A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Road Less Traveled
April 4, 2019
Lent is an invitation to join Jesus on the road to the cross. It’s a long and difficult walk from Galilee to Golgotha. At first large crowds accompany him, eager not to miss the impending launch of his revolution. (Luke 14:25) But their numbers dwindle as Jesus warns them of what it costs to follow him, and of what lies ahead for him in Jerusalem.
The biggest drop-off occurs following his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. First thing Jesus does after his crowded Palm Sunday parade is to unleash his anger at leaders who have used religion to promote personal gain. He does this in highly dramatic fashion, overturning the tables of the Temple’s currency exchange traders. It’s as though Jesus is looking for trouble, rather than trying to avoid it. And it causes his following to wither away.
And so over his final days Jesus is left with just a few supporters, men and women who had long been his steadfast companions. But things were getting shaky even for them.
When Jesus predicts that one of the Twelve will betray him, their response is not the “No way!” we would expect of diehard supporters. Rather, they wonder, “Is it I?” (Mark 14:17-19; John 13:21-25) They know that their commitment to go the distance with him is unsteady.
Jesus hopes that at least the three closest to him will stick with him as his arrest draws near. He pleads with them to hang in there with him in prayer in his hour of travail, but they fall asleep. (Matthew 26:36-46)
They fade away when Jesus is arrested. Peter tries gamely to defend Jesus at the moment of arrest, but soon he retreats. He dares to venture into the courtyard of the high priest’s manor to watch the proceedings of Jesus’ trial from a distance. Without the rest present to bolster him, he capsizes into denial when questioned about his link to Jesus. We often vilify Peter for his disloyalty in that scene, yet he was the only one of Jesus’ followers who even tried to be near Jesus as he underwent the livid judgment of the religious establishment. Peter flees after denying Jesus, awash in bitter tears for having broken faith with his Lord. (Matthew 26:69-75 ) Jesus is now utterly alone in his journey to the cross.
When a few hours later Jesus is unable to carry the cross all the way to the place where he is to be hung, not one of his followers is present to assist him. An onlooking stranger, Simon of Cyrene, is commandeered to accompany Jesus in their absence, carrying his cross as he treads his final steps. (Matthew 27:32)
Those whom Jesus had earlier conscripted – “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he had told them (John 15:16) – have abandoned him. He has to rely on a conscript not his own to help him complete his journey to his destiny.
One of the Twelve and a few of his female followers are bold enough to approach the foot of the cross after he has been hoisted up on it. Even though their own immediate danger seems momentarily to have passed, the rest of the Twelve are nowhere on the scene the Gospels paint of the crucifixion. When Jesus finally dies, not one of his followers is there to claim his body, so yet another stranger has the holy privilege of accompanying Jesus on his final journey, to his body’s resting place.
Like his first disciples, we acknowledge that we walk with Jesus not because we chose him, but because he chose us. The same was true of Israel’s relationship to God in ancient days – it was God who chose them, not vice versa. And yet, as with ancient Israel, we who have been called to follow Jesus must choose the pathway for which we have been chosen. Walking the Lenten journey is a choice we must make.
When it came time to choose whether to stick with Jesus at the apex of his suffering, his chosen followers fell away. Yet the death of their commitment to Jesus was no more of a final word than the death of Jesus himself. In the end, Jesus refused to abandon those who had chosen to abandon him.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. Robert Frost
Your companion on the journey,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister