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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Death March
March 14, 2019

Harrowing stories of death marches abound. From Auschwitz to Bataan to the Gulag, the twentieth century was littered with forced marches that issued in mass deaths. And such things happen not only overseas – we have our own Trail of Tears to account for. Wherever human beings are forced to walk against their will, tragedy is sure to follow.

Lent is an invitation to join Jesus on his very different death march – one that he willingly engaged, despite his friends’ attempts to turn him back from his fateful final journey. With grim determination, Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem for his appointed demise (Luke 9:51). As he pressed forward, Mark tells us that “those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32) Of course they were!

Jesus repeatedly reminded his disciples that his destiny in Jerusalem was to die. Along his way there, various ones tried to entrap him with the intent of establishing cause for his execution, but he eluded their nets. Others professed their desire to join his entourage, but he dismissed them when they wanted first to take care of their personal affairs. For him, the journey to Jerusalem was all or nothing, and only those who were willing to accept those terms could accompany him.

Earlier in his travels, Jesus often invited people unconditionally to come to him, to join him in his ministry. But now, with his face set toward Jerusalem, Jesus had to keep moving, or he might not make it. There was no place in his retinue for anyone who wouldn’t match his stride.

Let’s be clear. Walking with Jesus toward his death is a harrowing prospect. We ought to be terrified of joining Jesus on the Lenten journey. Knowing that resurrection is around the corner blunts our sense of the cost of discipleship. How can we possibly imagine what it was like to be in the shoes of those who joined him on the road to Calvary?

Nothing less than the greatest challenge conceivable is at stake. And that challenge is to love as Jesus loved. Utter self-emptying. Readiness at all costs to fulfill our calling. Giving ourselves completely to another, holding back nothing for ourselves. Jesus’ long walk from Galilee to Golgotha is the greatest love-walk ever. In order that we might know that death is not the final word, the sinless One voluntarily walked to the place where he would die a criminal’s death.

He didn’t just bear our sins; he became sin itself. (2 Corinthians 5:21) He didn’t merely suffer an onslaught of curses; he became a curse. All for our sake, even though we didn’t ask for his help. The perfection of love is to lay our own life down for the sake of another, with no expectation of thanks or reward. This is what Jesus did supremely by walking the road to the cross.

Walking that road with him challenges us to do far more than fast a bit or defer a little pleasure for later. It demands more than acts or feelings of penitence. It calls for radical self-giving for the sake of others.

We walk the Lenten journey with Jesus when we keep on walking with someone – whether friend or adversary or stranger – without giving up on them when the going gets tough. Such love may lead us to say and do difficult, unwelcome things. The truest of love is rarely pretty, if ever. It sure was anything but for Jesus.

We walk the Lenten journey with Jesus when we show ourselves ready to join him in surrendering our will to God’s calling. “Not my will, but yours” is the mantra of the Lenten walk. (Luke 22:42)

The walk to the cross is a death march for Jesus. And it is nothing less for those who accompany him on that journey. Are we ready for that? Truth told, that is the journey given to all who would follow him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it succinctly in his bracing book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls [us], he bids [us] come and die.”

We cannot walk with Jesus without taking up our own cross. Are we ready to drink the cup of love with him?

Your fellow-pilgrim,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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