Sunday, March 1, 2015

Second in Lent

Mark 8: 31-38

Grace and peace this morning, as we move on through the first days of this Lent—Holy Week and Easter still a good distance ahead, and we have miles to go.  In the context of any of our Lenten disciplines, a good word is to pace ourselves.  We’re in it for the long run.

The lectionary has us bouncing all around with Mark’s gospel over these past weeks.  We had several pre-Lenten Sundays in chapter one, the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry.  Then two weeks ago, on the Sunday before Lent, we skipped ahead to the ninth chapter, the Transfiguration, the pivot and turning point on the road to Jerusalem.  Last week we boomeranged back to the first chapter for the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness, and now today we skip ahead again, this time to the eighth chapter, a passage that is in some way the prelude to the Transfiguration story, certainly beginning to set the stage for the journey toward Holy Week.

Jesus and his disciples are on the road, preaching healing, casting out evil spirits, with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes--proclaiming by word and action with authority that God’s Kingdom is right now in their presence breaking into this world.  Then they come to Caesarea Philippi, and the famous exchange and moment of focus that we traditionally call the Confession of Peter.  In chapter 8 verse 27 Jesus asks, “what are people saying about me?  Who do they say I am?”  And the disciples respond that some think he’s like John the Baptist back from the dead.  Others think he’s a prophet, like one of those in the ancient days of scripture.  Elijah or Elisha.  Jesus then turns and with a certain intensity puts the disciples themselves on the hot seat:  “well, how about you?  You’ve been with me all this time.  You’ve seen what is happening every day.  You’ve heard me preach.  You’ve gone out yourselves as my emissaries.  Now, what do you have to say about me?  In your opinion, how would you describe what’s going on here.  Knowing what you know, who do you say that I am?”  And of course Peter famously blurts out all at once the critical affirmation: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.”  God himself returning to his Temple, as foretold in Scripture.   And Jesus seems to pause and nod.  And then, almost quietly, he tells them not to let this kind of talk get out into public.  It’s not time yet.

Then we come to the passage we’ve read this morning, beginning in verse 31.  Jesus starts to tell Peter and the others just what all this is really going to mean for him and for them.  Unfolding the story.  That the Enthronement of God in his Temple Israel was not to be without the greatest cost.  The greatest cost.  The hammer and nails of Good Friday echo in a real and frightening way in the distance.  And we hear Peter’s objection: Don’t talk like that, Jesus!  And Jesus in his reply.  “Get behind me.” 

On the first Sunday in Lent last week we were in the Wilderness with Jesus, and here his power and clarity of purpose in the context of Temptation comes forward once again.   We remember essentially the same words from the account of the Temptations in Matthew and Luke.  “Get behind me, Satan.”  And perhaps we feel in this moment a hint of foreshadowing of the turmoil that would burst to the surface in Mark 14, on Gethsemane in the night before Good Friday, as Jesus himself would begin to pray, “Let this cup pass from me,” but then, “Not my will, but thine.”  Jesus needs them to know that there is no “Plan B.”  No easy way out, once they get in.

And then the second part of this reading.  Jesus steps back from the private conversation with his friends to address the crowd.  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Jesus told the disciples to be silent about this, but now he himself declares his destiny to the crowd.  “If you would follow me, you’ll need to pick up a cross of your own, and come along and die with me.”  Here not simply a metaphor. Not like saying “we all have our own crosses to bear.”  This is literal, not metaphoric.   The crowds must know more or less what lies ahead for Jesus.  They had seen it all with John the Baptist, of course.  What happens when your path crosses the way of the Romans and their collaborators.  We perhaps hear the echo of the Prayer of St. Francis, “It is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, in dying that we are born to eternal life.” 

Applications here for us as individuals, as a church—and for the whole Christian family.  I referenced a couple of weeks ago the famous quotation from the C.S. Lewis “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”—the character Mr. Beaver speaking about Aslan, the great Lion, when one of the children asks, “is he a tame?”  No, not tame.  “Good, but not tame.”  Just to think about how often in our own personal lives and in our church we seem to prefer the tame to the good.

So let me in the context share a few sentences from Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.  I remember reading this when I was in college and something of a new Christian or at least new in my sense of myself as a Christian—and just what a strong impact they made on me.  Especially as I thought about Bonhoeffer’s biography.  Famous young theologian, comfortably situated in a professorship in the United States, then choosing to go back into Germany just as war was beginning in Europe to risk his life in service of the underground church.  An image something like the picture of firefighters running into a burning skyscraper while everybody else is streaming out.  Finally of course his death in the concentration camp in the very last days of the war, on account of his support of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. 

“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” 

Follow Jesus into Jerusalem, and the odds are that when he is arrested you will be arrested, and that when he dies you will die.  I can’t help but think of the cost exacted from those Coptic Christians in Libya and then the villages of Assyrian Christians in Northern Iraq as they fell into the hands of the Islamic State group.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to see any of videos, but I understand that for a number of them it was the name of Jesus that they shouted out as they were murdered.  Like a time machine back to the first century and the martyrs of Rome.

In any event it makes me think about my little Lenten disciplines in a different way.  What I would call “modest austerities.”  Or about all the little moments, places where I’ve cut corners, chosen the easy way rather than the way the seems most in his direction.  Swimming in the shallow end of the pool.  Walking the way of Jesus, but somehow missing some of the steeper parts of the path.  In the book we’ve been reading for our Inquirers Class this spring Rowan Williams talks about how we might understand our own baptism as an immersion into Christ’s death that connects us to and immerses us forever in the pain and suffering and sorrow of our neighbors.

How that applies to each of us is of course something we need to sort through for ourselves.  But the invitation in the reading is certainly here to suggest that if we’re going to have that conversation with ourselves, perhaps this Lent is exactly the time to do so.     This reversal.  That his way of suffering becomes the way of life for us and for the world.  “It is in giving that we receive, in forgiving that we are forgiven, in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

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