"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
One of my favorite images of following Jesus comes from the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas.
The carol is set on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, and a day traditionally designated for distributing alms to the poor as a witness and celebration of God’s incarnate love.
Wenceslas lived in the 10th century in Bavaria, rudimentary and wintry in every way on every December 26th.
Good King Wenceslas notices a poor beggar and asks his servant where the man lives. Learning that the man lives three or four miles away in the woods, the King orders meat, wine, and logs and with his page heads out on a mission of mercy through the deepening snow on a cold and windy night.
The page grows weary and tells the King he can go no further. To which the King replies, in the words composed by John Mason Neale,
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly." In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.”
Of course the message of the carol is that as the page literally walked in the footsteps of his master, so Wenceslas walked in the footsteps of his master, our Lord Jesus Christ.
And all Christians learn to walk the actual way of Christ by gathering together and doing what Jesus actually did. He gathered in synagogues on the Sabbath, so our Sunday gatherings are modeled after the pattern of worship in the synagogue.
He ordered his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. We keep that cross raised in plain sight to remind us that as he died to conquer sin and rose to new and unending life, we have each followed him, we have each died to sin through baptism, and we have each been raised to keep following him in newness of life.
Jesus took, blessed, broke, and shared bread and wine with his disciples, commanding them to proclaim his death until he comes again. So we gather around a table, use his same words, perform his same actions, and share bread and wine to proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes again.
And when the bishop lays hands on you at confirmation you can know that there is a procession of actual hands and actual feet following back to the actual hands and feet of Jesus and his first apostles.
So, walking the Way is not just a metaphor for Christian life. Christians literally walk in the way that Jesus walked just as that page walked in the very footsteps of Wenceslas.
We are rigorous about our faithfulness to the way because Jesus did not speak the word of God like a prophet. Jesus is the word of God made flesh, made human, the physical human presence of God.
It always sounds strange to speak of God’s physical human presence. No one ever sees or touches God. But we are physically present with God all the time. And the primary witness of the church is to Jesus as God made human being, human being made God.
St. Teresa of Avila puts the physical human presence of God like this: Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
St. Teresa doesn’t mean that you, individually, are Christ’s body. The pronouns we use in the Church are almost always plural. Remember this when you say the confession and hear the absolution. You are not confessing and receiving absolution for yourself alone, but as a member of a larger body. Remember it when you receive Holy Communion. When you receive Holy Communion you are not being fed as an individual alone, but as a member of a larger body. Remember it when you go wherever it is that your feet take you. You are not travelling alone, but as a member of a larger body.
Of course each person makes personal choices about how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Each disciple is drawn onto the way at a different time and place. Take notice: as Jesus draws us each onto his way he is drawing us together.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says you must lose your life to save your life. One way I understand this is that as we follow Jesus we are drawn together into a common life, a life lived no longer for ourselves alone, but for the whole body, with Jesus as the head.
So when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome and teach children, take God’s peace into places where God’s peace may not yet be fully realized, we are not doing this simply for others, nor are we doing it to prove ourselves worthy or good, we are doing it for the sake of our larger life in the one body we share in Christ. Because if some part of the body is hungry, or sick, or ignorant, or at war, the whole body is in need of nourishment, health, wisdom, peace.
These ideas are not new to Christianity. In the reading from Genesis we see that Abram and Sarai lose their lives, too. They become new people, Abraham and Sarah, who together have a new capacity to live and bring forth life, real life in Isaac their first born son. And beyond Isaac their life continues into a life including a multitude of nations, even ours.
Abraham and Sarah cannot be the physical parents of all the nations that call them Father and Mother. But by joining in covenant with God, Abraham and Sarah died to that singular, mortal, barren life and joined in the multitudinous, eternal, creative life that continues by God’s grace in and through the lives of all who join the covenant.
Just so, wherever your feet carry you, your feet carry Christ. His greatest desire is to be actively present in you in all the places you go, amongst all the people you touch: at work with a colleague, on your commute with a fellow traveler, amongst your neighbors, in your home at table with your family, wherever.
Christ is also calling you into many places you have not yet walked through other members of the church. Some of us must literally feed the hungry and bring good news to the poor, others must heal the sick, others strive vocally and actively for justice and peace, some visit the prisoner, others teach children, some welcome the stranger or befriend the lonely.
We do not each have to do everything. But we are all part of everything that is being done by Christ through us. As Walt Whitman observed, and as the Lord has promised, We are large, we contain multitudes.