Pastor Paul Lehninger - The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, July 14, 2019

Text: Luke 9:22-27

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            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In 1957, Viking Press published a book called On the Road.  It was written by Jack Kerouac, who with William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, and others, formed the core of what was called the “beat generation.”  Much to the original beat generation’s disappointment, this morphed in popular culture into the beatniks of the 1950s, with confusing connections to the hippies of the 1960s.  The book itself remains a classic, though, and is ranked number fifty-five of the one hundred best English language books of the 20th century by the Modern Library.  Aside from all the sex, drugs, and aimlessness, at the heart of the book lies the theme of sojourn, quest, and longing, which the main character and his friends try to fulfill in various ways, although none of them very successfully.

            As it happens, Jack Kerouac was raised as a Roman Catholic, and despite living a hardly exemplary Christian life, and frequently flirting with Buddhism, his diaries are filled with prayers and sketches of the crucified Christ.  He remained Roman Catholic until his death owing to the complications of alcoholism—of course—and received a Christian burial.

            I doubt that the pope will ever declare him “Saint Jack,” but for all his faults, he understood something about the Christian faith that smug secure people who think they have all the answers don’t understand.  Christians are pilgrims and strangers in this world, and every Lenten season reminds us—with the intention that this reminder will remain with us throughout the year—that during this sojourn we’re On the Road with Jesus—To Bear a Cross.

Luke 9:22-27 22 [Jesus said,] “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

            Jesus’ words in our text are very clear.  He would have to suffer, be rejected by his own people, and be killed.  Then he says: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  To go on the road with Jesus means being realistic, day by day, every day of our lives opening ourselves to God’s will for us as Jesus did: Father, not my will, but your will be done, even if that means suffering and death.  If we can’t accept this, then we forfeit Jesus’ promise: Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

            This journey is not for everyone: Whoever would save his life will lose it . . . For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?  Your self is what makes you you, what lies at the heart of your existence.  God created you to be in union and communion with him.  But because of the fall into sin, that’s not automatic; it’s a journey, what we call your time of grace, from your birth until your death.  If we’re on the road with Jesus, God’s image begins to be restored in us; we become more genuine; you’re a more real you than the you who started the journey.  If we’re not on the road with Jesus, we’re not what God meant us to be.  Athanasius of Alexandria pictures this dramatically in his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  Although God used dust and a rib as intermediaries, as it were, like all the rest of his creation, he created us out of nothing.  Starting with nothing, he gave us true, genuine existence, a reality that would grow as we continued to grow ever more fully into the image of our infinite God, a growth that would become deeper, more meaningful, more satisfying for all eternity, since an infinite God has infinite riches to share with us.

But because we turned away from God, as St. Athanasius said, man was returning to the nothing from which he was created.  Like the Israelites in the desert, we’ll be tempted by success here and now, by accepting the message of false prophets, by golden calves and by longing for the fleshpots of Egypt, and if we give in to these temptations, we’re in danger of leaving the road—falling by the way—and spiritually dying in the desert.  But faithful Israelites continued to follow the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, as we follow the cross of Christ.  It wasn’t easy for them to stay on the road, and it isn’t easy for us, but at the end for both of us lies the promised land.

            And of course, we have something they didn’t have; we’re encouraged by seeing how God fulfilled his promises in the person of Christ.  The author of Hebrews writes in the “heroes of faith” chapter, Hebrews 11: 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

            We have the advantage of being able to contemplate our Lord’s journey among us during his life on earth—from Herod trying to kill him as an infant, to the people of his home town trying to throw him off a cliff, to his journey to Jerusalem—his suffering, death, and resurrection—we have the advantage of seeing all this in retrospect; we can see how all the pieces fell in place, just as had been prophesied about the Son of Man by all the prophets.

What we don’t see is how all the pieces will fall in place during our own journey from our baptism to our ultimate resurrection.  We do know that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and sometimes we feel like Jesus’ disciples: But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.  So our journey also reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight, and day by day, as the author of Hebrews says, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This is expressed beautifully in a traditional prayer of the church:  Almighty God, you have revealed to us in the life and teaching of your Son that the true way to true life may lead to the cross, and the reward of faithfulness and obedience to your will may be a crown of thorns.  Give us grace to learn these hard lessons.  May we take up our cross and follow Christ in strength of patience and constancy of faith; may we have such fellowship with him in his sorrow that we may share in his strength and peace, and see, in our darkest hour, the shining of your eternal light.

            This can turn our journey, and our cross, into deep and abiding joy when we understand that God is transforming our own lives into something fuller and richer and more profound, and that through our crosses, God also blesses others on their journey.  A theology of the cross is not at all pessimistic; rather, it’s like medicine that may briefly taste bitter as you swallow it, but it results in lasting healing.  The healing and the joy are a reality in our lives already, as the hymn “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” reminds us:

Lift up the voice and strike the string,

Let all glad sounds of music ring

In God’s high praises blended.

Christ will be with me all the way,

Today, tomorrow, every day,

Till traveling days are ended.

And when we look to the end of our traveling days, St. Paul writes, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).  In fact, we’ll sing about this at the very end of our service: “For those who bear the battle’s strain, the crown of heavenly life obtain.”   Amen