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Lent 2, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Psalm 22; Mark 8:31-38

‘A call to a closer, more enlightened discipleship’

We who, dare we say it, are bearers of Christ’s name, are called to be bearers of crosses. Not bearers of weapons, slogans, threats or manipulative treats. To bear a cross means to meet with some kind of courage and some kind of creativity the brute force of oppressors – the intimidation and seduction of oppressors. Brute force is seductive. It can be tempting to think that some violence – the violence that we approve, the violence of the “good guys” – is okay, is good. But we are called to bear a cross – to do that personally, and to help each other. God be with you 

We might begin to reflect on this today, the second Sunday in Lent, by noting that the power we see at work in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a power that oppresses or belittles. It is precisely not that. As Jesus says, “The Promised One has come not to be served, but to serve and give …” (Mark 10:45).

The power, the Spirit of Jesus confounds the expectations of those who impose crosses, those who wield brute force. We see him refusing to give allegiance to the violent empire/kingdom of his day – subverting it, again and again, in the name of a kingdom to come – a kindom of forgiven sinners, healed lepers, befriended strangers, converted oppressors.

We see him overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – those for whom worship has become a means to self-preservation, self-aggrandisement and exploitation of the masses. We see him overcoming the temptations of (the) Satan – temptations to brute force and self-interest.

In today’s reading it is Simon Peter who embodies Satan by implying that the Messiah ought to follow the logic of brute force. The Messiah ought to demonstrate the most unequivocal power: he ought not be vulnerable.

Peter, like us, would prefer (at least some of the time) an invulnerable Messiah, a fierce revolutionary. Who wants to be a follower of a Christ who is willing to endure rather than inflict suffering? Who wants to be drawn into such a life/death? What does it mean for Peter, the one to whom is given the key to a kindom of enduring love (as our icon for today shows)? Who can watch and pray with such a Christ?

Indeed, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is shattered, afraid. I cannot write such a sentence and not in some way feel a weight upon the shoulders of confirmed refugees in our midst with bridging/departure visas marked “February 28” …. Jesus is shattered, afraid.

But in prayer he discovers another kind of courage and assurance; to go on loving, and to trust the One he calls Abba, despite the darkness of the situation. “Salvation is not making it all better,” writes one of my favourite theologians of late. “It is the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you” (Mark Johnston).

I cannot cite such a sentence and not in some way feel a weight upon the shoulders of gay, lesbian and queer believers still facing humiliation, rejection or persecution ... and not in some way feel a weight upon the shoulders of Indigenous leaders dealing with resistance to treaty processes and still denied an advisory “voice” to federal parliament … upon the shoulders of prisoners with disability subject to increased bullying, harassment and abuse … upon the shoulders of Torres Strait and Pacific islanders facing threats posed by climate change …  Salvation is the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love – we might add, truth-telling, justice, reform, restitution – in the face of everything that can happen to us.

Now, this is no light topic. It means, for faith, that here is the image of the invisible God! This is God’s way in the world. God abandons (loses) and God is abandoned (lost)! As one commentator puts it, “God is most revealed when [God] seems to us the most hidden” (Stanley Hauerwas). This abandonment, this love, is the mission we are invited to make our own. This is the fullness of salvation: a loving “in the face of everything that can happen to you”. And we can choose either to reject it, to admire it from a distance, or to appropriate it for ourselves.

The latter will sound daunting, “Abrahamic”, impossible even. But isn’t it true that the imitation of Christ makes its own kind of sense in the lives of the saints? Francis of Assisi (a soldier turned pacifist-friend to the poor), Martin Luther (a scholarly monk turned critic of a church grown wealthy at the expense of the poor), Martin Luther King, Jr. (passionate advocate of the disempowered), Oscar Romero (timid priest turned outspoken critic of military oppression), Dorothy Day (jaded journalist turned passionate defender of the dispossessed; convicted anti-nuclear activist), Mother Teresa (a mother to children on one of the poorest streets in the world), Mary Mackillop (a mother to poor children in rural Australia; administrator and reformer – St Mary of the Cross) … The impossible – it just might be possible …

Some will say that such a way of life is without joy, that all this talk of cross-bearing is depressing and overly earnest. Some will prefer to take their chances with brute force. Maybe they will come out on top. Be among the winners. Enjoy the applause, the accolades and respect that come with a successful life. After all, this is reality, the way the world is. One should accept it and make the most of it. It’s too bad for the victims.

A sculpture by Singaporean artist Ng Eng Teng called “The Victim” shows a naked figure with a crown of thorns made from barbed wire. The figure holds its head high. It looks as though it is about to speak … a word of forgiveness, solidarity, something strong, human, a whisper …

The question is posed, then. Is this what you believe? Is this the “God” you believe in? Is this your concern, your passion, your life? The law of the market … or the power of the Spirit? The mighty emperor, or the Lamb that was slain, the risen Lord with pierced hands, feet, and side? Who do you trust? Ultimately, what is real?

There is joy in feeling oneself saved alongside others (joining with vulnerable others who, like you, know what it’s like to be excluded/ridiculed/persecuted/without hope). There’s deeper joy in sharing salvation with others rather than seeking to be saved at the expense of others or, seeking to enjoy life naively or selfishly seeking to avoid pain at all costs. Joy for me and mine only.

No, it’s not true to say that bearing a cross entails lack of joy. Jesus delights in being with people, different people, “non-persons” ... eating and drinking with them. God delights in seeing them changed, forgiven, healed, with new dignity. Jesus enjoys and loves even Peter who misunderstands him, and denies him. It’s this joy, this deep-down affirmation of the world, this trust in God who says Yes to the world, that enables him to bear the cross. It’s this joy that enables the bearing of all crosses.

It’s this joy – odd, beautiful – that the example and presence of Christ makes possible for us.

The Greek word psychē (life) can mean the span of a person’s everyday life. It also refers to the deeper core of a human being that, under God’s power, can transcend the limitations of physical mortality and participate in the resurrection (Brendan Byrne).

There is good news. I pray that we, each in our own way, are inspired to say: “I am changed. I am better able to meet brute force with courage and creativity and kindness. I am ready to live with others, in Christ and with all those Christ loves even, impossibly, or so it seems, to lose my life/psychē and I am open to receiving my life/psychē from others, from God, as gift …”

You’re invited to place a small cross before the cross of Jesus. “Each fresh trial that comes our way,” writes Brendan Byrne, “may be an invitation … to hear Jesus’ command ‘Get behind me ...’ as a call to a closer, more ‘enlightened’ following of him along ‘the way’.” Amen.

“The knowledge of Jesus’ messianic status is not to be separated for a moment from the kind of Messiah he is destined to be: not one who will be served and honoured, as is customary in the case of rulers of this world, but one who is ‘to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45).”

“How can it be that the Messiah should suffer in such a way? How could God allow this to happen to the chosen instrument of Israel’s rescue?”

“Each fresh trial that comes our way may be an invitation into this scene, to hear Jesus’ command ‘Get behind me ...’ as a call to a closer, more ‘enlightened’ following of him along ‘the way’” (Brendan Byrne).

Carrying one’s cross means “lifelong dedication to his cause [the Gospel] and readiness to make a costly entrance into the world of suffering in union with him” (Brendan Byrne).