For the sake of the Gospel
Sermon preached at Enmore, 2nd. Sunday in Lent, 25th. March 2018
Readings: Genesis 17. 1–7, 15–16; Romans 4.13–25; Mark 8.31–38.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This is the first of three predictions Jesus makes concerning his fate in Mark’s Gospel. But to understand why Jesus begins to teach about suffering at this point we need to take notice of what has just happened.
Mark 8.27 just a few verses before our Gospel reading is the turning point in this Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are passing through the villages of Caesarea Philippi, a thoroughly Hellenistic city, recently named after the Emperor and Philip, the brother of Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was the local Governor and the one who had removed John the Baptist’s head. The city had for a long time been a centre for the worship of pagan gods and was now a centre for worship of the Emperor. It is no accident that in this geographical location Jesus asks his disciples the questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and then follows it with, “Who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who responds with the bold reply, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” We know that Peter has given the right answer- we have read the first verse of Mark’s Gospel- “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.” But for the disciples this is an epiphany moment- many of them may have been thinking this was the case but none had dared to voice it before. To name Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher who had no place to call home and who challenged the authority of the religious leaders of the day, to name him the promised Messiah was to put oneself in a dangerous place. Jesus’ reaction is to command silence. No pat on the back, no ‘congratulations you have finally got it’; instead the command, “Don’t tell anyone about it.”
Why the secrecy? Before they can proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the disciples have to learn what kind of Messiah their master is. So Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and rejection. Mark tells us that he says this quite openly. We note the contrast between the open teaching about suffering and the private knowledge about the Messiah. Jesus could not allow himself to be proclaimed as Messiah until the term had been redefined. In the mind of the disciples and in the popular imagination, Messiah meant a king, a political liberator, a victorious leader who would drive out the Roman invaders and restore Israel to greatness. It certainly didn’t include an ignominious death on a Roman cross, taunted by his enemies. That is why Peter is so quick to rebuke Jesus- what Jesus is saying cannot be true; it must be the product of a disordered mind. The REB reads, “Peter took hold of Jesus and began to rebuke him” Peter’s rebuke is met by an even stronger rebuke from Jesus. The disciples have to learn a hard lesson. They have to take their concept of a Messiah and turn it on its head: suffering instead of splendour, apparent defeat instead of victory, humility instead of hubris.
The lesson then gets even more difficult. Jesus turns his attention to the crowd as well as his disciples and tells them what discipleship looks like. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If we find those words challenging then think what it must have been like for those first followers of Jesus. For us the cross means an attractive piece of jewellery worn around the neck, or a brass ornament in a church. For the first disciples of Jesus it meant an instrument of painful death. The Romans liked to keep crucified felons hanging on their cross in public display for all to see. It was a way of saying, ‘this is the fate of those who try to usurp the authority of Rome.’ To take up the cross was an invitation to follow Jesus regardless of the cost, to follow him even unto death. For many of Jesus’ first disciple taking up the cross would mean actual martyrdom.
We react against these words because we would all prefer a life that is comfortable and safe. And, it must also be acknowledged that these words of Jesus have at times been twisted to condone oppression, particularly of women and other dominated groups. Does your husband abuse you? Does your slave-owner beat you? Patiently endure it, Jesus wants you to take up your cross and lose your life for his sake. Interpreted in this way any sense that we must care for our own needs is in conflict with being a follower of Jesus. But this is to misinterpret Jesus’ words. The cross we are called to carry is a very specific one. It has nothing to do with the so called ‘little crosses we are called to bear.’ The cross of Christ is not a difficult family situation, a chronic illness, or a broken marriage, it is in the words of one writer, “the logically to be expected result of a moral clash with the political and religious powers ruling his society.” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus p.129) Jesus was calling for those willing to challenge oppression, to say to the ruling powers, there is only one Lord we will serve and Caesar is not him.
To go looking for suffering or persecution is not a way of following Jesus but a kind of pathology. But the history of the church shows that standing up for the truth of the Gospel can be costly. Martyrdom didn’t end in the fourth century when Constantine converted to Christianity. If you have visited Westminster Abbey you may have noticed the row of statues of twentieth century martyrs over the west entrance to the Abbey-it includes Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who took the place of a man condemned to death in Auschwitz Concentration camp, Archbishop Oscar Romeo, murdered in his Cathedral because he challenged the powers in El Salvador who were oppressing the poor, Archbishop Janani Luwum who stood up to the tyrant Idi Amin in Uganda, Martin Luther King assassinated for his leadership of the civil rights movement in the USA, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who challenged the Nazi regime. It also includes some lesser known martyrs like Esther John, a Pakistani nurse who converted to Christianity and devoted her life to care of the poor but was murdered by a fanatic…..all these were willing to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel. We can add to that list the many Coptic Christians recently killed in Egypt.
So why would anyone want to take up the challenge Jesus gave? Augustine gives us the answer when he wrote: “What the Lord enjoins does seem hard and grievous: that whoever will come after him must deny himself. But what he enjoins is not hard or grievous, since he aids us so that what he enjoins may be done. For whatsoever is hard in what he asks, love makes easy….. Consider what labours all lovers undergo and are not conscious of their labours; such people most feel labour when they are hindered from labour.” Paul, on one occasion, explained why he became a follower of Jesus with the words, ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’. We love him because he first loved us.
Those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus says, will save their lives. In the New Testament the word ‘save’ means more than a ticket to heaven it means to have wholeness and life in all its fullness both here and in eternity. Sadly, we are often tempted to turn away from following Christ for trivial passing things like wealth or power or reputation. One of the heroes of the faith we commemorate this week is Polycarp. In 155 A.D. Polycarp was arrested by Roman officials after having served as Bishop of Smyrna for many years. When the Roman proconsul ordered him to declare that ‘Caesar is Lord’ and to curse Christ, the elderly Polycarp refused saying: “Eighty-six years I have served him and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He was then sentenced to death by fire, but the eye witnesses reported that the flames stood like a wall around Polycarp and he was not burned, so the executioner had to draw his sword and kill him.
To be a follower of Jesus is to know that there are many things worth living for – we become part of a community of forgiven sinners who can be open and honest with each other – we don’t have to pretend because we are all equal recipients of God’s grace. But we also learn from our Lord that there are some things worth dying for. In this season of Lent, let us hear again the words of Jesus, ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.”