Turn Back: Turn Back to the Cross

Scripture: Matthew 27:55-61

Writer Rachel Held Evans was only five years old when she asked Jesus into her heart.  By her own description, she was at the time “a compact little person with pigtails sticking out of [her] head like corn tassels, and [she] remember[s] thinking it strange that someone as important as Jesus would need an invitation.”  “Strange now,” she says, “is the fact that before I lost my first tooth or learned to ride a bike or graduated from kindergarten, I committed my life to a man who asked his followers to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, and to face public execution if necessary.  It is perhaps an unfair thing to ask of a child, but few who decide to follow Jesus know from the beginning what they’re getting themselves into.”

It’s true, I think.  Few of us know what exactly we’re getting into for when we declare ourselves followers of Jesus.  Those of us who grew up in church singing Jesus Loves Me probably didn’t really know at the time.  Those of us who found ourselves attracted to Jesus later in life might not have completely known either.  And maybe every once in a while we still find ourselves wondering what we’ve signed up for here.

That said, I have to imagine that Jesus’ first disciples probably had even less of an idea what they signed up for.  When Jesus showed up one day on a sandy Galilean beach and said follow me, who among them could have known where that road would eventually lead?

That’s why we probably can’t blame them for what happened during that fateful week in Jerusalem.

As today’s service began, we were in Palm Sunday, celebrating Jesus’ last triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem as the crowds cheered him on and hailed him as king.  It’s now about half an hour later and we’ve moved on all the way to Good Friday, and his death on the cross.  It was a whirlwind week and we try to cram it all into one day. But in doing so we’ve already skipped over a few parts of the story: the part where Judas agrees to betray Jesus in exchange for silver.  The part where Peter says he’s ready to die with Jesus, but then denies he even knows him, three times.  The part where the authorities come and arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and everyone with him runs away.

The Gospels tell us that a lot of people followed Jesus. But, just like in the parable of the seeds sown on different kinds of land, some would-be followers undoubtedly missed the life they behind.  Some probably faced the wrath of the religious leaders, and got scared.  Some, I’m sure, simply forgot why they were following at all.  Or maybe they simply wanted a clearer picture of where they were going before they went any farther.

The twelve disciples followed almost to the bitter end.  They followed as far as Gethsemane.  Then they ran.  Peter followed a little farther, to the high priest’s house, where his Galilean accent gave him away.  We don’t know what happened to any of those disciples after that—but in Matthew, Mark and Luke, by the time the cross casts its shadow over the city of Jerusalem, the twelve are nowhere to be found.

These are people who have been through a lot with Jesus, good and bad.  They’ve taken a risk on following a call.  They’ve seen miracles and their imaginations have been sparked by stories.  They’ve been challenged to live the kind of life God really wants from them, and they’ve found the kind of grace you need to do it.  They’ve chosen this life – but they’re not quite ready for a cross.

And maybe we can relate.  Surely we’re here for many different reasons: we want to be fed, we want to find purpose, we want to find enlightenment, we want to find community.  Maybe we want to escape from the hurt and pain of life for a little while.  And none of those are bad reasons.  But who among us, really, is prepared for our faith not just to feed us or comfort us or inspire us but to lead us where we don’t want to go?

This Lenten season we’ve been talking about turning back – how repenting of our sin means turning back to God and to the people God calls us to love.  We’ve talked about turning back to our neighbor, and creation, and the stranger, and our enemies.  But here, on this last Sunday of Lent, I want to talk about turning back to a place – turning back to the cross.

I said that all of Jesus’ disciples fled.  But actually that’s not quite true.  Because after it’s all said and done, after Jesus has been crucified and died, Matthew tells us this: that there were women there.  And when everyone else ran away, they were there, looking on from a distance.

It seems like a small detail in the whole passion drama —one it might be easy to overlook.  In the midst of all the action, Matthew pretty much says, “Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot: there were some women there, too.”  But I think this one small afterthought of a detail reminds us of an important truth:  that if we keep following Jesus, that journey always leads us to the cross.

That’s an important truth and also an uncomfortable one.  It’s the reason we cram Palm Sunday and Good Friday all into one day, because the danger is that otherwise we go straight from Palm Sunday one week to Easter Sunday the next.  We get the triumph of the grand parade and the triumph of the resurrection, and we don’t get the pain and the brokenness and the sin and the evil that necessarily comes in between.  We’re happy to wave palms and say that Jesus is our king, but that’s not the sum total of what following Jesus means.  At some point, if we keep following, we’re going to end up somewhere we’d rather not be, precisely because that’s where God is.

I’m not just talking about fasting during Lent or dragging ourselves to church even when we’re tired or it’s nice outside.  Those things might be part of the journey, but they’re not where the journey ends.  I believe we end up at the cross when we find ourselves willingly in the midst of human brokenness.

I don’t think that means the same exact thing for all of us, since God calls each of us to follow in different ways.  Maybe the journey leads us to a homeless shelter or an AA meeting or a hospital room or to the border.  Maybe it leads us to people suffering from the effects of institutional racism or people suffering from the pain of illness or hopelessness.  Maybe it leads us down the street or to another city or another county or just to someone at school.  Maybe it leads us on a career path that lets us address some of the pain and problems of our world, or maybe it leads us to a certain way of approaching life that isn’t about the work we get paid for.  But if we haven’t followed Jesus in some way to a place where there is brokenness and suffering, then I’m not sure we’ve followed him very far at all.

That kind of place is where those female disciples found themselves that day at the cross.  They saw where this journey of following Jesus was leading, and they weren’t afraid to face it.  They didn’t duck out early.  Their path led to the epicenter of human brokenness—fear, greed, power-grabbing—and there they stood, in solidarity with its ultimate victim.  Was it hard? I’m sure it was.  Was it sad?  Of course.  Was it scary?  No doubt.  But they were there.

Each week in Lent I’ve given you a challenge, a question to think about: how will you turn back to your neighbor, or to the stranger, or to creation, or to your enemy?  Here on this last week of Lent, my question is: how will you turn back to the crucified Jesus?  How will you follow him into the heart of human sin and suffering, rather than turning away?

That’s a question I think about for myself, sometimes, knowing how easy it is to get so wrapped up in whatever is going on in my own life, good or bad, that I don’t always listen to Jesus calling me out of that to meet him somewhere else.

I can think, early on in my ministry, of a woman I knew whose husband had just died after a short and brutal battle with cancer.  He was only maybe 60.  I remember that his wife showed up at church early that next Sunday morning after he died.  I had plenty to do that morning, but I think the bigger truth was that I didn’t know what to say.  Nothing could make it better.  So I didn’t say anything.  She showed up later at in my office door in tears, angry at me, and I learned a lesson in ministry that morning that I’ve had to keep learning: that sometimes it’s really hard to go where there is suffering, to sit there with it and sit there with the doubt that you’re making anything better at all – but you still go.

But I also think about what following Jesus to the cross means for us together as a church.  In January we approved the basics of a deal to redevelop our space along with our next-door neighbors, and we’ve been moving ahead with that.  One of the questions we asked ourselves early in the process, before we were sure what it all looked like, was would we be willing to sell this land and move across town if that was on the table?  And the answer we always came back to was no, because our mission is here in Rosslyn.

I think that was the right answer, and maybe it’s time to think more about what that means.  Frederick Buechner says that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  What is that pain and brokenness and hunger that exists right here in our neighborhood?  Some of it is literal, as we know from the people in our community to who come to our Fellowship Hall to get something to eat during the week.  Maybe God is calling us to follow further along that path.  Or maybe there are even new ways we might meet Jesus on the cross just outside our doors – in people who are hurting, or lonely, or lost, or hopeless, or in need.

It’s not necessarily about being able to solve all the world’s problems, because we can’t and that’s not our job.  The women at the cross didn’t have the power to change anything.  But they had the power to be there when so many others were not.  Who knows?  Maybe Jesus caught a glimpse of them from a distance before he breathed his last, and maybe it made him feel a little less forsaken.

Maybe that’s the reason these same women got to be the first to discover the empty tomb. They didn’t try to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter.  They didn’t run away from what happened in the meantime, and that’s why they got to be the ones to see how God’s grace and love was doing something in all of it and to tell others about it.  Maybe they were the only ones to be able to see the full scope of God at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Maybe we can only truly glimpse God’s glory when we see it from the perspective of the cross.

According to tradition, the disciples – the twelve/eleven – did turn back to the cross.  It wasn’t until after Easter, but somehow then they understood that the cross was the only path to glory.  Most of them eventually suffered and died for the faith they professed. And in the end, whose faith journey hasn’t taken a few twists and turns and setbacks before we realize where we’re supposed to be?  And yet, the women were there.  Before they even believed in this promise called resurrection, they were there at the cross, simply because that’s where following Jesus had led them.

Can we say the same?  Is our journey toward the cross this Lent more than just a journey to Good Friday?  Is it a journey that brings us to where God’s people are suffering?  Is it a journey that leads us to brokenness before it leads us to victory?  If we’re following Jesus, the answer is bound to be yes.

That’s why I still have to wonder every once in a while—what have we gotten ourselves into?

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