Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 1 March 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 17.1-7; Psalm 22. 23-31; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38
“And Jesus began to teach his disciples.” He has taught before – Mark tells us – and “as one with authority and not as their scribes” – that is he spoke with an authority which seemed to be his own rather than one derived from others, from the citing of precedents in other teachers. Why does he do so now? What does he teach them?
Now, he sees a particular and crucial need to teach. Our gospel passage breaks into the story at mid-point. So let’s remind ourselves of what we’ve missed. Mark’s Gospel centres around the question: “Who is Jesus?” Jesus himself has just asked the disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” After they have told him: “John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets,” Jesus directs the question to them: “But who do you say that I am.” Simon Peter responds, speaking on behalf of them all: “You are the Christ.” Jesus is the Messiah.
Those of us who are studying Bishop Rowan Williams’ introduction to St. Mark’s Gospel on Friday mornings in Lent, have been looking at the way in which Mark writes a “gospel’ – that is a public proclamation of good news – yet shows us Jesus telling people – those who have experienced or witnessed miracles – not to tell anyone. Surely this is no way to get a religious movement successfully underway? This is what biblical scholars have named the “Messianic Secret.”
So why does Jesus try to keep his identity as Messiah secret, even ordering his disciples not to tell anyone about what Peter has said? And why does he begin teaching the disciples about the suffering, death and resurrection which lie before him: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly?”
The need for both secrecy and teaching lies in the fact that the term “Messiah,” the anointed one, the Christ, would be misunderstood. For all the differences in the pictures of the Messiah anticipated by Jews at that time, they shared a hope of triumph. Somehow, the Messiah would win victories, defeat Israel’s enemies and restore her greatness. The idea of a suffering Messiah was radically new.
The common people and the members of the religious establishment are not the only ones who find Jesus’ teachings unpalatable. So do the disciples and Peter, who speaks for them again.
Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to “rebuke” him. “Rebuke” is a strong word, the one Jesus uses against the demons. It’s as if Peter thinks Jesus is possessed; that he must be mad. In the space of four verses Peter moves from proclaiming Jesus as Messiah to forcefully correcting him.
In turn, Jesus “rebukes” Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” The mention of Satan echoes the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted, (as we are) to think that God’s anointed can avoid suffering, rejection and death; that God’s rule means power without pain, glory without humiliation. This is Peter’s human way of thinking. Jesus, overcoming this temptation, identifies it as of the devil.
Jesus’ rebuke reminds Peter where disciples belong. “Behind me” (v.33) and “after me” (v.34) are identical in Gk. Disciples are not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus, they are to follow him. Peter’s misunderstanding of the way of God is so deep that it is Satanic. He is told forcefully that the disciple’s place is “behind” the master, not in front; following, not taking charge.
Jesus could not allow himself to be proclaimed Messiah, until he had redefined it in terms of the Crucifixion. The messianic king would be seen not as a political military liberator but as a suffering servant. In speaking of forthcoming passion, he declares his freedom to define himself, and to redefine Messiah in terms of himself. This shows how great a shift in understanding Jesus demands of disciples then and now.
This talk of the passion is not just an informed guess about the likely fate of a preacher seen as a potential threat to the establishment. Jesus must suffer because his understanding of the will of God runs counter to that of the religious authorities, members of the governing council, officiants in the community’s liturgical life, and authorized interpreters of scripture. It is not unlike the fate of investigate journalist and opposition politicians in Mr. Putin’s Russia; where opposition and questions are seen as treason rather than essentials of a healthy society.
But there is more here than political realism. The “must” of it, lies in the very nature of God. It is part of the divine plan because at the deepest level it corresponds to the being and nature of God who is self-giving love. This truth is so vital that Jesus will speak of his coming passion, not just this once but three times in all.
The flow of the text moves from asking,
“Who is Jesus?” (27-30)
“What does being Christ mean?”
“What does being a disciple of Christ mean?”
The invitation to follow Jesus is redefined in the shadow, or in the light, of the cross. As Peter and all the disciples are asked if they really want to follow him in the way, the invitation is extended to whoever in the multitude will hear.
Jesus needed to teach his disciples and hearers, and to persevere in teaching them this truth. His Church needs to go on being taught this lesson by him. Its preachers and teachers need to persevere both in learning and teaching it because, like Peter and the others, we continue to misunderstand.
Jesus does not tell us, “whoever would save his life will lose it: and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” to encourage a destructive self-hatred. As he says in John’s Gospel, he has come that we might have life and have it in abundance. But we find that abundant life in the giving of ourselves to others, not in making them our possessions.
“For what can it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” We give things up, in Lent or at other times, not so that we can acquire holiness as a possession, a source of spiritual pride, but so that we might learn that the giving of self is where our true humanity is to be found, because we are made in the image of the God who is self-giving love.
When Jesus’ hearers and Mark’s readers heard these words about the cross, they would know exactly what they meant. The cross was not a random form of suffering: it was the punishment those in power imposed on rebels and troublemakers who challenged the way things were. Jesus is not allowing us to label just any difficulty in life, illness, frustrated ambitions, disappointed hopes, difficult relatives or colleagues, our cross, our martyrdom. Just as Jesus’ ministry led him to a collision with the Roman authorities, the disciples and readers are warned to be prepared for the same sort of trouble, “for my sake and the gospel’s.” This is made all the clearer by Jesus’ warning about trying to save one’s life by denying him.
Nor is Jesus telling the abused and exploited, the impoverished and oppressed, those discriminated against because of their race or gender or sexuality, the enslaved and tortured, that this is the cross that they must bear in life. His teaching has been misused to justify all these cruelties and evils. And it has been used as an excuse by those who have witnessed such things but preferred their own comfort and security to doing or saying anything about them.
We hear much about martyrdom these days. Some of this is legitimate: the Coptic Christians murdered by members of the self-styled Islamic State in Libya; the members of the congregation of All Saints Church in Peshawar killed by a Taliban bomb.
But when the term martyr is used by those who do not follow the gospel of Christ, what Jesus says to his disciples has to be used in judging what is and is not martyrdom. He is not speaking in the way that the language of martyrdom is abused and distorted when it is applied by Islamic jihadists to suicide bombers and others who lose their lives while indiscriminatingly destroying those of others in pursuit of their cause.
The great Swiss Reformed theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, who was thrown out of his teaching post in Germany because of his opposition to Hitler, wrote: “One cannot try to be a martyr. One can only be ready to be made a martyr.” Seeking death is a form of pathology, not a way of following Jesus or serving God. We must simply do what is right, help those who need help, and stand up for the truth even when it is unpopular. Sometimes this will provoke anger and violence. We might lose popularity and friends, our job or our life. We cannot know in advance where standing up for the right will lead.
The Church has to go on teaching and living the way of the cross in new situations as well as old. It has had to expand its definition of martyrdom to include those killed for what seem to be political reasons. (That should hardly be a surprise, given the reasons for Christ’s death.)
Since Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, (whom the Church of England commemorates this month) was gunned down at the altar in 1982, to silence his protests against the violence, murder and torture practiced by a ruthless social elite intent on maintaining its power, he has been widely considered a martyr. But powerful voices in the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes with political axes to grind and a too-cosy relationship with the same powerful elites, have resisted this. They have done this on the grounds that he was killed for political reasons, not because of hatred for his Christian faith. The Vatican has now declared that he can indeed be considered a martyr because his killers, even if they were nominal catholics, were motivated by hatred of Christian teaching about justice.
While we must resist its application to those who take life, we might also wish to extend its use to those who do not specifically embrace the Christian faith, but who lose their lives because of their allegiance to values of truth and love, justice and peace, which we recognise as God-given; even if they do not. We may not be able to canonise them, but we can recognise that they died for humankind made in the image of God.