Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38
It’s become routinely observed recently that what we need this Lent is a little different to previous years; that, in a context where hardships and deprivations are already upon us, we don’t need Lenten disciplines to pile on any more. That may be the case, but if so, we still come up against the hard rock of today’s gospel, with Jesus telling his disciples: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ What sense do we make of that injunction to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, in these times of pandemic, and anxiety?
The exchange recorded in Mark’s Gospel follows on from Jesus asking the disciples, Who do you say that I am? That is the question that has rung out through two thousand years of Christian discipleship. And still today, particularly today, we all, individually and collectively, need to find, and live out, an answer to the question that Christ poses afresh again every time we hear this crucial gospel passage – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is a question that brings into focus what we hold dear, what we think life is for, what we should do, and what Christ and God have to do with that: Who do you say that I am?
If we think that is an easy question to answer, then our gospel reading should make us pause. Peter, after all, in his instinctive, initial response has got it right – has named Jesus as Messiah. In the passage we heard, however, Peter is now disputing with Jesus what that exactly means, Peter rebukes Jesus for the hard road he seems committed to. The vehemence of Jesus’ reply – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ – illustrates that Peter has touched a raw nerve, given voice to a real temptation that Jesus pushes aside. We heard last week Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert; there is no full account in Mark of the temptations, and perhaps that’s because the temptations aren’t all confined to the desert but meet Jesus on the road, in his disciples’ expectations and desires. Peter’s initial answer to the question Jesus poses, has rejoiced in Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save them, make everything right, bring in the kingdom Jesus proclaims and lives out. Who do you say that I am? You’re the one who’s going to make everything alright. But to this naming, this expectation, Jesus’ response is blunt and to the point: he orders the disciples to keep silent and instead outlines the suffering and rejection that await him. Here is the scandal at the heart of Christianity and surely we find Jesus’ words as bewildering and perplexing as the first disciples. A bright horizon is suddenly darkened. We are confronted with the most disturbing fact of the gospels: that Jesus knows and accepts, even desires, the way that leads to the cross. From this moment on, Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem and toward the death that awaits him. Others may take his life, but he gives it.
And so, our answer to the question of who we say Christ is, has to make sense of that way of the cross, and of the fact that he calls us to do likewise: ‘”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
Perhaps the story of Abraham and Sarah, our forbears in faith, that we heard a little of in our Old Testament reading, can shed some light. Last week we heard of God’s covenant proclaimed to Noah, a covenant with all people, and all living things, the whole created earth. Now that covenant finds its focus in this elderly couple – Abram has been promised that his offspring will be blessed, and bring blessing to the whole world, and yet that promise seems under threat; Abram’s family line is dribbling out, the promise that has sustained his wanderings appears to be at an end. Abram does have Ishmael, the son born of a surrogate mother, and old, almost cynical Abram is preparing to let this Ishmael be his rightful and only heir, because there is no other on the horizon, or even possible: he is old, Sarai his wife is old. But God has more faith, more confidence, more resilience in the possible future – our OT reading is about the renewal of God’s promise. And inexplicably, the yearned for baby arrives – defying reason, common sense, explanation. The covenant is renewed in the miracle of new life, God’s creative action, in the the birth of Isaac. And at this moment of renewal, Abraham and Sarah are renamed and thrown into responses of wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. It is that response which defines Abraham and Sarah, and their family after them called to bless the earth – the covenant is renewed and faithfulness is understood as faith in God’s creative action, faith in God’s ability to do a surprising thing. And we can only respond in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. That is the gift of faith bequeathed by Abraham to his descendants, including us – the gift of faith in God whose promise bursts anew in surprising ways, disrupting our jaded cynicism, world weariness, our anxiety about the future.
And in Jesus, we see the ultimate human response to the promise and power of that covenant – an obedience to the call of God when it seems to the outside world, and even to his disciples, to make no sense. In Jesus we see a complete and utter trust, faith, that that covenantal relationship will see him through suffering and even death. Reason and sense protests – we desire something more straightforward, a God who will simply remove our suffering – a providential doctor in the sky who can alleviate our pain, make everything better. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jesus is no sugar-daddy however: not a God who removes our pain and suffering, but one who shoulders it alongside us, heals and redeems it by acts of costly, creative love, and so transforms the world. God’s power is revealed not as the power to zap things right, coercing the world into happiness, but the vulnerable and yet unstoppable power of being, of continually bringing into existence, of life in the place of death, of resurrection life in the place of suffering and death.
So who is Jesus for us, in this time of pandemic, of weariness and anxiety? The answer to that question needs, as ever, to reckon with the cross, to walk the way of the cross, but we do so by trusting with our whole being in God’s promised covenantal relationship. A covenant renewed in Christ, a covenant with God whose surprising grace is inexhaustible. That renewed faith will make us, like Abraham and Sarah, start in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter – realities that subvert our cynical or world weary responses, responses that so often masquerade as common sense or ‘just the way the world is.’ Faith is felt more deeply when our world is under stress, but the truth is also revealed that faith in God begins to make sense of the senselessness of suffering. The root of the word ‘suffer’ means to bear, to carry. This pandemic reveals more sharply than ever that life is characterised by suffering in that sense, by the bearing and carrying of people and situations, of one another. To walk the way of the cross in faith is refuse the illusion that we can throw off that suffering, that bearing – that somehow the bearing of others is not at the heart of our human existence. To walk the way of the cross in faith is to face that suffering, that bearing of the world; trusting that through the power of God’s covenantal love, that ‘suffering’, that bearing of one another, becomes the place of surprising resurrection. Amen.