St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

For the sake of the Gospel

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.”

Philip Brad­ford