Sunday, February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent

Mark 8
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

I’m not sure how often you have occasion to say “Get behind me, Satan,” but as rebukes go, it’s a good one.

It’s right up there with “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you’re no Jack Kennedy,” and certainly more effective than “No puppet—you’re a puppet.” A rebuke should bite, but it has to be clever at the same time.

Those deeply familiar with the United Church Manual—our book of by-laws—will tell you the the more interesting bits are near the back under the topic of discipline. Of course, when you hear that there is an extended set of rules around discipline in the church, you might imagine they belong to ministers, or ministers in trouble, to be more precise.

In fact, the rules that govern bad behaviour in the church also apply to you—lay members are subject to essentially the same disciplinary processes as those for ministers. The processes are the same, the remedies are similar—and now I have you really intrigued. (Just to be clear, the church laws that govern the behaviour of laypeople are like those old-timey laws—driving your sheep through town on the wrong day—and almost never used).

So you are charged with a church-related offence (let’s just say bad behaviour to keep it simple) and few layers of internal disciple kick in, culminating in a formal hearing, the church’s version of a trial. Let’s say you are found guilty of some offence, bad behaviour, and then the sentence. They have mixed up the language in the most recent Manual, but there are essentially five punishments available to the judges: to admonish, rebuke, suspend, remove or take you off the roll.

You heard me right. After every other potential penalty for your ecclesiastical misdeeds, comes the most severe: losing your membership in the church. You can be taken aside for some choice words (admonish), you can be rebuked in public, you can be suspended or removed from some high office in the church, but the real penalty is losing your spot in the roll. We don’t fool around.

I was present for a rebuke once, at a presbytery meeting, where to chair of the meeting—tasked with delivering the rebuke—was so uncomfortable that she had everyone stand so it wasn’t obvious who the words were for. In another notorious example, a presbytery chair gave the rebuke in French—to a crowd who couldn’t understand the words of the rebuke. There is obviously some discomfort with the idea of rebuking.

And the discomfort begins early. Peter doesn’t like Jesus’ thumbnail sketch of the near future and takes him aside to rebuke him. Technically, this is Jesus being admonished, but we won’t quibble. So the first rebuke is Peter’s and the second belongs to Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan,” is very clear, but only part of the message: “You do not have in mind the concerns of God,” Jesus said, “but merely human concerns.”

In many ways, the latter comment is a more stinging rebuke than simply saying “Satan, take a hike.” Peter took his role as lead disciple very seriously, seriously enough to risk Jesus’ wrath when he shared his initial rebuke. But Peter was guilty of self-interest, wanting things to work out a certain way, while Jesus knew otherwise.

And this is the second time in a couple of weeks that Peter is on the wrong side of a similar story. At the Transfiguration, Peter wants to mark the experience by setting up three monuments, essentially giving his focus to human concerns (memorializing) rather than God’s concerns (sending a sign, sharing a blessing).

In this passage, he wants Jesus to stop talking about the time to come—something Peter considered foolish talk—and focus, it would seem, on the here and now. We can’t know the exact words of the rebuke because Mark doesn’t tell us, but the intent is obvious: enough with suffering, rejection, death and the rest.

Again, Peter wants to focus on human concerns (safety, a pleasant future) and not the concerns of God (which seem to include no small amount of risk and conflict). But there must be more under the umbrella of “God’s concerns” than simply suffering, rejection and an uncertain end. If God has an agenda—an agenda that supersedes the concerns of this world—than there must be more.

And, of course, God provides. Jesus has silenced Peter with a very public rebuke and now picks up the topic for everyone with ears to hear. You need to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow; you need to lose your life in order to save it; and consider the implications of gaining the whole world, and walk away. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

I think what we’re supposed to see here is that in the course of becoming a follower of Jesus, you don’t actually get something—rather, you give something up. You deny yourself and the everyday concerns that consume us. You seem to get something in the act of picking up the cross, but as a symbol of sacrifice, it’s still more about giving up than getting. You need to lose your life to save your life—again, setting aside what we know in favour of the unknown life of faith. We can’t know where the Spirit will lead us, so there is loss. Opportunity, but loss.

And it’s the third of this trio of giving up—what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul—that seems an awkward fit. Who has plans to gain the whole world anyway? Isn’t that for dot-com billionaires and stars of reality-TV? Yes, there is an element of giving up when you choose not to gain the whole world, but how does it fit the carpenter from Nazareth or the fisherman from Galilee?

Mostly, I think, Jesus is talking to himself. The only other time this business of the gaining the whole world comes up is during the time of temptation. Jesus is offered bread from stone, protection from harm, and a glimpse of the kingdoms of this world—and he rejects all three. So Jesus has taken this act of refusing the whole world and turned it onto a teaching, a self-caution of a sort.

So why a self-caution? Why does Jesus need to remind himself—and his disciples—that by gaining the whole world you give up you soul? I think we need to check the record:

In Matthew, his first miracle is lost in generalities, but the first specific miracle is healing a man who has wherewithal to say “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus says, “I am willing.”
In Mark and Luke, his very first miracle is driving out a very unhappy demon during church.
And in John, his first miracle is in response to the unusual and troubling statement, “they have no more wine.” It turns out that the one who will one day fill the cup of blessing has a miracle for that situation too.

And those are just the first: daily miracles that Peter and the others witnessed, questions about the throne of glory and who would sit at the master’s right hand, and even revolutionary thoughts—by the young zealots in the group—about overthrowing the power of Rome. You can see how witnessing Jesus’ unusual relationship with the natural world—calming the storm, healing the sick, raising the dead—would lead to the idea of claiming the whole world.

But God was never going to take over the world by force. That’s a human idea, and the mere suggestion of doing it is worthy of a rebuke from Jesus. And on some level, Jesus may be rebuking himself. The temptation to go back to temptation mount and take up that offer would be a strong one, particularly in the face of rejection and loss.

No, Jesus must follow this road wherever it leads. The very people who will reject Jesus, those who will deny knowing him, even those who remain indifferent to the presence of God in their midst, will need to be reconciled to God. Jesus knows that there is a greater miracle to follow, that even in the face of death, life will come, even death on a cross.

And so we say, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can lead us through the uncertainty and the mystery of the rest of this story,’ and to this he says, “I am willing.” Amen.


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