The Good News of Lent

Text: Matthew 16:21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

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The Good News of Lent

We are entering into the Church season of Lent. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, where many people will intentionally show up to a place to be reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Ash Wednesday is one of— if not the— most countercultural and counterintuitive practices, especially in the West, that modern Christians have maintained. We begin preparation ultimately for the greatest celebration of the Church calendar, the crux upon which Christianity rests— especially for the earliest Christians— the resurrection of Jesus, by reminding ourselves of the reality of mortality. We remind ourselves that whoever we are, we will one day not be here. We remind ourselves of both our insignificance and great significance our limited time. And this begins a season of self- and communal-reflection— reflection on sin, on complacency, on suffering, on our shadows, on disconnection, and on death. The Church’s invitation to us is to prepare for the joy of new life, new creation, resurrection by looking the cross head-on.

I grew up in a tradition that spoke of the Gospel as both “bad news and good news.” There was a formula to it, that I’m sure others in this room have heard, that you need to know the bad news about yourself and your situation before you can understand and accept how good the good news is. You here is very individualized. And in my Calvinist leaning youth group formation, I learned that the bad new was that we were completely separated from God— dead in our sin. We could not, by our own intentions, seek God. We could not do anything about our sin and our disconnection from God, and by extension one another. God’s grace alone resurrects us— and that is the good news that we were to then accept into our hearts. Our spiritual death already happened— if we were saved, we were from now on to live in a way that reflected our “new life.” So Lent became a time to beat ourselves up about how we were not living up to the ideal of new life in Christ.

While there are aspects of this— like grace preceding our understanding or intellectual ascension to belief (and covering our sure-to-be incorrect beliefs)— I have not thrown out, this “bad news” before “good news” is not what I believe looking at the cross head-on means. Jesus invited his disciples to follow him— to learn a particular way of being in the world, to cultivate an imagination for the way the world could be, and to see clearly the world as it truly is. The freedom of the Gospel message is that seeing clearly the way things are (perhaps especially the way things are not good) and voicing it— confessing it— is not the enemy of the way things could be. It is a necessary step in following the way of Jesus to new life.

Though records of early church practices are sketchy at best, a theory on the development of Ash Wednesday goes something like this: It was a regular practice very early on in the Church to have people who were caught up in serious sin (I don’t know what all that would entail) to come to the community seeking a way to re-enter the church community in good conscience for the main celebration of the year: Resurrection Sunday. This was also the day that people would complete their catechism to be baptized. Those who had come with serious sin would be sprinkled with ashes— likely harkening to the Hebrew Bible’s records of those who are repenting wearing sackcloth and ashes— and then they were sent into exile from the church, to be in exile with God. They were sent out with the expectation that they would be restored. The exile was 40 days and was called their “quarantine,” which is Latin for forty. Soon it became common for those close to the one receiving ashes to also receive ashes in solidarity and to express that we are all sinners. The church began encouraging all people to repent and fast for 40 days prior to Resurrection Sunday, and in 1050 the pope made it a requirement.

(The paragraph above paraphrases from Rod White’s “Intro to Lent” blog post, which can be found HERE)

After Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus quickly begins to tell his disciples that he would be killed by the powers that be in Jerusalem. And he very adamantly gets any idea of some victorious kingship out of their heads— even referring to Peter as Satan when he says that Jesus cannot be killed. Jesus goes on in this passage to state what is now a very famous line, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” 

The cross lays bear the worst of the world as it is. It lays bear systems of oppression; it lays bear the sin of even the most self righteous; it lays bear the suffering of those for whom a reminder of mortality is unnecessary; it lays bear the result of fear encountering love in the form of what is “other”; it lays bear the sin in its most violence expression. As we come to the season of Lent, what might it mean to bear our cross and see ourselves and our world as it is. To stand with the “serious sinner,” and to stand with those who know their mortality. To own our complacency and our fear and our violence and our sin. Not as “bad news” so we can get to the “good news” on Easter. But instead in the freedom of God’s love, to confess and step more into life— the abundant life that the way of Jesus invites us to live.