A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
March 28, 2013
One of the striking features of church life over the past half-century has been the convergence between Catholic and Protestant traditions in numerous practices. Protestants have become much more likely to follow ancient liturgical traditions such as observance of the church year, including the seasons of Lent and Advent, while Catholics have become far more deeply engaged in the historic Protestant practice of communicating the Gospel in the languages and styles of indigenous cultures. While some still resist “doing Lent,” many Protestants testify that it has proven to be of great benefit to their faith.
Lent is a special opportunity to do what Christians are always called to do – to walk the way of the cross with Jesus. The path that Jesus traveled from the judgment hall to Golgotha is known as the “Via Dolorosa,” literally the “way of suffering.” It’s a pathway in the Old City of Jerusalem that countless Christian pilgrims are walking this week, as they have done each Holy Week over most of the last 2000 years. We could well translate it “trail of tears,” which is how we name the pathways traveled by Native Americans when they were forced out of their homelands by European settlers in the 19th century.
An old hymn asks, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone?” The answer rings clear: “No! There’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, a man named Simon from Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, probably because Jesus was too weak to carry it himself, as those about to be crucified usually did.
Several times in the Gospels Jesus tells his disciples that following him entails bearing the cross – thus foreshadowing his own journey to Golgotha with Simon. Simon had to be forced to carry the cross, and that is how it often is for us as well. Everything within us runs from it. We want to continue with life as we know it, rather than laying our life down with Jesus.
Jesus’ road to the cross begins not in Pilate’s courtyard but in Galilee, when he determines to go to Jerusalem where he knows people intend to kill him. Several times in the Gospels he predicts his execution once he gets to Jerusalem, and his followers implore him not to go there. He replies, “If you want to be my follower, you’ve got to lay down your life with me.” The road to Jerusalem is as unavoidable for Jesus’ disciples as it is for Jesus himself.
That road is not the only pathway available to him. Many of his contemporaries who have railed at the faithlessness among the religious authorities have abandoned Jerusalem, setting up shop instead somewhere in the distant hills. Despite the gross infidelity of Temple leaders, Jesus refuses to go the pathway of the dissidents who flee Jerusalem to form alternative religious communities that are safer or purer. The Via Dolorosa is a tangible reminder that in Jesus, God does not abandon Jerusalem amid its corruption, but engages it in order to redeem it – even if it means that Jesus must lay down his life to do so.
So his disciples travel with him to Jerusalem, grumbling much of the way there. They argue about who gets to sit closest to Jesus. They promise to stick with him to the end, but when the end comes, they scatter. Still, along the way they learn from Jesus that there are more than two possible responses to opposition, “fight or flight.” Jesus challenges them with a third option – stay engaged, even if it means laying down your life.
They are tested on this very soon after his ascension, when they are arrested for proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Christ. The authorities flog them and sternly order them to stop, but as soon as they are released, the disciples go back to the Temple to pick up where they left off. They are repeatedly imprisoned and threatened with death, but as soon as they are set free, they go right back to preach more of the same. They keep walking the Via Dolorosa, laying down their lives for the sake of the Gospel – and they count it joy to do so!
When Paul travels on his missionary journeys, he goes straight to the synagogues in most places he visits, even though that usually gets him into a heap of trouble. Despite being warned against it, he eventually returns to Jerusalem, heading directly to the Temple where an angry mob seeks to kill him. Each day’s trip to synagogue or Temple becomes for him yet another journey down the Via Dolorosa.
Paul is persuaded that whether we live or die is immaterial; all that matters is that we belong to the Lord. (See Romans 14:7-9, Philippians 1:21-24.) Imagine with me a church made up of servants who, like their Lord and his apostles, were marked by such fidelity to the community they were called to serve that they’d sooner lay down their lives than cut and run for greener pastures when the way gets difficult.
None of Jesus’ followers has the option to avoid the Via Dolorosa. Not you, not me. Especially during this most Holy Week, I invite you to join me in asking: Where is my commitment to suffer with Jesus taking me today?
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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