Sunday 12 September 2021
Trinity 15, Twenty-fourth in Ordinary time, Proper 19
The universal and costly call of Christ
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 8:27-38
Context: a Eucharistic service in a small rural village parish church, with a largely white, adult, middle-class congregation.
Aim: to explore our identity in Jesus and what discipleship demands of us.
Questions around identity are not uncommon nowadays, whether it be gender identity, racial or sexual identity and so on. The question ‘who am I?’ is one many of us may wrestle with. Some are very sure of who they are, and others have crises of identity. Some struggle to find their place in a world where the cult of the individual, celebrity status and self-promotion on social media platforms, are becoming increasingly celebrated and normalised. However, in the gospel reading appointed for today, Jesus encourages a quite different approach – one of self-denial and personal sacrifice for his sake.
SERVANTHOOD AND SUFFERING
The themes of servanthood and suffering connect our Old Testament and Gospel readings. The third of Isaiah’s servant songs speaks of one whose fidelity and trust in God does not falter despite their experience of rejection and suffering. The song is often interpreted as foretelling the coming of another suffering servant, Jesus Christ, and all that he would experience by way of rejection, humiliation, and pain.
When Jesus poses the question to the disciples ‘who do people say that I am?’ he does not do so in a vain or narcissistic way as some might in order to receive recognition or glory, but rather, he was gauging whether or not the disciples had grasped the full measure of who he was, so that he might spell out to them what the true nature of discipleship would be. As we know, taking up our cross and following Jesus means being unashamed of our Christian identity and being Christ-like in all things, even when that can be costly. Peter’s ‘confession’ or ‘declaration’ gives rise to another typically Markan example of the ‘messianic secret’, where Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone who he is, keeping his identity concealed until the appropriate time comes when his glory would be revealed.
We know that for some, elements of their identity cannot be concealed and because of this, simply being who they are, proves costly. Racism, misogyny, and ableism are some particular crosses borne by so many and we’ve witnessed in the past two years heightened tensions in society concerning some of these particular forms of prejudice. Listening to the voices of those who have been and continue to be subjected to such oppression and intolerance, it has become clear that the church is often complicit in perpetuating these divisions. It has frequently not protected victims or campaigned for equality as it ought to have done, allowing their suffering to continue mostly by silence and inaction.
With the instruction to take up our cross and follow him, Jesus is calling us to imitate him. The taking up of our cross is a metaphor for the Christian life, which, lived out authentically and faithfully will demand a lot of us; in fact, it will demand our all. One notable demand is that we place ourselves alongside the suffering and the oppressed, reaching out to them in love and challenging injustice. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd in the gospel reading was general and not exclusive, reminding us that in Christ all are equal.
Setting our mind on divine things means seeing the world as he does. The kingdom of God is universal and so for as long as we permit oppression and discrimination to exist, our prayer that his kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven cannot fully be realised but by his grace and power. Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant asserts, ‘let us stand up together’ (Is. 50:8), how then are we challenged today to ‘stand up together’ with those who suffer unjustly because of their God-given identity? In what ways might Jesus be calling us to use our voice and our will to challenge prejudice?
Truly embracing who we are in Christ, letting go of selfish ambition and desires, and setting our mind on heavenly things, is a call to uncompromising fidelity to Christ and his command to love God and neighbour. This includes a radical love without limits and the relentless pursuit of justice, freedom, and peace for all God’s children, without exception.
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