Following Christ

Passage: Mark 8:31-38
Service Type:

Second Sunday in Lent

St John’s, Langhorne Creek, Sunday 1st March 2015

(10.00 am Combined Service due to painting Christ Church)

Our first reading today seems to be an attempt by one of the editors of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to tie up some loose ends associated with the stories about Abraham. In particular, it deals with the question of why in some stories we read about Abram and his wife Sarai and in others they are called Abraham and Sarah. In fact they are merely variations of the same names: Abram and Abraham (an Abiram too) all mean My Father is exalted; Sarai and Sarah both mean Princess.

However, our editor supposes that there was a change in their names as a sign of the covenant which God made with Abraham and which is described more fully elsewhere in the Book of Genesis. This is the promise by God that Abraham would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations who will be descended from the son who would be born to Sarah, although she and her husband were now very old. The physical sign of the covenant which was to be adopted by Abraham and all his male offspring was circumcision, which is still a distinctive mark of a Jewish man today. For some reason this part of the chapter has been omitted from our reading.

Today’s Epistle is Paul’s commentary on Abraham’s faith in trusting in God’s promise to him. Although he actually quotes “I have made you the father of many nations” from Genesis 17 (our first reading), the response of Abraham to which he refers and which “was reckoned to him as righteousness” is actually found earlier in chapter 15: He (the Lord) brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (NRSV Gen 15:5–6)

Paul then goes on to assert that we, too, will be accounted righteous if we have faith like that of Abraham. Abraham trusted in the covenant which God had made with him, that he would have many descendants. We must trust in the covenant which God has made with us through Jesus Christ, who was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”.

What does it actually mean for us to have faith in God through Jesus Christ? We get some answers from today’s Gospel. This passage from Mark’s Gospel is actually the sequel to the story of Peter’s declaration about Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, so I would like to remind you of what happened.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (NRSV Mk 8:27–30)

The Messiah is the Hebrew and Christ is the Greek for Anointed One. This was the common title for the leader whom God would send to bring in his kingdom and who would lead the people in triumph against their enemies. So although in one sense Peter’s answer was right — Jesus had been sent by God to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom; it was also misleading — he would not be leading an army to a glorious military victory.

So he ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what Peter had said, and then went on to try and show them how he would actually fulfil his role as Messiah, which was the first part of the Gospel today:

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. (NRSV Mk 8:31)

This was too much for Peter. How could the Messiah suffer and die? What did it mean to rise again? His rebuke to Jesus brought forth an even more devastating response: “Get behind me, Satan!” Like the temptations in the wilderness after his baptism here was another temptation to achieve God’s purposes by human means and it had to be firmly rejected.

The fulfilment of Jesus divine commission would only come after following the way to the Cross. Similarly the follower of Christ must also be prepared to give himself or herself totally to God and ready to suffer and die, if we are to follow truly: He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. (NRSV Mk 8:34–35)

There are two things which we must do as followers of Christ:

• deny ourselves

• take up our cross and follow him.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t talk about denying ourselves something, such as we might give up having sugar in our coffee during Lent. Instead we are called on to deny ourselves. That is, we are to completely set aside all selfishness and self-centredness so that we can give ourselves completely to God. It is only then that we will truly be dependent on our faith in God and the power of his love.

This doesn’t mean that from now on everything will be easy and comfortable, however. Jesus goes on to say that we must be ready to die as his followers. The image of carrying the cross was probably all to familiar to those who were listening to Jesus. They would have often seen condemned criminals carrying the heavy cross-piece to the place of execution as Jesus would do himself in not too many days time.

We don’t have to put our lives on the line for our faith very often in Australia, our faith is more likely to be dismissed as irrelevant or stifled with indifference, but our brothers in sisters in other countries, like Indonesia or Nigeria or Syria, know only too well that they may indeed be called upon to take up their cross as they follow Jesus.

What we have to ask ourselves is: are we ready to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel. If we are, then there is hope for us and for this parish, but if not, then we have no future.

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