Sunday 28 February 2021: Lent 2
It’s going to be tough!
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
Context: an older congregation in a Norfolk Country town
Aim: to remind the congregation that following Jesus is not an easy ride
Today’s Lectionary starts with Abraham, ‘human father of all nations,’ and a reminder of the enormous debt we owe to Judaism. In a pagan world of many gods Abraham was open to the One Creator and came into a covenant relationship with him. And Judaism was born, to be a chosen people through whom all the world would be blessed. Later the guiding principles of the Law were given through Moses. By the time Jesus came on the scene, Judaism was well established and minutely organised. But God had been privatised and the bit about the world side-lined. There must have been many who did maintain that loving relationship with God, but it seems the powerful hierarchy were more interested in administering the Law, which had tended to smother relationship.
I wonder when Jesus started his ministry whether he hoped that the theologians would recognise him? But he quickly realised that this was not going to happen. They already had their pattern for Messiah. Although implicit in some prophetic writings, particularly those relating to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, Jesus’s revolutionary understanding of power was in direct opposition to the human understanding of power. So, we come to the heart of the matter: the Power of Love versus the love of power. In the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel Peter’s recognition of Jesus’s Messiahship was wonderful, but he had his own understanding of what that involved, and it certainly did not include getting crucified. Jesus’s reaction to Peter’s rebuke surely echoes his Temptations which were all about human ideas of power, and which he had rejected, choosing instead to make Love work.
It requires only a superficial knowledge of Church history to realise that the Church down the centuries has been far more in tune with Peter’s ideas than with those of Jesus. But there have always been people who have understood, often at great cost, and got it right. Today’s painful Gospel reading shows Jesus being devastatingly honest: God’s Kingdom of Love comes at a terrible cost. He uses the ghastly image of carrying your cross to make his point. We are so familiar with the crucifixion story that we brush over its barbarous brutality. Jesus is being clear-eyed and facing facts. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is that it was not the pagan power of Rome but the religious elite – the good Church people of Jesus’s day – who manipulated a foreign death sentence to get rid of the one person who had demonstrated how their God wanted his chosen people to live. The original ‘relationship’ of Covenant Love and trust had got lost in a power-driven legalism.
The shaky Little Rock of Peter’s Faith foreshadows the story of the Church. But we are also the heirs of his misunderstanding. His faith was rightly placed in Jesus, who was and is the true Rock, the Cornerstone on which the Kingdom is built. ‘Christ is made the sure foundation.’ We shuffle along, wanting to do things the Jesus way but still clinging to our trust in the world’s accepted pathways to power.
There are innumerable examples of people who have risked the Jesus way, often involving great suffering. But one which reached the world stage must be the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison, I think many expected a blood bath. Instead, with Bishop Desmond Tutu, a new thing happened. Hitherto violent enemies were facing each other, saying sorry for atrocities, and offering forgiveness; and things were able to move forward for a little while. It can be done, but Jesus’s stark message is still that it is costly.
Last year’s pandemic thrust the Church out of buildings and comfort zones. New ways have emerged. We are out in the marketplace with power-mongers, fake news, commerce. But the message is the same: the Kingdom for which we are made is not built on the love of power but on the Power of Love. Stories of love in action emerge often from non-Christian sources. The Spirit works where there are those who let her. There are Scribes and Pharisees alive and well in the Church today who are far more interested in ticking boxes than in risking the Jesus way. There are many who have been badly hurt by Church people.
God works through people who are willing to let love in. Whether or not they are signed-up Christians doesn’t seem to bother God. Perhaps there will be some surprises in heaven as new arrivals exclaim, ‘Was it you all the time and I didn’t realise?’
In the meantime, thank God for the Church, Christ’s body on earth; and thank God that, in spite of all our mistakes, the world belongs to God and our job as his family is to bear the family likeness.
You take the stuff of chaos, fear and dread
And make a path that we must bravely tread
And follow where your gracious footsteps lead
To share the work to meet each other’s need.
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