1 March 2015
Second Sunday in Lent
Lent 2B (RCL)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
I have no doubt that I have preached a sermon (or two) on this passage, in which I’ve said something like, “We’re lucky to live in a time and place where we won’t be asked to die for our faith.” After learning of the deaths of the 21 martyrs of Lybia, I don’t think I’ll be so glib anymore. It isn’t happening here quite like this, but Christianity is becoming more and more a counter cultural movement in Europe, and the assumption of a cultural Christian background no longer holds in the US the way it used to do. So, what does it mean to take up one’s cross?
This episode follows immediately on the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus then begins to teach a new lesson. Puzzlingly, in Mark, Jesus begins to teach that the Son of Man (which could easily be translated “the human being”) must suffer many things and condemned by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again. Jesus seems to speak of the Son of Man in the third person. Who is this Son of Man? We typically read this as if it were Jesus. At the end of this little episode, however, Jesus again seems to put some distance between himself and the Son of Man. Whoever is ashamed of Jesus in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one the Son of Man will be ashamed whenever he should come in the glory of his Father with his holy angels.
The Son of Man appears most often in the Christian Old Testament in the book of Ezekiel, where it is the Spirit’s address to the prophet (Mortal). As such, it could possibly stand as a reference to the prophet as representative of the people, in the way the servant in Isaiah’s songs seems to refer both to the prophet and to the people whose suffering becomes redemptive for the world. If the son of man here is the eschatological figure of Daniel, conflated with the mortal of Ezekiel and the suffering servant of Isaiah, then Mark is creating a little space between Jesus as the Christ, and the eschatological fulfillment of redemptive history. That little space allows the reader to insert him or her self.
Mark clearly portrays the disciples as failing to understand Jesus’ true identity (epitomized in Peter’s denial). Only Mark’s community have unlocked the messianic secret. Jesus’ messiah-ship doesn’t look like Peter, James and John expected. When Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on human things, Mark is asking the reader to reconsider what kingship looks like. Jesus immediately turns to the crowds with his disciples. The crowd is us, the readers of the Gospel. We are given the opportunity to follow Jesus in a way that the disciples have failed. We are invited to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow. This is an invitation to eschew the triumphalism of the messianic expectation, and enter into a life in the midst of an imperfect reality.
This life involves the redefinition of the self, a leaving behind of the definitions offered by the world around us, by either Rome or Jerusalem. It involves a life on the way, carrying the cross, the burden of redemptive suffering on behalf of the world, just like the suffering servant of Isaiah (recall the voice at Jesus’ baptism — You are my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased: a voice that will be repeated in the episode of the Transfiguration immediately following this — This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him).
This life will be of infinite value in comparison to the values of the world: this sentence could be literally translated, “Indeed, what will be owed to a person who has profited the world, but suffered the loss of the soul? For what could a person give in exchange for the soul?” But to lose (spend) one’s soul in exchange for Jesus and the Gospel is salvation. This leaves open the definition of the Gospel, but defining that is the work in which Mark’s community (and ours) is engaged. Spending our life in that work is salvific.
The Old Testament reading and Paul’s interpretation of it give us some guidance for the performance of this work. God has called Abram out and Sarai out of their cultural context and into a new relationship with the divine. This is no longer the god of their natal people, but a God of undefined spaces. In giving this new covenant, God gives both Abraham and Sarah new names and new identities, and tells them they will be the ancestors of many nations, not just one. Paul interprets this to mean that they are the ancestors of the new people formed by baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, a people made of Jew and Gentile, in which the usual distinctions no longer hold. This people has been formed by God’s promise, not by adherence to a law which constitutes a limited identity.
This new identity must be dangerous to all other forms of identity, because it calls them into question. The New Martyrs of Libya threaten ISIS simply by their existence. As ISIS seeks to establish the caliphate that will usher in the new age, Christians envision a different future. Our existence in our own place questions the status quo. Of course, it is dangerous and uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. Jesus invites us to follow.