Friday, August 26, 2011

The Fellowship of the Cross

This is the kind of sermon illustration that would only work well at Comicon. Or on a blog like this. But hey, even nerds like me need the Gospel. I couldn't get this out of my head this week as I was preparing a sermon Matthew 16 (minus Gandalf and company) for the saints at Redeemer, HB. So, enjoy.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. So says Bonhoeffer. But Bonhoeffer was just being a good Christian theologian when he plagiarized Jesus. That's part of what the church is called to do: say what Christ has said again and again and again. All theology is plagiarism. Which brings me back to Sunday's Gospel reading from Matthew 16...Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.

The cost of discipleship was invented by Jesus (and the prophets who pointed to him) long before Bonhoeffer wrote the book. Jesus not only wrote the book but lived it for the disciples, for you, for all. And a disciple is not above his master.

So, Jesus never holds back. Why should he? After all, he's on his way to Jerusalem, where he will, once again, not hold anything back. Unlike us, Jesus practices what he preaches. We say: "actions speak louder than words." For Jesus his words are actions; his actions proclaim. His Word is action.
Deny yourself - become nothing. Take up your cross - drop dead. And follow me. Where? To the cross. Where else? After Peter's outburst of satanic foot-in-mouth syndrome, the fellowship of the disciples - and the church, the fellowship of saints in the body of Christ - had some things to learn on their appointed journey.

Much like another fellowship - a rag-tag band of "disciples" from the mines to the forests, from the kingdom of men to the Shire, a wizard and a would-be king. I don't know whether or not Tolkien had ever considered or even pondered Matthew 16 while the Council of Elrond met at the last homely house in the west. But there sure seems to be an unavoidable, rather striking connection. The cost of discipleship in middle-earth entailed a similar calling to our Lord's. Not a cross but a ring. Nevertheless, a journey full of self-denial, and, in the end, freedom and life.

At Rivendell Jesus' words would have sounded something like this: "Deny yourselves (and they did, even when plagued by orcs and Nazgul). Take up this ring - this curse upon history of men. And follow the path to Mt. Doom. Follow it over hill and under hill. Follow it through rock and marsh. Follow it from Weather Top to the Morgul Vale. Follow it through the Shelob's lair amidst Sauron's kindling glare." But who shall brave such a task?

'None here can do so,' said Eldrond gravely. 'At least none can foretell what will come to pass, if we take this road or that. But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril - to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.'

Follow this path you mighty fellowship. Deny yourselves - drop dead if you must and many of you will. Take up the ring - yes, it is yours to bear Frodo. And follow where dwarfs and elves fear to trod. Yes, it appears to be folly. So let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! Although this heavy burden was borne freely by Frodo he was not alone in his folly. Yes, there is a cost to discipleship even in middle-earth. And this is the way it had to be. There was no other way. Isildur's bane must be destroyed. Sauron must be defeated. Middle-earth must be free. All theology is plagiarism, even when it shows up in epic fairy tales.

That's all well and good you say. But I'm not in middle-earth. Wizards, elven swords and Samwise may have helped Frodo. But that does little good for the crosses of this life. Perhaps not at first appearance. But remember not all the glitters is gold. The answer is often hidden in the cross. Here we are not in the realm of fairy tales, stories to be true - but the real ones. The kind of story that sounds too good to be true. Not about hobbits or magic rings. But a cross. A denial. And a journey to a mountain. The central event in all human history that the good fairy tales (among other stories) points to.

Frodo needed Samwise. At many points (and one in particular near Mt. Doom) he couldn't even bear the ring without him; but even Jesus needed a Simon on the way to Mt. Calvary. The humiliation was so overwhelming - the burden too heavy - the one who went to Golgotha couldn't even carry his own cross. I suppose that is fitting. The cross is never born alone. Not for Jesus. Not for you. He has defeated the Sauron of this world. Adam's bane is destroyed. And the old creation is free. Welcome to the new creation in Christ. And he did it all for the most unlikely, rag-tag band of disciples, then and now.

Even when it appears that the most dangerous thing is stepping out our front door, Christ will never leave us without a Samwise. Indeed, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. And dying, you live. Losing, you win. The cross is life. No one can doubt the cost is great. But the reward is greater, even the greatest. A Great Eucatastrophe.

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