Sermon for High Mass – 2nd Sunday of Lent Sunday 25 February 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38
“And he began to teach them.”
A good text for a preacher on any day; but especially today as it is the opening of the Gospel.
Jesus had been teaching before, of course, speaking in parables to the people about the kingdom of God. So what is different now?
Well, now he begins to teach his disciples about himself, “The Son of Man.”
The catalyst for this was their response to the questions he had put to them:
“What do people say about me?” They responded: “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then he asks them directly: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, speaking for them all, says: “You are the Christ – the Messiah.”
Jesus tells them immediately that they must say nothing about this to anyone. This seems a strange thing to do, although in line with things he had said earlier. The reason becomes clear in the succeeding passage, which we have just heard: in what he teaches them and in how they respond to it.
“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.”
This is the first of three predictions of his passion which Jesus will make in the second half of the Gospel. It is a pattern we find in all four of the Gospels and the repetition emphasizes the gravity of what is said.
“He said all this quite openly.” This was no parable which would need to be interpreted.
Peter’s response shows why Jesus had ordered them to tell no one: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
At one level, we might think this was just an expression of human concern for the welfare of a beloved master and friend. But Jesus’ public response to Peter’s private rebuke, and Mark’s reporting of it, make it clear that it is far more than that: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Addressing poor Peter – one minute the top of the class, the next the dunce – as “Satan,” sounds harsh, but it likens what Peter has been doing to the role of the tempter in the wilderness. Mark does not spell out that temptation as Matthew and Luke, but the implication is that it included the use of divine power for human ends.
Jesus’ stinging rebuke of Peter signifies the failure of the disciples to understand the nature of his ministry: what kind of Messiah he is; how radically different to the popular hopes and dreams of a warrior king, a new David, a national hero, who would lead a rebellion against the hated Roman overlords and their Jewish collaborators; who would re-establish a free Israelite kingdom.
Jesus’ rebuke to Peter: “Get behind me,” is an instruction to a disciple who had sought to rebuke, to instruct his master, his teacher. It was not yet Peter’s role to teach. That must wait until he had learned the lessons which Jesus will teach them on the journey to Jerusalem: lessons about himself and about what being his disciple means. For that to happen, Peter must resume his place as a follower of Jesus. His place, and that of all disciples, then and ever since, is behind Jesus, not in front of him.
The temptation to think of Jesus in human rather than divine terms is not confined to the twelve disciples and their contemporaries. In different forms it is always present. We all of us can take Jesus aside and make him conform to our idea of what God should be like. We can remake him in our own image. We can remake him suit our needs; keeping the comforting aspects and smoothing off the angular, awkward, challenging and disturbing ones. So, what Jesus says to Peter, he says to us all. We all have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” We all have to find the answer to that question in what Jesus teaches by word and action.
This is made clear when Jesus draws into his audience, not just the disciples but the crowds. They too can be his disciples, as can we, but this must be on his terms and not on ours: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
We are so used to the language of the cross, in prayers and sermons and hymns, that we can miss how appalling, how disgusting, how shocking, this must have sounded to people then. They knew what crucifixion meant. They had probably seen it for themselves, or at least heard about if from those who had. It was a deliberately public form of execution; one meant to hammer home as brutally and forcefully as the nailed based through the wrists and ankles of its victims, the message that this was where rebellion against Rome would lead.
The culture in which Jesus and his contemporaries lived was one in which ideas of shame and honour, of public reputation, were vitally important. Crucifixion was deliberately intended to inflict disgrace, humiliation and shame upon its victims. Herded through the streets to the place of their execution, jeered at by the crowds a public execution attracts, hung up for all to see, they would be stripped of both their clothing and the last shreds of human dignity. They would be de-humanized and shamed. Perhaps the clearest parallel in our day is the mass use of rape as a weapon of war; a demonstration of power over the powerless; the infliction of shame and dishonour.
To the Romans, this was a punishment reserved for slaves and rebels. It was thought so degrading and de-humanizing that Roman citizens were exempt from it. For Jews, to die hanging on a tree was, according to Deuteronomy, a mark of God’s curse. As Paul would later write, and we will hear in next Sunday’s epistle: to preach a crucified Christ would be a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1.23).
As a recruiting slogan for a new movement, taking up the cross and following Jesus hardly sounds a winner. There was every reason to avoid the shame of being associated with Jesus.
Mark wrote for a community for which the cross, persecution, was a real possibility – as it is for many of our brothers and sisters in some parts of the world today – not just the remote and unlikely one is seems for us. But even for those who do not suffer persecution, the call to discipleship is one to follow Jesus in the giving of life and love. It is one patterned for us in the Eucharist which celebrates the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice into which we are drawn in the offering of our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice.
When we set our minds on human things, we want to save our lives not lose them, but as Jesus says to the disciples: “…what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their lives? Indeed, what can they give in return for life?” What he says to them, he says to us.
In a generation whose default position is to regard religion as the preserve of the feeble-minded or the bigoted – and in which some religious people seem set on proving both to be true – there is ample opportunity to be ashamed of Jesus and his words; to maintain a discreet silence about our faith in polite, or even impolite company.
As we hear the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ passion read in Holy Week, we will meet Peter again. This time he will be protesting his undying loyalty to Jesus: “Even though all become deserters, I will not…Even though I must die for you, I will not deny you.” Yet, standing around the fire in the High Priest’s courtyard, he is so afraid, so ashamed of being associated with Jesus in his hour of trail that three times he denies knowing him at all.
How many times have we, have I, done the same? Have we even heard the cock crow and wept for our denials?
In Mark’s account, our passage comes shortly after Jesus heals a blind man (Mark 8.22-26). After taking him aside and anointing him, he asks him, “Can you see anything?” The man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Jesus then “laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
Mark portrays the disciples as a dim lot, unseeing, uncomprehending. They need to be taught the same lesson over and over again, until they see clearly, and we are no different. We need to hear the message of the cross over and over again, so that looking at intently, we might see clearly.
That is why we must come together, Sunday-by-Sunday, to listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, to preachers fulfilling their duty to teach us, to celebrate the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice.
At the end of the section of Mark’s Gospel which brings Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem, we meet another blind man, Bartimaeus, who calls out to Jesus for mercy. The crowds try to silence this noisy nuisance, but Jesus overrules them. He asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” He says: “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way;” the “way” which is not just the road to Jerusalem, but the road of discipleship, the way of the cross (Mark 10. 46-end).
So then, our prayer to the one who teaches us, as we go through this Lent, and through life, is that we might see, and that seeing, we might follow him on that way.