Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. And he has a pretty good idea what will happen once he arrives. Ever since his disciple Peter recognized him as the holy one of God – the Messiah, Jesus has been trying to correct their expectations about what that might mean for both him and for them.
They expected his triumphal entry into the capital city, the center of their faith and identity. They expected him to demonstrate his power in the Jewish Temple and to confront the corruption and decay of the ruling religious leaders. They even expected him to overthrow the hated, occupying, Roman army by signs, wonders and miracles.
Jesus tried to prepare them for what would really happen. He told them, not once, not twice, but three times that “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Jesus wasn’t just on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus was on the way to the cross. But he keeps getting interrupted on the journey. There are many who need healing and are desperate to approach him. There are others like the rich man who want Jesus to give them the secret to a meaningful, spiritual life. And then there are his disciples who often seem to be more difficult than helpful.
I love the honest portraits of Jesus’ closest followers in the gospel. They are so flawed and clueless and impetuous and human. Here are James and John, brothers, sons of Zebedee the fisherman. They’ve abandoned their father and the family business in order to follow the itinerant Rabbi Jesus around the country. They’ve been around for some of the biggest moments in the life and ministry of Jesus. They’ve witnessed his transfiguration on the mountain. They’ve been privilege to some of his private acts of healing and even the raising of a dead girl. They feel like they’ve been getting the inside track on what Jesus is doing. They know something big is coming when they get to Jerusalem. They’re looking forward to it, and they don’t want to miss out.
So they ask Jesus for a favor. They ask to receive the best seats at the table when Jesus is revealed in his glory. They know it’s going to be a great and glorious day so they want to make sure they get their reservation request in early. I love that Jesus doesn’t chide them or tell them to go away or slap them up the side of the head! Instead he asks them if they can share his fate and he tells them that their lives will not be lived as lords and rulers but rather as servants, even slaves to all.
To be by the side of Jesus will mean suffering and the pouring out of their lives for the sake of others. The only way to greatness in the Kingdom of God is by giving your life away, by letting go, by offering all you have in humble service. Yes Jesus is going to Jerusalem. He’s going to the cross where the only ones on his right and left hands will be the two criminals crucified beside him.
No matter how many times we may be reminded, we never really expect the cross. A healthy person, a sane person doesn’t deliberately seek out suffering. And I don’t think the cross was the ultimate goal for Jesus either. Jesus was willing to drink the cup of pain and suffering but it wasn’t for the sake of suffering. Rather, the Bible says that it was “for the joy set before him, that Christ endured the cross.” It was for what existed on the other side of the cross and death that Jesus was willing to go through it.
This past month I really got to identify with James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John. For nearly 30 days I walked the pilgrimage that is named for him. He is the St. Iago (Spanish for James) that the Santiago Compostela is named for. But most people simply call it the Camino or “Way.” It leads to the great Cathedral where the bones of James are said to be at rest. Every church along the Camino has statues of James and you see him depicted everywhere in his pilgrim’s cloak with his wide-brimmed hat, his gourd for water and the scallop shell, which is the symbol of the pilgrim.
Before the Camino I didn’t have any particular attachment to James. But that changed after a while. Sometimes when I found myself really struggling with blisters, sore feet or the challenge of climbing another hill, I might whisper a plea, “Help me James!”
One of those days involved the climb up to the crest of the Iago Mountains. We made it nearly to the top before we had to stop for the night. We were prepared to get up early and walk in the dark until we reached the top, hopefully around daybreak. One interesting thing about many of the people walking the Camino is that they don’t have any real religious or faith connection to the pilgrimage. Because of that, many were unaware or didn’t pay attention to the fact that the top of the mountain held one of the primary landmarks of the ancient Camino.
At the pinnacle of the mountain is the Crux de Farro, the Iron Cross. It is a simple cross on the top of a pole all alone on a mountain top. For years it has been the custom of pilgrims to bring to the cross a stone or small object from home, symbolizing something that they want to let go of. The night before we were to make the climb a group of us were having dinner together. Some knew about the custom and were prepared, but for others it was a new concept.
My walking partner and I had spent quite some time thinking about what we were bringing to the cross. We each had stones that symbolized something powerful that we wanted and needed to release.
Another woman had brought a photo of her beloved mother who had died recently. She found out that I was a priest and she asked me to lead a prayer for all of us as we got ready for the next day. Around the table were a Norwegian agnostic, a practitioner of spiritual yoga from Costa Rica, a couple of Canadians with some kind of Protestant background and a fellow Episcopalian from California. At the end of the prayer I noticed tears in many people’s eyes.
The next morning we climbed the steep hill as the sun began to rise. When the cross came into view, it wasn’t particularly remarkable. It wasn’t especially large or beautiful or special. In fact, it was pretty simple. What was amazing though was the pile of stones and objects. It had created a hill around the cross that was over 20 feet high.
People approached the cross and they got quiet. They placed their stones and mementos at its feet. Some of us knelt. Others wept. We offered up our pain and sorrow, our envy and ambition, our failures and weakness, our grief and anger and anything else that held us back from love and freedom and life.
We gave it all to Jesus because he can receive it and us. He opened wide his arms upon the cross so that all might fall within his saving embrace.
He can take the worst that the world can give and by the power and mercy of God transform it and us into new life, forgiven, freed, redeemed. As the sun rose that morning, the weight dropped off us and we hugged and became almost giddy.
And for a while we were all in harmony, kind-hearted to one another and willing to share whatever was needed. Of course that doesn’t last. We’re all human after all. But the power of the cross and that surrender continue to resonate in the lives of those who were touched by that moment.
Today there may be something that you are carrying that you want to lay down. It may be a painful memory, an unresolved relationship, a deep shame that burdens your heart. You may need healing in body, mind or spirit or release from something that is holding you captive. You may be ready to let it go now, or you may need some time to prepare yourself.
Here we believe that the arms of Jesus are open wide to receive whatever you need to release. You may let it go in the confession we share during the worship as we offer up our sins and sorrows. You may want to have someone pray with you by the font during communion. There will be extra time today at the end of communion and I will be available to anoint you for healing and help. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who is able to deal gently with us, to offer up prayers on our behalf and to walk with us through the cross to the other side.
Canon Britt Olson