Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8:31-38

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

Then [Jesus] 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts,  be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Uncertainty is unsettling, and we’ve had a LOT of uncertainty lately. We’ve had constantly changing conditions and predictions concerning the pandemic, on top of a highly charged presidential election. Businesses are closing and laying people off. Churches and schools open, close, and go hybrid. How many times over the past year have we all wished for a crystal ball that would tell us what the world will be like in a year, a few months, or even in a few weeks?

According to a recent article by Ruth Graham of the New York Times, there has been a big surge in the popularity of prophecy among some Evangelical Christians. This is a role usually played in stories by gypsies, witches, people cursed by Greek Gods, and that one weird professor in Harry Potter. But even Harry Potter, while attending a school for wizardry, was skeptical of prophecy. Yet, some Christians in modern America look to pastors and other spiritual leaders to predict when the pandemic will end, who’s going to win the World Series, and when they will find love.

They are frequently disappointed, as these self-proclaimed “prophets” are seldom right. However, people continue to support them. Even when they get things wrong, followers stay loyal, hoping the next prophecy will prove true. A temporary feeling of certainty is so valuable that they give money to hear reassurances about the future.

One modern “prophet” described God like this: “[If his] phone is on the table and he mentions wanting to go on a cruise, for example, the phone ‘hears’ him and starts offering advertisements for cruises, he said. ‘God works the same way,’ he explained. ‘He’s listening to everything you say.’”

While it’s true that God is always listening and cares deeply about our prayers, God is not an automated service that caters to our desires like Siri or Alexa.

This week’s verses offer two visions of people who questioned God’s extravagant grace. God spoke to Abram, commanding name changes for him and his wife, and promising them an heir. 

Abram wondered how this could be! In Mark 8, Jesus gave a grim prediction of his suffering, rejection by the religious elite, death and resurrection, which would win freedom from sin and death. Peter rebuked Jesus for his words. In both cases, humans argued with God’s gracious future.

God told Abram that he would be a father of nations, that his name would no longer be “great father” (probably a name glorifying a member of the pantheon of gods that Abram’s father Terah worshiped). Instead, he would be Abraham, a father of nations. Likewise, Sarai’s idolatrous name was changed. Sarai means something like “My prince is …,” and her name ended with the name of a Babylonian deity. The Bible purposefully excised this part of Sarah’s name, most likely Sin the moon god, whose centers of worship were Ur and Haran. Instead, she was to be renamed “Princess” because she would be the mother of kings (Genesis 17:15-16).

This was all well and good, but Abraham was incredulous when God told him that he and Sarah would have a son. He laughed (Isaac means “he laughed”) at the thought of having a child at his advanced age with his elderly wife (17). Abraham suggested that his son Ishmael should be the center of God’s vision for the future (18). Because Abraham was God’s friend, God blessed Ishmael and made him the father of 12 nations, but the promise would go to Sarah’s son, who was to be named after Abraham’s incredulous laughter. This was a magnificent blessing for the old couple, but for the rest of their lives Isaac’s name would be a sort of soft rebuke of Abraham’s laughter at God’s promise.

Hundreds of years later, as Jesus described his suffering, death and resurrection, Peter responded with anything but laughter. As the senior disciple, he discreetly took Jesus aside and argued that this must not be so. 

Who of us, when a beloved teacher or mentor seems to falter and say things that are embarrassing or defeatist, would not seek to have a private word to encourage her or him? Jesus rebuked, in the sharpest terms, Peter’s understandably concerned words: “Get behind me, accuser. You are thinking humanly, instead of according to the divine will.” Jesus then proceeded to lecture the crowd gathered in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi about how human thinking would lead to death, but calculating according to the kingdom of heaven would lead to life.

Jesus’ critique of Peter was a single occasion. Peter’s name wasn’t changed to “accuser,” and he retained his role as the most senior disciple. Yet Peter seemed to work at cross-purposes with Jesus at least a few more times: fighting his arrest in Gethsemane and resisting the call to incorporate Cornelius into the kingdom (Acts 10). But Jesus understood, forgave and maintained the relationship with Peter, just as God had done earlier with Abraham.

We humans don’t usually enjoy difficult teachings like the ones that Jesus speaks about in this week’s gospel lesson. It’s our natural tendency to want comfortable and familiar faith experiences, to desire a savior who doesn’t require much of us in the way of sacrifice and suffering. Many of us turn to our faith communities seeking comfort, affirmation, validation, and blessing. We want a faith that fits us rather than a faith that requires us to step out in, well…faith. Some Christians here in the US even hasten to take up the language of persecution over simply being challenged or asked to look at faith through a broader and less homogeneous lens. Jesus’ words to his disciples and us this week invite us to consider the true cost of discipleship in this beautiful, broken world.

I’ll be honest with you: I have not suffered for my faith. I’ve perhaps been a bit inconvenienced on occasion, but I can go peacefully to worship and expect to return safely home. 

Even though violence is on the rise against worshiping communities with sources identifying somewhere between 91 and 617 fatalities within the last decade or so, most of us still feel safe within the walls of our faith communities and religious centers. The chances of encountering violence are pretty slim for American Christians. Yet Jesus understood the risk of opposing empire and the forces of violence and evil. He knew that he walked a lonely road to a violent death because of his countercultural teaching and witness, and he is trying to get his followers to understand the very real cost of discipleship. You may have to lose your life to gain it, he tells the crowds. Naturally, this is not a popular teaching, and Peter is the first to confront Jesus. He does so out of his own need and misplaced ideas about how things are supposed to happen. Peter is looking for his teacher to rise in glory to rule over Israel. He’s hanging on to his interpretation of prophecy and the needs of the day. Jesus sets Peter straight, and Peter will eventually be martyred for the faith.

Would you be willing to die for your faith? Would you be willing to put your life on the line to proclaim the gospel? Are you willing to speak truth to power, and are you willing to take potentially divisive or unpopular stances to bring attention and relief to those on the margins? If you answered an honest yes to any of these questions, then you place yourself squarely in the crosshairs of potential violence. 

You will find yourself in the company of those who make good trouble in the name of the Christ, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Emanuel Nine. 

You will also put yourself in the company of The Rev. Fabián Kreischer, a beloved pastor in the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida, vice president of the church, and pastor of Congregation San Pablo in Argentina. Rev. Kreischer, an openly gay man living with HIV, was an activist for the LGBTQIA community and those living with HIV. He was found brutally murdered in his home earlier this month.

Following the way of Jesus is not an easy skip down some yellow brick road. It is an invitation to deny oneself, take up the cross, and be willing to give up one’s life—most likely metaphorically but also perhaps quite literally. Jesus will lead us to uncomfortable and difficult places that may require a change of heart, mind, opinion, and perhaps theology. Are you willing to give up whatever privilege and status is necessary to follow the Christ? This is the question before us this Sunday. I wonder how we will answer.

I would be more than rich if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard these words of Jesus employed metaphorically. The term “bearing one’s cross” has been used to describe the annoyance of dealing with disagreeable co-workers, getting along with a bothersome neighbor, aches and pains that accompany old age, a streak of bad luck and just about every other uncomfortable or inconvenient circumstance one might encounter. I am not making light of these afflictions. Life deals some of us more than our share of tragic and undeserved body blows. Some of us bear up under those blows with grace, courage and dignity. Yet as admirable as that surely is, it isn’t the same as taking up the cross of Christ.

In the gospels, the cross is not a metaphor. It is the way in which Jesus actually died. Jesus’ death was not a tragic accident, a miscarriage of justice or even a noble sacrifice made in the service of a lofty principle or ideal. 

His death was the expected and, one might say, inevitable consequence of the life he lived. Jesus lived fully under the reign of God he proclaimed, a reign of bread, shelter and dignity for all, especially those regarded as “the least.” That life put him on a collision course with the reign of Caesar, the only Lord Rome recognized. All who claimed that title for Jesus risked bearing the cross Jesus bore-and not in any metaphorical sense.

Sadly and with the church’s blessing, the cross has become a benign symbol with no more content than a heart or a shamrock. Seeing it suspended on slim gold chains, adorned with jewels and worn with everything from dungarees to formal attire, one would never guess that the cross is actually an instrument of torture and execution. Can you imagine anyone wearing the replica of a hangman’s noose on a gold chain around their neck? To call that an exercise in extremely poor taste would be an understatement. Yet Jesus’s call is for his disciples not merely to wear the cross on their lapels, but to hang on it.

Our gospel lesson reminds us that we follow a Lord who was tried as a criminal, found guilty in a court of law and executed by state authorities. It was not criminals, terrorists or foreign enemies that killed Jesus. Jesus was prosecuted by religious people who thought they were doing their duty, sentenced to death by a Roman governor in the interest of preserving the peace and executed by soldiers who were merely following orders. Jesus spent his final hours in the company of two fellow convicts under the same sentence of death. These two anonymous death eligible convicts held the honor James and John so coveted, namely, being present at Jesus’ right and left at his coming in glory. The cross is what glory looks like in a sinful world.