The Way of the Cross
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the words “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Becoming a follower of Jesus was painful for early Christians. Imagine, what would it take for you to disown your children—or your parents? Yet, these were the kinds of choices many were forced to make. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;” (Matthew 10:35).
This sword is not one of violence but of decision. We must decide to put Christ first before family in order to find our family. We must decide to speak truth to power in order to honor those in authority. The decision to walk the way of Christ’s cross calls us to be bold even as our path leads us more deeply into the troubles, difficulties and sorrows of our families and of this world in order to find joy and purpose in serving.
Two paintings by Caravaggio hang opposite one another in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600). The contrast reveals Matthew’s transformation from tax collector to martyr. The paintings depict the beginning and the end of Matthew’s life following Christ and powerfully illustrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In the Martyrdom, as tradition tells us, Matthew is shown as he is being murdered by agents of the disgruntled king of Ethiopia as he baptizes new people into the faith. While Matthew’s gesture in the Calling suggests hesitancy, his hand in the Martyrdom shows confidence, reaching toward a laurel from heaven, even as it has been seized by his accuser.
In facing our fear of God’s truth and grace, change and transformation, what is lost in us is spiritual narrowness. What dies is our fear of others, whether as competitors or enemies. What is born is compassion and freedom. “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is another famous example of the kind of compassion and freedom we find in Christ when first we decide to follow him. Archbishop Romero was killed by extremists while standing behind the altar celebrating Holy Communion in 1980. He said, “Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives—that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us—they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially—lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.” (Oscar Romero 1917-1980)
I suppose today we would be amiss not to mention another example of courage and faithfulness central to our own history as Lutherans. On this day in 1530 German and Latin editions of the Augsburg Confession were presented to the Emperor Charles of the Holy Roman Empire. The Augsburg Confession was written by Philipp Melanchthon and endorsed by Martin Luther, and consists of a brief summary of points in which the reformers saw their teaching as either agreeing with or differing from that of the Roman Catholic Church of the time. Today is the feast day in our liturgical calendar celebrated by the whole Church of both Philipp Melanchthon and the Augsburg Confession.
We might happily talk for hours about what Tolstoy meant by his beautifully evocative opening sentence. From a Christian perspective, this teaching is true. Happiness is like a flower that grows to scent our homes with compassion, truth and love when Christ is at the center, while the unhappiness in our homes arises from all the many ways we depart from Christ and his gospel.
Our pursuit of happiness will be more successful in our homes and in our society as we learn when to accept and when to challenge the authority others have over us, and also learn how to embrace and to properly exercise the authority we have been given.
The fourth commandment, “Honor your father and mother”, and our gospel, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, stand in creative tension. Our understanding of each is made more profound when viewed from the perspective of the other.
To honor father and mother, Luther says, we must do more than love them. We are to serve and obey our parents, treat them with great deference, humility, and respect. Parenthood, according to Luther, is a divine office given special distinction. Parents are literally God’s representatives in their families.
Luther broadened this commandment to include all those who are in authority –we should honor our boss, government officials, police officers, school teachers –and crossing guards –anyone who is in a position to issue commands. The command to honor our parents compels us to honor the authority of all those in power.
Luther writes, “Through civil authority, as through our own parents, God gives us food, house and home, protection and security” (LC 385 ). Christians have long recognized the vital importance of good order, both in the home and in society, for creating the conditions which makes lives of faith and praise possible. Here lies the biblical rationale for authority, as well as the principle that defines its limitations.
It is God who sets the standards for the proper use of authority. It is God and the purposes of God toward which our authority is properly applied. Do not think, Jesus says, that I have come to bring peace, when through your misdeeds or your oversight you have neglected my children, brought them pain or fear, made them to feel small, or taught them how to hate. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword whenever a child goes hungry; not peace but a sword, wherever another person in the world dies of a curable disease; not peace but a sword, wherever another species becomes extinct because of your unbridled desire to consume; not peace but a sword wherever there is someone who does not know they are a beloved child of God. For my house is not built to glorify you, says the Lord, but so that all people may know that I am God, and that you may know each and every human being is my beloved son and daughter—for I have counted even the hairs on their head.
If we see someone we love acting destructively, confronting their behavior may provoke a hostile, angry reaction. That is why we often decide not to speak even though their behavior is contrary to everything Christ teaches us. We keep silent because we ‘want to keep the peace’, or because somebody counsels us to ‘just let it be’. But the peace our silence buys is not an authentic peace. It is a simmering volcano: the landscape looks peaceful and the same as before, but there are tremors underneath, and down deep, we are frightened that our shaky world will one day, blow up. What happiness, peace, and joy is ours when we choose to walk the way of Christ and his cross.