Sermon – August 31, 2014

Instruction manual


Back in the 80s when I lived out in Washington DC, the videocassette recorder was becoming a most desirable electronics acquisition. Back then, they were quite expensive and on my modest income I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. But then I received an invitation in the mail to come and hear a presentation on timeshare condominiums. Now I had no interest at all in a timeshare condominium, but the flyer promised that at the completion of the presentation my patience would be rewarded with a free VCR! And I thought well, I’m doing it. So, I went to the presentation and a little Virginia village outside of Washington DC, and I sat through this earnest salesman’s pitch. At the end of it I said thank you, but I just bought a little condominium myself and cannot afford to extend my budget anymore. Can have my VCR now? He hemmed and hawed and said he was sorry but he had just run out VCRs. To make a long story short, I ended up calling the state attorney general to get my VCR. After that contact, they mailed me my VCR which I received for the cost of $80 shipping and handling. So, they saw me coming. Anyway I ripped open the packaging on my VCR and, not having any experience at all with these kinds of electronics, I began to diligently read the instructions. Now if any of you read the instructions in some of these early imported electronics, you know that their technical writers did not have much of a command of the English language. They made no sense. I could not figure out how to run this thing because the narrative that accompanied it was rambling, referenced, in my view, nonexistent parts and processes. And because the instructions were so bad I never recorded anything on that VCR, ever. I could figure out how to play a cassette and that was it. I had my gadget that I had no idea what to do with it.


There is a lot of bad instruction out there on what to do with all sorts of things, including this wondrous gift of the gospel. Particularly, there are problems when we receive the type of instructions that Jesus gives today. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Some of the bad information out there would suggest that anything that annoys us anything that we don’t like in our lives, anyone with whom we have trouble coexisting with is “our cross to bear.” This bad relationship is my cross to bear. This lousy job is my cross to bear. This ingrown toenail is my cross to bear. Recognize this conversation? This way of thinking turns this kind of suffering into a virtue with only the most tenuous connection to Christ.


The cross was an instrument of torture and death laid upon an innocent man for all the wrong reasons. We all agree on that, even those who don’t believe. It is not an invitation, however, to see justice, then, or violence or suffering as a desirable circumstance. The cross is so much more than that. It is the ultimate instrument of God’s self giving love. The cross is the symbol that God is all in, no matter what, because of God’s great love for humanity.


To take up one’s cross, then, is to set one’s foot on this path – a path of self giving love. Jesus admonition has three parts; deny yourself, in other words let loose of the radical individuality and pathological autonomy that stands in the way of deep and intimate relationships with Christ and with others; take up your cross – take upon yourself the ways and means of this path of self giving; and follow me – learn from Christ emulate Christ. Walk in the footsteps of Christ.


As weighty an instruction as this is, it surely leaves us like it must’ve left the disciples, wondering how in the world we would deny ourselves take up our cross and follow Jesus.


Paul speaks the first language of the gospel in response. Romans 12 is a key narrative in Paul’s ministry to build the church, to teach the authentic gospel. In our passage today, Paul leads with the most important practice. Love. “Let love, first of all, be genuine,” he says. That love be authentic, that are true hearts are employed. This word in the Greek is taken from the theater, where it would indicate the real person, and not the one behind the mask. Love is to be honest and not self-serving, non-contingent. It is the first step in the way of the cross. In the second chapter of Philippians Paul writes to that church, “be of the same mind having the same love and the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, . . . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.” The love that is manifest in the way of cross is self giving, obedient, and sacrificial. That love is directed toward God first, and then to the neighbor. It is not meant to be a private devotional affection, but a way of being. Jesus will later speaking the 22nd chapter of Matthew of the fundamental core of God’s expectation of humanity, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets.” With everything that you have, love God and love your neighbor. Begin in authenticity.


Paul goes on to instruct the church what this self giving love looks like in relationship to the world. Love one another and show one another honor……… Take care of one another… Treat strangers as you would treat your brother or your sister… Recognize those of a greater need, the lowly and the humble, and provide for their physical and spiritual need and don’t set yourselves above them. Hate evil, but in doing so don’t get caught up in its snares and its cycles of mindless retribution, revenge and accusation. Instead, seek what is noble in your relationship even with antagonists and believe that the good can stand fast against. In doing so, you serve God and serve neighbor. In doing so, you will draw those whom you love and serve closer to God, you will be equipped in your service as the path of the cross is revealed, and led, encouraged. and supported in persistent, expectant prayer. This is what authentic love looks like. There is a good start from the Apostle.


This may very well cost us something and it may feel like suffering. Most certainly it will cost us the personal prerogatives that we demand so that we maybe be set apart from others. We want the honor and the accolades, the rewards that recognize our skill, our gifts, and our individuality. But in the way of the cross, we are instead called to serve in such a way that the other is lifted up, cared for, honored and drawn in. It may very well cost us relationships built on pathologically unbalanced power structures. It will most certainly require of us to forgive as a way of living. It will turns us toward the way of peace over the way of violence, it will call us to reconciliation time and again. It will call us to let loose of the prevalent notion in our culture that we can not only have everything, but that we absolutely deserve it. To that Jesus wonders, “for what will it profit if we gain the whole world but forfeit our lives?” The way of the cross, finally, transforms us into disciples of Christ, and not of this world, our self-interest, or of the powers that would demand of us our trust, allegiance obedience and acquiescence. Detaching ourselves from such thing might very well feel like suffering. . . . and that is only a reflection of the power these have over us. But the call of Christ’s cross is more powerful, more full of promise, more real.


The path of the cross, the way of Jesus, is the way of self giving love. It is not mindless sacrifice, purposeless suffering, or a contest to prove our righteousness and acceptability before God. It is instead the way of meaning, hope, community and peace. And this is, finally, God’s purpose for all of creation.


Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. The language is crisp. The instructions are clear. The journey begins and ends with the love of God. All else follows.


Anything else is a bad translation.


Thanks be to God.