The Reverend Billy Graham once told a story of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy told him, Rev. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” “I don’t think I’ll be there” said the boy. “You don’t even know your way to the post office’.” (Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, p.215)
Knowing “the way”, in a very different sense, is what the Gospel of Mark, and the Season of Lent, is all about.
Last week I said that Lent is a season when symbolism and symbolic language abounds. During Lent we acknowledge that we are on a journey accompanying Jesus, through the stories and songs of our faith tradition. We hear stories of Jesus’ baptism, his wilderness experiences, his experiences as he travels and teaches, heals and spends time with others in community. Through stories, we hear about the joys and sorrows, the hardships and excitement of Jesus’ life as an itinerant preacher, charismatic leader, and purveyor of uncommon wisdom.
These journeys that Jesus took were travels that were both spiritual and temporal. They were journeys of faith that embodied the principles of “faith in action”. In our modern vernacular we would say that Jesus “walked the talk”. The main theme that Jesus talked about more than anything else was the “kingdom of God” and through his words and actions he conveyed that this was not an otherworldly place (heaven) but was the embodiment of God’s realm on earth. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God was already present but needed to be more fully realized through loving actions that promoted justice and healing.
The Gospel of Mark, even in its brevity and scant detail, has much to tell us about the purpose of Jesus’ mission and the way in which his followers tried to emulate his life in the actions of their lives. Mark lays out a major focus for his gospel in the first three verses of his gospel account, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” (Mark 1:1-3, my emphasis) A distillation of this major theme of Mark’s gospel is, the good news about the way of the Lord.
Biblical scholar, Marcus Borg says,
“The importance of ‘the way’ is indicated by Mark’s frequent use of the Greek word translated into English as the way, and also the path and road. In Greek, they are the same word. ‘The way’ is the primary theme of the central section of Mark’s gospel.” (Conversations With Scriptures: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg, p.2)
Borg goes on to say,
“As an image for the religious life, ‘the way’ is quite different from common modern understandings of what is means to be Christian. Many Protestants as well as some Catholics think that the Christian life is foundationally about believing, understood as believing a set of statements about the Bible and God and Jesus. And, of course, an effort at good behaviour is also included. But the gospel as ‘the way of Jesus’ suggests a path and a person to be followed, and not primarily a set of beliefs to be believed. …Mark’s introduction of John the Baptizer…sound the theme of Jesus as ‘the way of the Lord’ – and he calls people to follow the way that he taught and that Mark saw revealed to him.” (Ibid. p.22)
In today’s gospel passage, from Mark, the verse that caused the most discussion in our Bible study group this week was, Mark 8:34, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Take up your cross and follow me”. These are commanding words that have been interpreted in various ways over the ages. In the time of Jesus the cross was a visible sign of death for subversives who were found guilty of treason. Death by crucifixion was a slow painful death that was a very public show of force meant to squash any opposition to Roman Imperial Rule. The cross was a Roman symbol of power and authority meant to intimidate and keep the peace through the threat of violent retaliation for anything that even hinted of subversive activity. Wandering around telling people they had rights and value and power to make changes in their lives and their society, like Jesus did and that he persuaded his disciples to do, meant to risk your life in the pursuit of God’s kingdom.
In our contemporary context bearing the cross has most often come to symbolize the burdens we bear rather than the commitment to living a way of life that is radical and transformative. The sign of the cross has also come to symbolize Christianity. In our baptismal liturgy, after the baptism with water, the newly baptized person is marked with the sign of the cross. The words accompanying this action are, “And marking you with the sign of the cross, beloved of God, you bear the sign of the Anointed One, Jesus.”
How is it then, as baptized people, we carry the sign of the cross in our daily lives? I hope it is in the way we live our lives, the choices that we make, the decisions we make that are based on our commitment to follow Jesus’ way and to emulate his actions. One way that I personally bear the sign of the cross is by wearing a cross that is large enough to be visible and recognizable. I wear a Celtic cross, rather than a Roman cross, because it reflects my personal affinity with Celtic Christianity. This is not a fashion statement but rather a statement of faith and it has been surprising to me the number of conversations that have been initiated by strangers that begin with their commenting on my cross.
One very profound experience stands out in my memory. A number of years ago, in the congregation where I served in ministry, an older female member of the congregation had a stroke and was taken to the hospital. It was a day or so after she was hospitalized that I learned what had happened and I immediately went to the hospital to see her. I didn’t have any details about her condition or the prognosis and was distressed that I hadn’t been informed sooner that she was in the hospital. As is my custom, before entering a hospital room, I paused to centre myself in prayer. As I reached the doorway of the hospital room I paused to assess the situation as I could see many members of the woman’s family crowded into the small room. I’d never met any of the woman’s family members except her husband who I couldn’t see in the crowded room but immediately upon seeing me one of her sons beckoned me to enter the room. When I entered I found out that the woman had just died. I spoke with her family and said a prayer with them and arranged to meet with them at a later date to plan the funeral. While planning the funeral I asked the woman’s son about his immediate response to welcoming a stranger into the hospital room at such a private moment. He said, “I saw the cross you were wearing and I knew you had come to help us in our time of need.” In that moment I had a profound understanding of the power of the presence of Christ in our midst and the importance of being a visible sign of that presence not only in our words and actions but also through the symbols that convey our commitment to living in Christ’s way.
We are, as Jesus’ first disciples were, people of the Way on a journey of faith as followers of Jesus. We are travelers on a path that takes us to places where we may never have dreamed that we would go. The living Christ in our midst prompts us to act for the good of all, to act with compassion, to risk criticism in speaking up for what we believe to be good and true and just, to go against the tide of popular opinion when necessary in our society and in our global community.
May we be People of the Way and emulate Jesus’ way of peace, justice, compassion, healing wisdom, and blessing. May we have a daring and courageous faith that strengthens us as we travel together into the unknown future. May we bear each other’s burdens and may we be blessed to carry our faith in the actions of our lives in our journey together.
This is my hope and my prayer and so I’ll close this time of reflection with a Prayer for the Journey written by United Church minister, Janet Cawley:
God of the Way,
you are the road we travel,
and the sign we follow;
you are bread for the journey
and the wine of arrival.
Guide us as we follow in your way,
holding on to each other,
reaching out to your beloved world.
And when we stray,
seek us out and find us,
set our feet on the path again,
and lead us safely home.
In the name of Jesus,
our companion, we pray.
(Voices United # 648 by Janet Cawley)