St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Lent 2, February 28, 2021 Canon Claude Schroeder.
Sermon on Mark 8. 31-38
The season of Lent, as we have been learning, was established in the early church as a period of preparation for the “Paschal Feast”, which we call Easter, that is the joyful victory celebration over sin, death, and the devil which Jesus accomplished through His suffering, death, and Resurrection. Lent was also a time when convents to the Christian faith were prepared for that moment when in Baptism they were marked out as followers of Jesus Christ, were united to Jesus in His death and Resurrection, sealed with the Holy Spirit, adopted into the family of God, and were made members of the Body of Christ. God willing, we will be celebrating Easter baptisms at St. Mary’s this year!
But who is this Jesus Christ, and what does it mean for us to follow Him? Our Gospel lesson today puts before us the centrality of the suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our understanding of who He is, and our life as Christians.
Our passage from Mark, Chapter 8, verse 31, picks up in the middle of a private conversation between Jesus and His disciples, where Jesus has just acknowledged that He is the Messiah, the anointed King through whom God will deliver His people. Our word “Christ” comes from the Greek word for the Hebrew words Messiah, and means ‘the anointed one.”
So far so good.
We believe that Jesus is the Christ. This is the basic confession of Christian faith.
But what kind of Messiah is Jesus? What does His Messiahship entail?
This is where the plot the thickens.
Turns out what Jesus has in mind is not quite what Peter and the disciples have in mind.
And so, as Mark tells, “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.”
The heading for this passage in the Bible that I am looking at states, “Jesus foretells His death and resurrection.” But this misses the point. Jesus isn’t simply making a prediction of something in the future that is going to come true, proving that He who He said He is. Rather Jesus is teaching a truth about who He is that was difficult to accept and hard to understand. The verb form “began to teach” implies the start of a continuing action. Here Jesus begins for the first time to teach the truth concerning His Messiahship, a truth He will repeat three times. But everything that Jesus says and does from here on in to the end of the Gospel, is restatement and elaboration of this teaching 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.”
Lest we forget, deny, or ignore it, this teaching concerning Jesus Christ has been preserved for us in the second article of the Apostles Creed which we recite every day twice day in Morning and Evening Prayer, and it is the teaching which we enact with bread and wine in the service of Holy Communion. As St. Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the Gospel, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast… (1 Cor.15.1-2).
Christian faith isn’t simply about believing God. Anybody can do that, and it’s no big deal. Christian faith concerns the suffering, the rejection, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that is a big deal!
Well, it’s one thing to believe the teaching, and quite another thing to understand it.
St. Augustine, the great 4th century teacher of the Christian faith coined the Latin phrase, “crede ut intelligas” when translated into English means, “believe that you may understand.” For St. Augustine, faith comes first, and brings with it a constant desire for deeper understanding.
St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, wrote something similar. He coined the phrase, much loved by Anglicans, “faith seeking understanding.” For Anselm, we do not understand in order to believe, rather we believe in order to understand, and in understanding come to have joy!” In a prayer which St. Anselm wrote, we read, “I pray thee, O God, let me know thee and love thee that I might rejoice in thee.” Understanding the teaching is part of the joy of Easter.
Well, if this morning you find yourself scratching your head at this teaching that Jesus gave, take heart, you are not alone! I have been preaching this for almost 30 years, and am still, in some ways, trying to figure it out!
Mark tells us that when Peter heard it, he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. The verb is the same one used when Jesus silences the demons. Shut up! Be quiet! But turning and looking at his disciples, and seeing the look of agreement on their faces, Jesus rebuked Peter, “No! You be quiet! And then took the rebuke to a whole new level, when he said, “ Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things.”
We often find ourselves in arguments with others having to “agree to disagree.” But what is happening here between Jesus and Peter is no gentlemanly disagreement. Mark dramatizes a life and death collision between the divine and the demonic.
So what was so bad, so satanic about what Peter said? We are accustomed to attributing violence, hatred, murder, and destruction to the influence of Satan, and rightly so. But here we have another working definition. Satan is whoever and whatever wants to get between Jesus and His Cross, and by extension, Satan is whatever and whoever wants to get between us and our Cross. It was by means of the Cross that Jesus triumphed over Satan, sin, and death, and there is no sharing in that victory without the taking up of our cross.
What is it that gets between Jesus and His Cross, and between us and our Cross? Here we want to recall the diabolical temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness: the temptation of comfort and pleasure, (“turn these stones into bread”), the temptation of safety and security, (“throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and let the angels catch you”), and the most seductive temptation of all, power and control (“I give you all the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the earth”). It would have been so easy for Jesus say, “I’ll do it!” “Give to me!” and thereby eliminate all human suffering.
We live in world that seems to think that all suffering is by definition something bad, and to be gotten rid of, whatever the moral cost. We have now arrived at a point in our culture where we find it perfectly acceptable and legal that a person should be able to ask their doctor to help them kill themselves.
And then we get the question, “How can all loving and all powerful God allow suffering?”
Ever heard that one?
Anglican theologian Sam Wells writes, “In most cases our faith (and he is speaking about Christians) is based on an assumption that if there is a God, God’s job is to fix human problems, ameliorate existence, and arrange benefits. In other words, that God is a piece of technology whose role it is improve your life (like the latest version of that smart phone we carry around with us 24/7). He goes on to write, “It’s an utterly human centered arrangement. A narcissistic faith. Not really faith at all: more the demand to honour a contract we never actually made – a contract by which we agreed to be born and God agreed to do the rest. We treat God like a government we voted for but then reneged on it’ s election promises. When was that election again? Who among us chose to be born? At what point did we enter into a deal with God? On what grounds do we expect better of life that we find it gives us? What gives us the presumption to treat God like this?” (1)
All of which is to say it would seem that Satan has us in His grip, because we are “setting our minds not on divine things but on human things.”
Turns out suffering, rejection, and death are not nearly as much of a problem for God, as it is for us. In fact, if Jesus’ teaching here is to be believed, then suffering, rejection, and death is where God does His best work. Why does Jesus need to suffer, be rejected and killed? God’s purpose is not to eliminate suffering, rejection, and death, but rather to work in it, through it, and ultimately, to fill it with Himself. God has come in the person of His Son Jesus Christ to fill our sin with His forgiveness, to fill our emptiness with His Spirit, fill our poverty with his riches, fill our shame with His glory, and to fill our death with His life. The Church fathers spoke about God becoming what we are, so we might become what He is. The word we use for this infilling and this transformation of our lives is… Resurrection! This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is always with us and for us in the midst whatever agony we find ourselves in. And so our experience of suffering, far from being a pretext for rejecting God, becomes a reason to worship Him.
“We adore you, O Lord Jesus Christ, in this church and all the churches of the world,
and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” That was from a prayer by St. Francis that is now used in the devotional walk called, “The Stations of the Cross.”
Now, what about you, and what about me?
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
This word “follower,” thanks to social media, has taken on a whole new connotation in our culture. We follow people on Facebook, we follow them on Twitter, we follow them on Instagram. What earth does that mean? To be a follower here means that we have become fans, or rather consumers of whatever it is the person we are following is offering, namely a distraction from our boredom, which we can either “like” or “dislike.”
I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus had in mind when he said, “If any want to be my followers…”
In our passage today, being a follower of Jesus Christ implies 3 things: self-denial, taking up our Cross, and losing your life for the sake of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
What is it mean for us to deny ourselves? Self-denial is more than just about “giving something for Lent”, like chocolates, or dessert. In self-denial, we make room for God and for others in our lives, where we willingly embrace suffering for the sake of others and not allow our feelings, especially those feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, despondency to govern our behavior. Feeling these feelings, and acknowledging their presence, we can set them aside. How do we go do this? Through the Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and giving alms, that is give away our money and our stuff. These are practices that nobody feels like doing at the time, but they are the practices which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, give birth to freedom and love. In Jesus’ words are we losing our life, we are letting go of our life. And the paradox and the joy is, when we do that, we save our life, which is the life of Jesus in us.
So what’s this about taking up your Cross? In Jesus’ day, the Cross was the preferred method the Romans used to publically torture and executive criminals and rebels. But in the Gospels, the suffering Jesus endured on the Cross, was not about the pain, but the shame and the humiliation. The evangelists don’t have much to say about the physically beating Jesus endured on the Cross, but they go into great detail about the verbal beating and assault, the mocking and ridicule He faced.
According to the rhyme we learned as children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But, we know the opposite is true. It’s the words and the names that are incredibly hurtful and create lasting wounds.
When Jesus calls on us to take up our Cross and follow Him, He is calling us to join Him in voluntarily embracing the experience of shame, vulnerability, exposure, weakness and fragility that belongs to being human, and in this experience to enter into communion with Him.
Because we have been made in the image of the Crucified God, with the potential for bearing His likeness, there isn’t a person walking the face of this earth who doesn’t have a Cross. Having a Cross is what it means to be human. It’s part of the human condition, and not simply a lifestyle choice or expression of religious feeling. And its why Jesus addressed the multitudes saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his Cross and follow me.” Jesus has planted His Cross in the Gethsemane of your life, and there is no use pretending it isn’t there. You can either drag it around behind you, and complain about it, or you can willingly lift it up, like a trophy, in union with Jesus, and follow Him.
And finally, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and Gospel will save it.” Again, Jesus is speaking about the universal human condition. People, as we have been reminded powerfully under COVID grow old, get sick, and die, and getting a vaccine isn’t going to change that. One way or another, we are all going to lose our lives. What to do? Hang on for as long as possible, and try and delay the inevitable? That is no way to live your life. By trying to preserve your life, you simply lose it.
So we need to find something worth losing this precious gift of life for. Jesus has promised us that in losing our lives for Him, and for the Gospel, we will save them. This where life is to be found.
There are far worse things in this world that suffering hardship. If, in the midst of hardship, you have communion with Jesus Christ through faith and trust in Him, it can still be well with your soul. By contrast, if things are going well, but there is no relationship, there’s no reason to rejoice.
Self-denial, taking up the Cross, losing your life for Jesus and His Gospel all takes courage to be sure, but holds out the promise of deep and abiding joy. And as we continue this week on our journey to Easter, may we, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12.2)