Sermon: Lent 2, 25 February 2018, Dr Ruth Shatford, St Alban’s

ST ALBAN’S EPPING.  2nd SUNDAY IN LENT, 25th FEBRUARY 2018

Genesis 17:1-7 & 15-16;   Psalm 22: 24—32;  Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

This is the year of Mark.  In his introduction to the gospel last week, Fr Paul pointed out that Mark, the shortest gospel, doesn’t touch on Jesus’ early life, but dives straight into the narrative of his ministry.  In a little prayer guide to St Mark’s gospel, the Jesuit writer Mark Link quotes:  “Mark’s gospel is the shortest and most action-packed… The absence of many words leaves us freer to enjoy the person and action of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that we should stop after each event and ask ourselves   “What does Jesus do?”.  Then we should ask ourselves “How do the words of Jesus clarify the meaning of his action – or how do they help us to discover the meaning for ourselves?”.

Our gospel reading today is located virtually right in the middle of Mark’s gospel.  For seven plus chapters, Mark has recounted episodes in Jesus’ ministry.  The title “Christ” has not appeared, “Christ” being the Greek rendering of the Hebrew title – not a name, but a title – “Messiah”.  Some astute readers may have seen a foreshadowing of the death that awaits Jesus, when they look at his baptism, the opposition that springs up here and there against him and John the Baptist’s grisly execution.  But overall, there has been no clear indication of the death that is to come.

Earlier in chapter 8, there is a most extraordinary exchange between Jesus and his disciples. It occurs in a pretty out of the way place, near Caesarea Philippi, that is, the Caesarea in Philip’s jurisdiction rather than Herod’s, once the outer limit of Israel’s northern district.  It was a long way from the Galilee region that was mainly the territory in which Jesus moved around teaching.  It was a town whose earlier name indicated it had been a great centre of the worship of the pagan god Baal- a name forbidden to God’s people.  It was commonly believed that up a nearby hill in a cave, was born Pan, the Greek god of nature and that this was also the source of the Jordan River.  A little further up, but within view, was a gleaming white marble temple, built on the order of Philip, in honour of Caesar, the Roman Emperor, the ruler of the world, regarded as a god.  There, against a background of so many religions, Jesus had suddenly, surprisingly, asked his friends “Who do people say that I am?”.

The answers were not surprising- “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and still others, one of the prophets.”.    Many people believed that Elijah, who had been “taken up” from their forebears in a fiery chariot, and had not passed through death, would return to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Others thought perhaps this Jesus was one of the prophets, or John the Baptist come back to life and returned among them.  In view of the traditions, these were all quite understandable, sensible answers.

Then the question got harder…”but who do you say that I am?”  Peter, without hesitation says “You are the Christ.”   The Jews had dreamt for generations of a messiah who would arise, another king of David’s line, who would make the nation great in righteousness and power. The sacred texts from between the Old and New Testaments that mention the Christ, do not paint a very Jesus-like picture of the one who was to come.  The Jews had constantly faced humiliation and defeat.  First, the ten tribes had been carried off to Assyria, lost to them forever.  Then the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jews away captive.  Then came the Persians, followed by the Greeks and now, the Romans to subjugate them.  For centuries, they had not known freedom or independence, let alone supremacy and dominion.

These intertestamental books were meant to be tellings of the future.  Collectively, some of these writings are called the Apocrypha, meaning “unveilings”.  They foreshadowed that the physical and moral order would first collapse.  Then when the messiah came, he would be the most destructive conqueror in history, smashing his enemies into extinction.  The Jews who were dispersed would be gathered together in the New Jerusalem.   From this grim picture over which the Jews would rejoice, it was expected there would follow a new age of peace and goodness that would last forever.

The one who was to come is portrayed as the uniquely anointed, divinely authorised deliverer who was expected to purify the Jewish society, re-establish Israel’s pre-eminence among the nations and usher in a new era of peace and holiness.

It was against this background understanding, against the mindset that the disciples had grown up with, that Peter answered Jesus’ closer-to-home question “But who do you say I am?”..

In full view of the splendid palace on the hill that declared Caesar to be a god, Peter answers Jesus, “You are God’s anointed one.”.

It is indeed a dramatic moment and a powerful assertion.
How confusing then for Peter and the other disciples to be told not to reveal this to anyone.  How shattered they must have been where our gospel reading begins today, to be told by Jesus what his fate was to be.  Now this man, this messiah, is foretelling his own death.  Peter must be struggling to reconcile the majestic, powerful figure that was in his mind from the time he could first remember learning the faith, with his friend, the itinerant preacher, whom Peter had just recognised or we could even say “revealed” as the messiah.  A little further on in this gospel, there are other occasions when Jesus speaks about himself as the suffering Son of Man.  In chapter 9, he tells them that the Son of Man is going to be betrayed and killed and after three days will rise again.  The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask.  Then in chapter 10, Jesus says to them that he would be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, spat on, flogged and killed before rising again after three days.   And still the disciples become preoccupied with something quite different.  In the first episode, they fall into an argument as to which of them would be the greatest.  In the second, James and John approach him and say they want Jesus to do for them whatever they asked.  And then they specified that they wanted to sit one either side of him in glory.  They just did not get it!

In our reading today, Jesus must have appalled his friends by saying so bluntly that the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by all the people of power and influence and must be killed.  And he was very emphatic about it – the gospel writer emphasises that Jesus taught this to his friends and says he kept saying it plainly.

Almost seeming to forget who Jesus is, Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him”.  And it was not just a quiet word in Jesus’ ear! The word used for rebuked is a very strong word.  Jesus really shuts Peter down using the word that is used elsewhere in Mark to silence unclean spirits and savage forces.  Everything that Jesus describes in verse 31, his suffering, rejection and being put to death, would appear to disqualify him from being the Messiah that Peter knows about, and Peter wants to straighten him out.

Peter had the title for Jesus right, but had the meaning wrong. 

Peter has to learn that not only does Jesus’ identity include being the Messiah, a different kind of messiah, but it includes his eventual death and resurrection.   And Jesus’ identity will finally, and for all time, and into eternity, be defined by those events.

So Jesus embarks on recasting who the Christ is and what he will do. Jesus is calling his followers to an alternative model of being.   We are being challenged to want something different – to be generous, giving of ourselves, even when it means suffering.  We are called to merge our being and will with God’s being and will, caring for others in the way of discipleship.  Many of us will have wrestled with what it means to deny ourselves.  I remember as a young person finding it helpful when a preacher pointed out that the call is not to deny ourselves something that, dare I say, could be quite trivial, such as chocolate in Lent.  It is to deny ourselves.  Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but self-redefinition.  We may have in the past denied or ignored the life of the Spirit within that seeks to manifest itself through us in compassion and generosity of being.  We are called on to let God rework us so that we more closely conform to God’s image.

Rather than speaking abstractly about this, when Jesus speaks about his fate, he starts making public statements to people at large about following him.   He addresses not only his disciples, but also the crowd, inviting any who want, to follow him.  Jesus is not so much about gathering pupils and making sure that everyone understands him fully.  Rather he is calling followers to join him and grow in his way.  He calls us to separate ourselves from what has defined us unhelpfully– what we have allowed to define us – and to embrace new understandings of our identity, just as Peter had to learn a new understanding around the identity of Jesus.   “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

After I had completed the first draft of this sermon and tried to wrestle with this concept, I went to the funeral of a friend at St James’ Kings St, a most beautiful and comforting liturgy.  After the Christian symbols were placed on the coffin, instead of their being read, a small choir sang the funeral sentences set to music at the beginning of the 18thcentury by William Croft.  “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet, shall he live.”, from John’s gospel chapter 2.  And from Job 19, “After my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”.

It suddenly struck me that these two verses were also conundrums of our faith- riddles that cannot easily be solved.  How can you be dead and yet live?  How can you see God in your flesh when worms have destroyed your body?   While we catch some fleeting sense of what this might mean, we need to ride with the mystery of our faith and trust in God for both the present and the future, to live with the ambiguity and the tension that we cannot fully understand or resolve.  I say again, we are called to merge our being and will into God’s.   As followers of Jesus, we join a community where members are defined by our association with Jesus, our following of him.  Self-denial is not self-annihilation but rather self-redefinition.  We are called on as we follow Jesus, to take on an identity and a way of living that will pose threats to the world’s corrosive and loveless ideologies and idolatries and we do so, knowing  the consequences will not always necessarily be comfortable.

Jesus was helping his disciples to begin to understand that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor our ways his ways.  It was imperative that they understand this so that they did not miss the point of Jesus’ ministry, that he took on our flesh ultimately to give his life for our salvation.  Jesus came to serve, not to be served.  While his ways are not our ways, he invites us to follow him and learn his ways, to give ourselves to our ways becoming his ways.  In our redefinition, our priorities need to be re-ordered to be in harmony with the two great commandments, love God and love our neighbour.

In our reading from Genesis this morning, our father Abraham is bidden to walk before the Lord and be blameless.  God says “I will confirm my covenant between me and you.  I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant.”

Paul in our reading from Romans 4, picks up again the promise to Abraham and to all who are of the faith of Abraham, that because of our faith, God will credit us with righteousness.  The gift of faith is given to us and then in God’s immense love and generosity, we are credited with righteousness.  We are thus enabled to deny ourselves, and losing our life for the gospel, will save it.

And in Psalm 22 read this morning, more familiar to our Good Friday ears, we hear “he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one.”  Rather, God has honoured that suffering unto death and raised Jesus again.

The faith we are called on to exercise in our following of Jesus, is a way of being that will make itself evident in the way we live our lives.  It involves cognitive belief and understanding, but also and perhaps moreso, a commitment to an on-going relationship with God, expressed in involvement in the life and work of God in the world.  As we join in following Jesus, we are committed to taking our stand on the side of God, not of human ways of thinking.  As we do this, we come to realise that nothing in this world is worth exchanging for our very centre, the self claimed by the gospel and accountable to God.

Jesus says to us,” Who do you say that I am?”  And if, with Peter, we say “The Christ!”, we move on from here, denying ourselves, following Jesus and letting him redefine and reshape us as we die to self and live to him.