We are living in quite amazing times. Technology has gotten us to the point where we don’t have to leave the comfort of our home in order to connect with others, or to explore the world. Social networking often happens over the computer screen; the best seats in the house when watching sports these days arguably are in front of your TV. If you want to learn about the world, about people, about animal and plant life, you can either tune in to educational TV shows, or have pretty much all the information of the world at your fingertips over the internet.
We can travel, explore and connect virtually without moving an inch from our chair or couch. But that wasn’t always so. Just think a few decades back. In order to meet people, and in order to explore the world, one would have to hit the road, one would have to be on the move. Special encounters happened (and, for that matter, still happen) on the road. Thinking spiritually, God often was encountered on the move as well. Think of all the pilgrimages people of faith have made. There is a special spiritual dimension to being on the road, walking, praying, meditating.
I’ve never been on a real pilgrimage myself. The closest thing to a pilgrimage I’ve ever done was a 14 mile round trip hike in Wales, to the famed ruins of Tintern Abbey. Which was great. Especially because there are not always clearly marked hiking trails in Great Britain, but the path often leads through private lands and over cow and sheep pastures. I remember buying a small pamphlet with instructions at the beginning of this hike, and these instructions were not always 100% clear: ‘you’ll see a large rock on your left, turn right at that point’. Is this the large rock the pamphlet is talking about? ‘As you enter the cattle pasture, use the third stile to the right to exit and join the trail’. Did we count right? Is this the third stile?
We only got lost once, which, I think, is quite an accomplishment.
But I have to say that it was a special adventure to be on that particular hike. And we paid attention to things we otherwise would have missed.
To be on the move opens new horizons for us.
Is there anyone here who’s ever been on a pilgrimage?
There are not many Protestants who are keeping up this spiritual exercise. The few folks I know who’ve done it, like walking the ancient way of St. James in Northern Spain, or Camino de Santiago, tell me it was one of the most amazing and fulfilling things they’ve done in their lives.
The Reformation may never have happened if the father of the church we call the Lutheran, Martin Luther, hadn’t made a pilgrimage to Rome in his younger years. Luther was touched by the deep piety and faith of the pilgrims he encountered on the road, but at the same time appalled by the power politics and corruption of the church leadership in Rome.
The Apostle Paul, who at first was zealously persecuting the young Christian community, had his conversion, his turn-around moment, on the road to Damascus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize the risen Lord after spending a day on the road with him. On the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus doesn’t appear to his remaining 11 disciples first, who are cooped up in fear, but to the women who make the journey to the tomb. Case in point: if you look through the Bible, you will realize that God is often encountered on the road.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus and the disciples are on the road. Jesus usually talks about the real important stuff while being in motion. The three times Jesus announces his suffering and death to the 12, it happens while on the road. In fact, the third time and final time Jesus announces his death happens right before the scene of today’s gospel story. So this is the setting: as Jesus and the 12 are on their way to Jerusalem, and on the way to the cross, Jesus tells them: I have to suffer and die. And on the third day be raised from the dead.
Imagine being on the road with Jesus and hearing this. How would you feel? Disturbed? Awful? Would you maybe be in denial? Would you maybe want to turn around and get away from Jerusalem?
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, apparently only hear the part about Jesus being raised in glory. Unlike the rich man we heard about in last week’s gospel – the one who walks away sad when Jesus asks him to sell everything he has and to follow him -, they have given up everything to join Jesus. What’s the reward for that? And they ask Jesus: master, please do this one thing for us: let us sit next to you in your glory. To which Jesus basically replies, well, you will join me in my suffering and death, but to sit at my right and my left in glory is not something for you to request – or for me to grant.
Case closed? No. The other 10 disciples witness the request of James and John, and they become quite envious and angry, we hear. Hey, who do they think they are? Don’t we all deserve the honor of sitting next to Jesus – maybe even more than those two?
They are on the road, a road to suffering and death. And all they can think about is sitting in glory. But this is not a time to sit.
So Jesus calls them on it. It is not about glory, he says. It’s not about sitting down, finding your place, staying put and basking in the glory of God. It’s about service. It’s a about the journey. It’s about staying in motion. This is where you find and experience God.
Now is being on the road, traveling, always easy and enjoyable? No. Our car breaks down, flights are delayed, our luggage gets lost, we catch illnesses, and, and, and. Pilgrims, even modern ones, talk about blistered feet, being drenched by the rain, and exhaustion.
In the same way, it’s not always easy being on the road with Christ. Jesus talks about service, instead of being served, and that is not always easy. As the disciples on the road can attest. They long for a rest, they long for the reward of just sitting, preferably right next to Jesus.
But this is what being a follower of Christ is all about – to be on the road, to be on the move, and to serve those we encounter. We are reminded that we are on the way with Jesus. Jesus’ story, Jesus’ way, is our story and our way. Christ, as he came into the world, knew that this would not be a time to bask in the glory of his successes, but that instead he had to continuously go to the people, serve them, and bring the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. His life was a journey. The early Christians knew that, which is precisely why they called themselves, “the way.”
Do we understand ourselves as being on ‘the way’ today? I think we all long to be settled, to arrive, to rest from the journey – to be home. It’s the same with churches. We like our traditions, our buildings, all those things that give us a feeling of stability, a feeling of home in a fast-changing world.
The challenge – Christ’s challenge – for us today is to find a balance between being stable, being at home with God – and to heed the call for movement and service, the call to be on the way, to be ‘the way’. Maybe we could put it this way: because we have a home here, within God’s church, because we feel secure and nourished, because we know where and to whom we belong, and that nothing will ever change that, we can confidently be on our way, seeking new paths, going on an adventure of being on the road with Christ, serving those in need – and, along the way, experiencing things we’ve never experienced before, encountering people we’ve never encountered before, meeting God in places we never would have expected to meet God, having Christ to our left and to our right as we journey.
And the time we live in right now with all the challenges we encounter is not a time to sit down. We are on a journey – individually and as church. We are pilgrims through this life and into the next. It is a holy journey, we are stepping on holy ground wherever we go. Is being on the road, travel, always enjoyable? We already talked about that, no. However, in the footsteps of Christ and accompanied by the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that our journey will be blessed and bring us fulfillment beyond measure.
Picture by Luke Porter on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German