TEXTS: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Today’s Gospel passage, it seems to me, strikes to the core of what Lent is all about. When we enter the season of Lent, we talk about walking with Christ the road that leads eventually to His suffering, death and resurrection. As we walk this Lenten pathway, we are called to examine ourselves, to humble ourselves, and to basically ask ourselves what all this Christian faith business means to us and, by extension, what it means to the church. In today’s Gospel reading from the Common Lectionary Jesus lays the whole business out pretty clearly, saying to the disciples “this is what I am about” and “this is what you should be about”.
Now it would probably be a good idea to give a bit of context here before I dive too deeply into the passage itself. In the Gospel of Mark up until the eighth chapter (in which find todays passage), in other words through the entire first half of that gospel, Jesus’ ministry is concentrated in Galilee. To the point of today’s reading, there have been no trips to Jerusalem. Everything takes place around the Sea of Galilee except for a short excursion north into the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon. The only encounters that Jesus has with the powers of the capital and of the Jewish temple cult have been through surrogates, Pharisees and Scribes and Priests who have been sent from Jerusalem to Galilee to confront Jesus.
Immediately before today’s passage we find the well known story where Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is, and then who they say that he is. Peter speaks out boldly to say that Jesus is the Messiah. This point is very important, for it sets up Jesus’ statements to his disciples about his purpose and his future. We are told that Jesus speaks the same thing openly to others (Mark uses the term ‘crowd’) as well. So we move from Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah to Jesus saying, “OK, this is what that means. This is what being the messiah truly means for me and for you.
And what does being the Messiah of God, God’s very being, God incarnate mean? It doesn’t mean at all what most of that day and in that society thought that it would mean. Most people at that point, Jesus’ disciples and the crowds that followed after Jesus, thought that being the Messiah meant was that Jesus would use his divine powers, powers that they had already seen used, to free the people of Israel from the oppression of a foreign government (Rome) and the restoration the kingdom of Israel as it was in the time of King David – and more! What most people thought was that Israel would become a utopian dream-land where there would be no want of any kind, where everyone would have everything they needed, where each person respected her/his neighbor, and where no one would live in fear. What most people expected was some sort of fantasy Shangri-La existence where they would be ruled by a divine, all-powerful king who would use his divine powers to sweep away all threats, all disease, all hunger, all strife. They expected a man who would make his kingdom a recreation of the garden of Eden before the fall of humankind.
The picture that Jesus painted for those around him was just a little different. Instead of reigning as King over a utopian paradise, Jesus suggested that he would be offered up as the suffering servant proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah, a suffering servant that many people thought the Messiah would rectify and glorify. Instead of an eternal rule over Israel, Jesus offered an image of his rejection by earthly powers and his earthly death. And even more troubling, instead of a Shangri-La for his followers where everyone lived in peace, love and a general state of earthly ease, Jesus offered a vision for his followers of fates similar to his; struggle, rejection, suffering and even death.
Can you even begin imagine what a head-spinning moment that would have been in the minds of his disciples and of his followers there in Galilee? It would be as if a saint of the church, a good and gracious person, who advocated for all people, who spoke in love in a way that was so charismatic that people flocked to hear him or her, were to proclaim that he/she were running for the office of president of the United States. Then, at the height of a campaign against an opposing candidate who was despicable to no end and who constantly threw unfounded charges up against your saint, your saint of a candidate suddenly proclaimed that he/she had chosen to drop out of the race and submit to all the unfounded charges of his/her opponent, and to take whatever punishment the opposition saw fit without putting up any defense of his/her position and character at all. In such case, if you were an advisor to that saint of a candidate, would you not take him/her aside and say “what in sam-hill you think you doing?!” (Which is exactly what Peter did with Jesus.)
Our sinful nature, our all too human instinct seldom calls us to submit, but rather to fight. Our Social grounding, our nation’s economic system, our very human fabric is all about winning, overpowering, vanquishing both friend and foe. Oh sure we sometimes sprinkle our competitions with gracious statements about the talents of our opponents and about how we just want to be the best that we can be, but for the vast majority of competitors in any sport and in life in general what we are really all about is winning, getting ahead of the “other”, outshining even those of our own team. We don’t give out World Series or Superbowl “best team player” trophies. No, we give trophies and even new cars to the “most valuable player”, because it is far more important to us that there be a “most”. And the adage that gives me chills in our current economy, but which many and maybe even most our society relishes in (if allowed speak it or even admit it silently to themselves is, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”
When we feel that our livelihood is being threatened or, heaven forbid, that our very lives night be threatened, the majority of talk and we hear, as in recent days, seems to be around what kind of superior force, what kind of superior threat we can put forth preemptively to deter the threat against us. In the same manner, what most Jews in the time of Jesus looked for in a Messiah I believe was someone who would lead a rebellion, an insurrection against Rome and against any other power that would threaten to oppress the people of Judah. What Jerusalem wanted was a bully big enough to be able to threaten the existing bully in Rome.
Jesus had shown the people the power of the divine, the power of God Almighty; a superhuman power, power beyond even the forces of nature. Surely this man, this amazing prophet of God, when the time came to establish himself, could use that same power, that power that fed, that healed, that calmed storms, that drove out demons. Surely this prophet of God, when push came to shove, when the time came to proclaim himself to the world as the Messiah of the Jews, could use that same divine connection to defeat armies and to drive out oppressive regimes. But Jesus made it clear, to his closest friends and to the crowds of people that tagged after him like children tagging after the Pied Piper that this was not his calling nor his intent.
What the people of Galilee, what Jesus’ closest disciples, and even what many to this day just can’t seem to grasp is that the game for Jesus was and is so much bigger than political power or social stability, so much bigger than reestablishing Judah as the promised land of God, so much bigger than a descendant of a long ago king once more sitting upon a throne in Jerusalem. In fact the game that Jesus was about was and is bigger than life itself and bigger than death which ends all earthly life. Jesus proclaimed to his disciples that must be rejected, must suffer, that he must die AND that on the third day he would rise again. And Jesus made it perfectly clear to those who followed after him that if they shared with him in his way of life, which might just include rejection, suffering and death that they too could rise again.
And that my friends is why we are gathered here today. We are gathered here to worship the one who made that statement, because we believe in that amazing claim death itself cannot win if we are playing on team Jesus. And we need not even be better than the person next to us or even better than the opposing team members; because it isn’t a contest, but rather a promise, a covenant promise from the one true son of the one true God of heaven and earth.
Let us then take up the cross of Christ. Let us conduct ourselves as a people of promise, knowing that by doing so we have already conquered, we have already won the victory that is there for all who proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the one true God. Amen.