25 February 2018
Second Sunday in Lent
Lent 2B (RCL)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
What the editors of the lectionary choose to leave out as much as what they choose to leave in always puzzles me. In the missing verses of the passage from Genesis, God gives the covenant mark of circumcision. This is a new aspect of the covenant, and so carries some importance. Paul will make much of it in his reading of the Abrahamic covenants. Also, in Mark’s Gospel, the editors chose to leave off the verses at the beginning, in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, which frames the whole paragraph that follows.
Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Anointed, the Christ, a messianic figure, but Jesus dodges the title (at least in Mark’s Gospel – in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commends Peter and tells him that flesh and blood has not revealed this to him – but not in Mark). Jesus instead immediately begins to talk about the future of the Son of Man, a figure not necessarily equivalent to the Christ. And that this Son of Man just suffer and die is certainly not very Christ-like. So Peter begins to scold Jesus.
Jesus responds by scolding Peter and saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” Ouch. So, Jesus then begins to teach his disciples and the crowds about the requirements of discipleship. Those who want to follow Jesus must take up their cross and follow him. It is not clear whether this was an expression in use before Mark coined it or not. However, since the time of the NT, it has become a metaphorical expression for almost any burden and suffering (think the Allman Brothers song, “That’s just not my cross to bear”). The image, however, is striking – a disciple carrying the cross-beam along the way.
Jesus goes on to say, Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for his sake and the gospel’s will save them. The word for life in this sentence is psyche, often translated soul, but means something like life in the sense of personal integrity and identity, as well as life in the sense of being alive. Mark is the only Gospel to include “for the sake of the gospel” in this sentence. It raises the question of what Mark might mean by losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel (or better, on the gospel’s account).
The next sentences use the language of commerce: Indeed, what will be owed a person who profits by the whole cosmos, but suffers the loss of (or is fined) his or her soul; and what would a person give in exchange for his or her soul. That language of commerce seems especially appropriate in our current political moment. We have made salvation about having stuff (think of the bumper sticker – The one who dies with the most toys wins — wins what, I wonder). Politicians spend most of their time raising money, and so are likely to listen most to the person with the deepest pocket; but if they sell their soul in the process, what then?
Paul uses the covenant with Abraham to talk about God doing amazing things from seeming impossible places. How can Abraham, over a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (that’s what the Greek says) know the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would be the parents of many nations? For Paul, the gathering of this great progeny happens through Abraham’s faithfulness and through grace, rather than through the law (a complex concept in Paul’s reasoning). The vindication, the righteousness, the standing of this people is through faithfulness rather than observance of identity given through the law.
Paul sees that God can call into existence things that are not, and give life to things that have no life. God can call a people where there was no people. I think we are seeing this in the teenagers brought together by this latest tragedy. Where our usual legislative and social institutions are powerless, God has called together a new people through faithfulness.
What does it mean to take up one’s cross, for the sake of the gospel? I don’t think it means to suffer a burden without complaint, as if cancer or an abusive marriage or whatever it is were one’s cross to bear. It means to follow Jesus in the work of redeeming the world. To stand against the deadly systems of injustice and Empire may require that we give up our comfortable lives and take a stand. To settle in to compromise, even if it buys us comfort and security, may require our souls from us, and that’s a price too high.