Last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Noah. Next Sunday, we’ll hear about God’s covenant with the people of Israel after the Exodus, at Mt. Sinai. Today we hear the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
And we know the rest of the story: Sarah’s unlikely pregnancy and the birth of Isaac, and then the testing of Abraham (glad I don’t have to preach on that today). After Isaac is saved by a ram in the thicket, an angel of God restates God’s covenant with Abraham: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
The story of God’s covenant with Abraham illustrates something that’s bigger than all those grains of sand on the seashore: covenant changes things. Covenant changes the nature of family. Ask anyone who lived with someone for a year or two or ten and then enters into the covenant of marriage. It changes things. Ask anyone who visits churches for months or years and then chooses baptism, or confirmation. Covenant changes everything. A covenant is not so much a legal, transactional contract—I will do this, if you will do that—as it is a promise, a recognition of a bond.
Our Lenten journey is preparation for the renewal of our own baptismal covenant, the covenant in which God promises us new life, the covenant in which we bind ourselves to Jesus and become part of the whole Christian family that spans centuries and continents. In baptism we pledge to continue the work, begun in Jesus, of making the Kingdom of God a reality on earth. The end of Lent is the renewal of our baptism, the celebration, again and again, of our adoption as God’s daughters and sons. Like Abraham’s covenant with God, our baptismal covenant changes the nature of our family, and enlists us to work for the Kingdom of God.
Along the way, our Lenten journey is the journey with Jesus to the Cross. We have heard this so many times, maybe we don’t even think about it—thank God we have today’s gospel scene to make us sit up and take notice.
Jesus lays out, for the first time, what is in store for him: suffering, rejection, and death. The disciples don’t like this. Peter speaks up and bears the brunt of Jesus’ response, but I’m guessing that the rest of the disciples and the others listening to him were not exactly jumping for joy.
A messiah who suffers and dies is not the kind of messiah the disciples have signed up for! So Peter takes Jesus aside. “Ah…with all due respect,” Peter might say, “ we were kind of expecting a savior who planned to kick out the Romans, and become a great king, maybe like David, and all of us, well you know….we could all be your top advisors.”
“Whoa!” says Jesus, loud enough so all the disciples can hear, “You’re talking like you’ve been listening to someone else besides me—Satan even! God is not about that kind of worldly power!”
The first disciples certainly knew what a cross was, and how the Romans used it to execute traitors and criminals alike. But to define discipleship as picking up one’s cross would have been a shock for Peter and his companions.
Crosses are all around us, in churches, on bumper stickers, around our necks, or tattooed on our arms. Crosses are how we mark ourselves as members of Christ’s body. We’re used to the Cross, but we might not think enough about what it means.
Let us hear this old news with new ears: When we are called as followers of Jesus, we are called to die, over and over again. We are called to die to our own needs and expectations, die to our own agenda, die to our own idea of how things are supposed to turn out, just as Peter must die to his idea of what a Messiah is supposed to be.
We are called to lose our lives as we conceive them to be. This loss, this death, can be excruciating.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther talked about two different theologies. (Remember that “theology” is simply academic shorthand for the question: “What is God up to?” The theologies Luther articulated were the theology of glory, and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is built on assumptions of how God is supposed to act in the world. God rewards the good with riches, good health, and long life. God punishes the wicked, God brings strong, right-thinking people to power. We might call this a prosperity gospel. Those who do not succeed, or who fall experience loss and failure, have surely done something wrong. There is room, in a theology of glory, for violence—either in the name of defense or retribution. We might say that a covenant of glory is a promise of rewards and punishments, of victory and power.
The theology of the cross says that what God is up to is that God reveals himself to us as Jesus rejected and suffering. That where there is suffering, loss, disappointment, abandonment, and unspeakable grief, that’s where God is. God is present in our suffering when we rage against inexplicable events, when we mourn the loss of a loved one, or when we suffer as the result of our own inability to hold our lives loosely for the sake of the gospel. There is no room, in the theology of the Cross, for violence, retributive or otherwise. There is no such thing as a just war. A covenant formed in the shadow of the Cross is a covenant in which God promises to be present with us in suffering and death, and promises to transform death into new life, a covenant in which we empty ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.
This morning I leave you with a challenge. There’s an action each of us does, sometimes many times each week, in which we affirm the theology of the cross. This action is making the sign of the cross on our bodies. My challenge is to think about what this means each time you do this. This sign commits us to a God who suffers, and binds us anew to our baptismal covenant, in service to our God who, in the Resurrection, restores us to new life. In the name of our suffering and life-giving God who creates all things, redeems all things, and sustains all things, Amen.