whole, more at peace, and more accepting of your own broken self so that you can accept and embrace the brokenness of others.
When Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. What needs to die this Lent for you so that you might be raised anew in Christ?