You may remember Daniel Berrigan as the Catholic priest who was up front and center in so many of the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Above all else, Daniel Berrigan was a pastor. It was while he was teaching a class on the pastoral care of the dying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that Daniel Berrigan met Mel Hollander.
Mel wasn’t taking that class because he was preparing for ministry but rather because he was preparing to die. You see, Mel Hollander had terminal cancer. He didn’t want to talk about it, but what with his unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes, it showed. Jim Forest, a friend of both Daniel Berrigan and Mel Hollander, wrote about what happened.
“During the period of silence with which Dan started each class, his eye fell on Mel and stayed there. At last Dan broke the quiet with a question to Mel, ‘What’s the matter?’ Mel said, ‘I’m dying.’ Dan, without batting an eye, replied, ‘That must be very exciting.’”
In Zen Buddhism there is the tradition of a teacher whispering a word into the ear of a student to produce a sudden flash of insight, and Daniel Berrigan’s word to Mel Hollander in class that day – “That must be very exciting” – had that effect on him. It was jarring. It was completely unexpected. It was just on the verge of inappropriate. It didn’t follow “the script.”
When somebody tells you that they’re dying you’re supposed to voice sorrow or concern, not excitement. And if you are a Christian, when somebody tells you that they’re facing the prospect of an early and painful death, it may even precipitate something of a crisis of faith. This is not how things are supposed to go. I suspect that accounts for some of the discomfort you felt when I told you about what Daniel Berrigan said to Mel Hollander that day in class. It’s unsettling, and that’s because we’ve bought this idea that if we are Christians then our lives are going to be “blessed,” which we have defined as being perpetually happy and easy. That’s the script.
I was evangelized by someone reading from that script who assured me that God loved me and “had a wonderful plan for my life.” Now, to my adolescent ears that sounded like an offer that I just couldn’t refuse. And so, I asked Jesus Christ into my heart as my Savior and thought that by this single act of faith that all my problems would thereby be solved, that I was going to experience the spiritual high of an exalted mood without any defeat or disappointment.
Vernon Grounds, for so many years the President of Denver Seminary, said that American Christians, people like you and me, that we have been conditioned to think of ourselves as Christ’s little lambs who are to be “petted and protected.” Our Christianity has been infected with a success mindset and is driven by a happiness motivation. We don’t expect the river to rise, and should it ever, well then, we look for God to swoop in and “whisk us out of the flood in His heavenly helicopter.” That’s what Vernon Grounds said, and I detect a little bit of this mindset in John and James in our Scripture lesson this morning.
Right before asking Jesus to give them the seats of honor in glory, Jesus had been talking with them about going to the cross (Mark 10:32-34). One of the most important things that Jesus ever said about why He came is Mark 10:45 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus was talking about the cross here. Jesus was on His way to the cross. But Jesus’ disciples were thinking and talking about other things, about their power their glory, and their place in the Kingdom. When Jesus talked about how He as the Christ had to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, beaten, and crucified on a bloody cross, His disciples were shamelessly scrambling for privilege and prestige.
Now, let me be clear. There is glory involved in what the Gospel promises and provides, just not yet, at least in its fullness. Paul told the Roman Christians that in this world “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” that we who are Christians will ache “for the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18-25). Things are not how they are supposed to be, and I have felt it acutely at every hospital bedside and cemetery graveside that I have stood beside in 48 years of ministry. In words that I read at every Christian funeral from the book of Revelation, there’s a new heaven and a new earth coming, a time when God will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more, and neither will there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (21:1-4). That’s the glory that’s coming, but it’s not here yet.
The reason why Jesus taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is because the work of salvation that He began in His first coming will not be finished until His second coming. It’s still future. There’s more to come. The cross was at the center of Christ’s first coming. The glory of the Kingdom will be at the center of Christ’s second coming. But for now, we’re in-between. Right now, our salvation is incomplete. Oh, with Paul I’m absolutely sure that “He who began this good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), we will know that glory, just not yet.
If we don’t know this, then we’re going to have a real crisis of faith whenever trouble comes, whenever the way becomes steep, and the days become difficult. If we’re expecting glory, when the crosses come (and crosses always come, don’t they?), we’re going to be left wondering who’s failed? We’re going to think that either we’re being punished for something we’ve done, or worse, that Jesus Christ has somehow broken His promise to never abandon or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5/Deuteronomy 31:6; Matthew 28:20). We’re going to be left in that agonizing place of wondering where God is when it hurts.
If like John and James we’re so focused on the glory to come that we’re surprised by the crosses that show up in our lives, then we’re going to think that God has gone missing at the precise moments when we need Him most, and when, ironically, it’s the exact opposite that’s true. You see, God is never more fully present to us than when we’re given crosses to bear, the outward crosses of the difficult circumstances of our lives, or the inward crosses of the struggles of our souls.
“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that’s where He died, and that’s what He died about. And that’s where Christ’s own ought to be, and that’s what church people ought to be about.”
Back in the 1980’s I went to see Frank Mabee, my Area Minister, when I was serving a church down in Houston that was going through some hard times. I was discouraged and was feeling more spiritually empty with every passing day. In words that I have never forgotten, Frank told me that what I really needed to do that day was to go out and find a good crucifixion – somewhere in the larger community where people we’re being overwhelmed by their difficult circumstances – because that’s where God was and where God was at work! This is the wisdom of George Macleod, Founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, who wrote –
I can’t help but think that it was something like this that Daniel Berrigan had in mind when he told Mel Hollander that his impending death must be “very exciting.” Mel Hollander said that it was this word that awakened him spiritually. As he later explained to a friend –
“No medicine he was taking, no book he had read had did much good for him as those five words. They were a kind of lightning flash. In the light of that flash was the resurrection of Jesus, as real as the streets of New York. Mel knew at once that he was in the midst of the most remarkable experience of his life. Nose to nose with death, he had never felt more alive.”
And nowhere was God more fully present. That’s what Jesus wanted John and James to know in our Scripture lesson this morning. When they were thinking about glory, Jesus redirected them to the cross. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that we are going to get easy lives without struggle, but rather that we are going to be asked to walk the same path of sacrifice and service that He did. You see, as Christians we don’t just believe in what Jesus did on the cross to save us, we are also called to take up our crosses to follow Him. Our lives as Christians and as a church are going to be cruciform – cross-shaped.
Are you familiar with the tradition of “Quo Vadis”? It’s a story that’s told about Peter from the early church. In the days of Nero’s persecution, it’s said that the Christians in Rome begged Peter to leave. He reluctantly consented, but on his way out of the city, the story goes, Peter had a vision of Jesus Christ heading into the city. Falling to his knees, Peter asked His Lord, “Quo Vadis,” which is Latin for – “Where are you going?” And Christ answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” and with that Peter got up, turned around, and went back into the city saying, “Lord, I will return to follow Thee.”
I have a “Quo Vadis” moment every Sunday. I think that’s what church is supposed to be for us. When Jesus answered John and James’ request for glory in our Scripture lesson this morning, He talked about a cup to be drunk and a baptism with which to be baptized. Jesus used the language of the cup and baptism to talk about His cross, and to tell John and James that there would be crosses for them too before the glory. And every Sunday in the waters of baptism and at the Lord’s Table in the bread and cup, the cross is deliberately and emphatically put in front of us. The water, bread, and wine – the staples of Sundays in church – are witnesses of what it is that Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, and reminders of the crosses that are waiting for those who will follow Him.
Somewhere I’ve read that whenever George Tyrell, a 19th century English Jesuit, grew weary in his work of trying to change the way that his church thought and acted in the world, and he found himself tempted to give up the struggle, that he would stop and look at the crucifix hanging on his wall, and “always the figure of that strange man hanging on the cross sent him back to my tasks again.” In the hardest moments of our lives, in the most discouraging circumstances, on the most demanding days, we have not been forgotten or forsaken by God, we are where God is most fully present and active. I know this because of Christ’s cross.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a crucifix put on the front wall of the chapel of every chapter house of her Missionaries of Charity around the world, and she insisted that every day begin with all of them sitting under that cross for a communion service. She believed that beginning each day’s work with this kind of sustained reflection on Christ’s suffering would help them to recognize Christ’s presence in the suffering of the people they would serve, and that by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for them that they would be better prepared to make sacrifices for others in Christ’s name, following Christ’s example.
In just a moment now we will go to the Lord’s Table to break bread, pour a cup, and take our place beneath the cross of Jesus once again. We do this because we believe in the cross — in the One who went to the cross not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And then, when we’ve taken communion, we who believe in the cross will be challenged to take up the cross to follow Him who goes before us, and with us.
“Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”