Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sunday 13 September 2015 - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Suffering and Vindication / Cost of Discipleship / Taming the Tongue

Sentence: For what will it profit to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? (Mark 8:36)


Holy and eternal God,'
Give us such trust in your sure purpose,
That we measure our lives
Not by what we have done or failed to do,
But by our faithfulness to you. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38


Isaiah 50:4-9a

Just as Jesus, in the gospel reading, looks ahead to his suffering at the hands of those who will kill him, so the prophet looks to a time of humiliation at the hands of his persecutors. But later the first Christian writers, reporting to us the suffering of Jesus, will be influenced in their accounts by recollection of these words.

Isaiah 50:4-11 constitutes the so-called 'third servant song', songs with messianic themes which directly or indirectly shape both Jesus' own conception of his purpose and identity and the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, a suffering Messiah rather than a militant Messiah.

Psalm 116:1-9

We read this psalm in conjunction with Jesus' predictions - in our gospel reading - of his death (verses 1-7) and resurrection (verses 8-9).

What prayers of ours have been answered so that we want to exclaim 'I love the Lord ... because he inclined his ear to me'? (1-2)

James 3:1-12

We can all get this passage because we all know the damage the tongue causes. Perhaps our caustic tongue has caused damage (I know mine has). Perhaps we have been hurt by the acidic words of another's tongue. It needn't be our enemy, it might be our closest friend or colleague who hurts us with an ill-chosen word, or perhaps even with a well-chosen word but delivered thoughtlessly and without tact. It never does any Christian or any Christian congregation any harm to be reminded to control the tongue, to speak well of and to others and to never forget the power of the tongue, for evil and for good.

What is of interest as we reflect on the passage are a few matters we might rush by.

3:1 challenges all of us who claim to be or who are contemplating being teachers. But we should not let the raw fact that we teachers will be judged 'with greater stricture.' That just makes our task more challenging.

3:2 To what does 'For all of us make many mistakes' refer? Is it a new topic? Does it connect back to teachers (i.e. saying to them, don't worry when you do make a mistake)?

3:2-5 involves a fascinating segue from mistakes to bridles to rudders to rudders being 'very small' to another very small thing, the tongue.

3:11-12 raises but does not quite see through an important point. Can anything be done about 'the spring' in our lives? The general answer of the New Testament is 'Yes' and the fuller answer is the indwelling of the Spirit of life makes for a well of life-giving water to flow out of us. But James leaves us to work all that out. Does he not know of the power of the Spirit or does he know of it but wants us to do the work of recalling that power and realising that we need a fresh in-filling of the Spirit?

Mark 8:27-38

We jump past the Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10) which is sort of a repeat of the Feeding of the Five Thousand but crucially occurs in Gentile territory, so Mark telling this story is saying something about the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. We also jump past another dialogue with the Pharisees and an associated dialogue between Jesus and the disciples about the Pharisees and Herod, related to the two feedings (8:11-21). Finally, we are also skipping past the healing of a blind man in 8:22-26. That healing is significant: it is paired with a second such healing in 10:46-52 and the two physical healings of blindness may be contrasted with the spiritual blindness of the disciples in the intervening passages, starting with today's passage, in which Peter is blind to the deepest truth about who Jesus is. At best, like a stage in the healing of the blind man in the preceding verses, Peter is partially sighted.

Verses 27-33 are intensely Christological: "Who do people say that I am?" Jesus asks (27). Verses 34-38 are among the deepest verses we can ever read on discipleship (not just self-denying discipleship but dying to self discipleship). Yet together these verses tell us much about Jesus (who he is in relation to God but also who he is in relation to us, as the One who asks of us to give up our very lives) and much about discipleship (flawed, partially sighted followers asked to give everything, including life itself). The phrase 'on the way' (27) is a clue that this story is about discipleship as much as about Christology.

The initial answers the disciples give to the question Jesus poses are similar to what we have already read in 6:14-16. The disciples readily report what is the range of popular estimations of who Jesus is.
Pointedly Jesus asks 'But who do you say that I am?' Only Peter steps up to the theological plate and bats out the answer, 'You are the Messiah' (29).

Verse 30 is then both familiar and intriguing. Familiar because we have already seen the motif of the Messianic Secret in Mark's Gospel (e.g. last week at 7:36). Intriguing because you might think that 'on the way' to Jerusalem it might be now time to tell the world the truth about Jesus. Why not?

The answer to that question comes in the next few verses. 'Messiah' was a term redolent with nostalgia for the days of great King David and fervency for a new David-like king in warrior mode who would sweep Herod and the Romans before him. The disciples are not to tell people about Jesus being the Messiah because they will take that to mean one thing and one thing only. Jesus the Messiah is of a different calibre and in verses 31-33 he sets out to calibrate the disciples thinking to his way of self-understanding. He will be the suffering Messiah not the warring Messiah. His victory will be over the enemy of death and not over merely human opponents.

But Jesus does not make all this easy for us, nor (as we shall soon see) for his disciples. 'Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering ...' (31) Say who? Why does Jesus discontinue reference to 'Messiah' and replace it with 'Son of Man'? (Already introduced in Mark 2:10).

In part we do not know why, because we argue among ourselves as to what this enigmatic phrase (is it a title, as our capital letters in English signify?) means. But in another part we can reasonably propose that the phrase/title invokes a famous vision, Daniel 7: 13, especially when we notice the end of verse 38.

In this vision in Daniel, an enigmatic figure 'one like a son of man' is presented to the Most High in the context both of the suffering of Israel (under a succession of imperial overlords, see the first part of Daniel 7) and of hope of future victory. That enigmatic figure is enigmatic because we as readers are left wondering whether he is an angel or some other kind of high heavenly being or a representative figure corporately symbolising Israel. Or perhaps a bit of each?

So, we can propose, but others may debate the proposal, Jesus deftly begins his calibration of what 'Messiah' means by first equating the Messiah with the son of man figure in Daniel 7:13, and thus shifts focus away from a figure whose ability to raise a powerful army means a Davidic messiah is in views and towards a figure through whom God works to bring victory by another route.

By speaking specifically of the Son of Man 'suffering' it is likely that Jesus is also aligning 'Messiah' with the Suffering Servant figure who appears through various 'Servant Songs' in Isaiah, including the passage most readily interpreted in the light of the sufferings of Jesus through his trial, mocking and crucifixion, Isaiah 53. Also note the word 'must': what is going to happen to Jesus is going to be according to God's will.

Reading what Jesus says many years later and, of course, after we have received news of the resurrection, we may be somewhat sanguine about Jesus' prediction of his own future. But Peter did not have our advantage and he turns against Jesus (32). Jesus is not deterred. He 'rebukes' Peter in front of the other disciples and uses the strongest possible language to condemn someone who opposes God's plans: 'Satan' (33). This is a crisis or turning point in the narrative. Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem, according to God's plan and not according to human plans. The disciples are being brought in on the plan and they need to grasp it. This is no time for fudging the issues.

At the end of verse 33 we have a terrible scene. Jesus is near the culmination point of his ministry and his leading disciple has just opposed him and revealed at the same time that he 'knows nothing.' So Jesus rams home a key point about discipleship. Never let a crisis go to waste (so some say). The summary of what he says in 34-37 is this: I will suffer and you will suffer too; I will die and you need to be willing to die also.

The terms expressed in verse 35-36 are both stark and inspiring. What kind of life do we want? One that ends or one that continues? What kind of ultimate prize do we aspire to? Owning the world or possessing life eternal?

The final verse, 38, underlines the either/or options at stake, life or death. But the focus shifts slightly. It is one thing, say, to follow Jesus wholeheartedly and life-denyingly within the comfort of the Christian community. But what kind of disciples will we be in the public arena? When we follow a Messiah who suffers, and thus is a weak and pathetic figure in the eyes of the world, will we be a bold witness or an ashamed one?

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