Theme(s): Self-denial / Taking up the cross / Following Jesus / Faith
Sentence: No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God (Romans 4:20).
Servant God, grant us opportunity
give us willingness
to serve you day by day;
that what we do
and how we bear each other's burdens,
may be our sacrifice to you. Amen.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
As best I can tell this reading is connected to the gospel reading via the epistle reading! The epistle reading talks of what Jesus has done for us by dying and rising again (see the first verses of the gospel reading where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection). It also talks about 'inheriting the world' (Romans 4:13) which connects with Jesus' own talk about gaining or losing the world (Mark 8:33-37).
But the epistle reading also talks about Abraham and his faith that against the odds his aged wife would bear a son who would begin the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham that through him and Sarah they would beget a great and flourishing nation. In these verses God restates his promise to Abraham re a great inheritance (verses 1-7) and Abraham is shown in verses 16-17 to not believe God!
Jesus himself cited Psalm 22 while dying on the cross (verse 1) and he may in fact have recited the whole psalm. In these verses praise is given to the Lord on the other side (so to speak) of the affliction suffered in the first part of the psalm. In that way the psalm connects to Jesus' prediction in Mark 8:31 that he will suffer, die and rise again.
In context this passage is part of Paul's unfolding argument to the Romans concerning the righteousness of God, who receives it and how. In verse 13 Paul characterises the situation in terms of inheritance: 'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.' The phrase 'inherit the world' connects this epistle to the gospel and reference there to 'gain the whole world' (Mark 8:36). But connections can also be made in respect of the purpose of Jesus dying and rising from the dead.
In the context of today's set of Lent 2 readings we might read this passage as a commentary on Jesus' teaching on discipleship in Mark 8:31-38. From that perspective this passage makes the point that 'faith' is the key to inheriting the present and future blessing God has for us. Abraham exemplifies the faithful disciple who trusts God for what is promised but which is not yet seen. When Jesus teaches that denying self and taking up one's cross in order to follow him means a willingness to lose life in order to gain life, implicitly disciples of Jesus must be people of unwavering (Romans 4:20) faith.
Jesus is still in Galilee but he is seeing the cross ahead of him in Jerusalem. After the triumphs of healings, deliverances and feeding miracles, it must have been a shock to the disciples when Jesus began teaching them 'that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ... and be killed'. We can readily imagine that after that triad they did not really comprehend 'and after three days rise again' (31).
Having confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (29), Peter could not more clearly demonstrate that he had no idea what kind of Messiah Jesus was than his blurted rebuke (32). Jesus calls him out by highlighting his false understanding through addressing him as 'Satan' (33). Ouch! Jesus then goes on to carefully clarify what is wrong: Peter is thinking 'human things' rather than 'divine things' (33).
What Jesus then goes on to say, notably to 'the crowd with his disciples' (34) explains what 'divine things' versus 'human things' mean for every day living: a different kind of Messiah has different kind of followers from the Messiah Peter has in mind.
In summary Jesus says that the suffering he will undergo will be the suffering his followers undergo. Through history this has proven to be the case as Christians have been martyred for their faith. As I write many Christians around the world are troubled by the story of 21 Coptic Christians martyred in the last week or so for their faith by ISIS on a beach in Libya.
Our question reading what Jesus says is a question not only about how we might conduct ourselves through the demanding season of Lent but also how we will conduct ourselves through the demanding years of life itself!
When Jesus says "If any want to become my followers" (34), he is laying it on the line. He might have said, "Do you really understand what it means to be my followers? Let me lay it on the line for you, unvarnished, raw and robust!"
What is laid on the line is this:
"let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (34).
A first reflection is to connect this back to the 'divine things' of verse 33: if we are serious about God then we cannot live life as we please but must live to please God and in that living be open to the whole life of God filling out lives. Thus the cost of that fullness of divine life is that we deny self, that is, open the whole of our lives to God. Yet here on earth, living the divine life, as Jesus is doing, is not to enjoy the applause of the world but its fear and antagonism which may lead literally to a cross and metaphorically leads to living as ones willing at any time to die for Christ.
A second reflection is provided by Jesus himself in verses 35-37. Very few people are willing to die for no return. Human nature looks for value in exchange for value: life is valuable so why deny self and be prepared to be crucified?
This is Jesus' answer:
"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"
Note that Jesus' characterises the possibilities of loss and gain in following him in a way which actually makes the non-follower liable to lose more than the follower!
But what do we make of these words? Our world is weighted towards the importance of this earthly life, exemplified by the desire of most people to live as long as possible, eagerly embracing every advance in medical treatment to prolong life. In living that longer life we then find ourselves attempting to live the fullest life possible, exemplified by the desire of many people to travel far and wide to experience as much of the variety of life on earth as we can absorb. Is it now harder than in Jesus' own day to contemplate that the best life is yet to be, is to be found by travelling to the other side of death and not to the other side of the planet?
Questions such as these take on an edge when we read the last verse of the passage. Jesus envisages what most of us try not to think about: a day of reckoning 'when he comes in the glory of the Father and with the holy angels' (38b). On that day what will be revealed about ourselves? Will we be among those who are 'ashamed of [Jesus] and [his] words'?