February 28, 2021
Our second reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this snippet, Paul is making a larger argument for the merits of faith and downplaying the culturally bound divisive aspects of the Jewish law. Abraham and Sarah serve as his example of what it means to follow by faith… to hope against hope… from only a promise made by God. Listen as the Word of God continues to speak to you.
READ Romans 4:13-25
So… starting today with our reading from Mark that Meg read… in that reading we’re hearing about what happened six days before the Transfiguration. Saints, there it is… Transfiguration… again! That’s three Sundays in a row that we can’t seem to get away from that strange story we lift up every year right before Lent begins. It’s almost like there’s a reason for our doing that.
Anyway… in our reading of Mark we hear Jesus rebuking Peter… throwing off yet another temptation… and making it clear what the path ahead is going to be like… not just for him but for any who would follow him. And Jesus is clear. This is not one of those “what is he talking about” parables. The promise of faith in Christ is a cross.
Now… open your theological imaginations a bit. Peter has certain expectations of the Messiah. We know that. He’s grown up with the stories of the heir of David sitting on the throne. He’s lived his whole life in an area occupied by foreign rulers… who, while bringing the benefits of empire, also bring the cost of empire and occupation. And yes, part of that cost is in real terms… real terms that a fisherman would understand as the tax collector came to his house to collect the taxes for Rome… and that portion for himself the tax collector… the amount he collected to pay himself for the work he was doing… the traitorous work as his neighbors would see it… his work for Rome. There is a reason that the gospels always separate the two… tax collectors and sinners. They get their own special category. So… Peter understood Rome. He understands how the world works under Rome and other human created kingdoms. Peter understands what a cross was for… its purpose and function… what a cross did to a body… what affect it had on the people who wielded it and what affect it had on the people against who it was employed. I am sure Peter had directly witnessed what death on a cross was all about. It was not a metaphor for him.
So when he is finally bold enough to say… out loud… the hope that has been growing in his heart… You are the Messiah… and Jesus starts to talk about a cross coming… this rebuke is Peter’s natural response. Not you. Not you. You are the Messiah. You are the hope of the people. You are life for a people who live under the weight of death. It makes no sense that victory over Rome would come through the weapon that Rome used for defeating upstarts… for eliminating those who might bring a different hope into the world. Life does not come from death. Only death comes from death.
So Peter… imagining Peter in his day… in his time… Peter knows this message is foolishness. Why would he follow this dead end?
Maybe the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is the real path forward. The Pharisees with their Law… creating this bubble around themselves. Their actions… their words… all there to show… to demonstrate for all to see… their faith. They would be a model… setting themselves apart from the world. That was always an aspect of the law as it came to be practice… differentiating yourself from others… showing through actions that you followed a different set of rules. When the world outside broke in… the cry of persecution would only lift their model of faith higher… show how following all the rules of Jewish law made them untouchable. They would not give up those things that differentiated them… the dietary laws. Their way of dress and outward appearance. The laws concerning the Sabbath. Think about Daniel… their hero from the scriptures. Daniel who persevered in keeping the rules of his faith. Daniel who neither bent nor broke when the pressure of the outside world came upon him… change… conform… be like we are. Daniel resisted even the when the pressure to renounce… to pop that bubble of the law… threatened to take his life away. The lion’s den. What a great story to tell… Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel didn’t talk about the lion’s eating him… and somehow… someway… in death there would be life. That everyone who would follow his example would have to face their own lion. Everyone knows that if a lion eats you the only life there is going to be is for the lion. That’s the way it works. No lion, however, tasted Daniel that day. In fact… in fact… at the end of the story Daniel is found blameless… he had done no wrong… those who accused Daniel they are then thrown in with the lions… and the lions eat them.
That’s the way the story is supposed to go. Peter knows that. Those listening to Jesus know that. The Messiah will bring that type of victory. Rome will be driven out. The powers that relied on them will be driven out. There will be victory and a freedom from…
But Jesus tells them instead a story that is the complete inversion of Daniel in the lion’s den. 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. In this way, Jesus said, there will be victory and a freedom for…
God said to Abraham and Sarah… God said you will be the parents of a people who will be more numerous than the stars… more than the grains of sand. What a promise to make to this couple. Except what? Except Abraham and Sarah can’t make the first child. They can’t get the ball rolling on this grand promise. Can’t take that first step. They can’t get pregnant. God makes a big promise and the next thing that is supposed to happen is a child is conceived and a son is born. That is the way it works. But no child is conceived. No son is born. So they try to adopt one of their slaves as an heir. Makes sense. Does what needs to be done. No. They go the surrogate route. Nothing wrong with that. Brings a child into the world. A son no less. What a great sign that this is the beginning… the first step in the fulfilling of the promise. No.
What these stories are telling us… in a sense… is that Abraham and Sarah rebuke God. God tells them that they are not setting their mind on divine things, but human things.
Time passes and Abraham and Sarah become too old. As Paul puts it… foregoing a bit of tact in his language… when it comes to having a child the two are now so old that they are as good as dead. And life doesn’t come from death. Promise or not. Life doesn’t come from death. Yet God says, if any want to be my followers then they must lose their life to find it. They must deny themselves and follow me. Following for Abraham and Sarah… following means they never stop trying to have a child. Although they are as good as dead… they still do what needs to be done to bring the life promised into the world. Through Abraham and Sarah… God brings life from death. A promise is realized. Faith is vindicated.
Saints, there’s nothing wrong with Peter wanting to take the cross away from Jesus. There is nothing wrong with his desire to see the story play out differently. Rome will do what Rome will do to all whom Rome considers a threat. The elders, the chief priests, and the scribes use that power of death to eliminate one whom they consider to be a threat. We kill one another over and over again in so many different ways and in killing we seek to gain the world for ourselves. We kill and we lose our own life in the killing. Death swallows up all of us and everything. That’s what death does. Faith is daring to believe otherwise. Faith dares to say that in God’s love there is life. In God’s self-giving love there is life. God chooses Abraham and Sarah. Why? There is no answer that any law or rule or reason can explain. God chooses Abraham and Sarah and makes a promise of life. And the promise rests on grace. Not until they are as good as dead do they see any hint that the promise will be. One child is born. One step to a promise that included more than all the stars in the sky or the grains of sand. One. For faith, one was enough. One was enough to believe in the life abundant because God was behind the one… whether it is the first born of many or the first born of the dead… God is there over it all. It is not faith in ourselves. It is not faith in the works of our own hands. It is not faith in self-protective bubbles created by our proper execution of the version of the law we deem to be most important. It is always faith in God who is sovereign… who chooses love… who brings life… who acts with grace. God has the first word and the last word.
Hope against hope. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Paul writes that about Abraham. We could say the same thing about Jesus. Knowing a cross lay ahead, knowing that suffering and abuse lay ahead, knowing that death lay ahead… he did not turn… he did not step off the path… he did not go around… he did not sin… but trusting… an unwavering trust in the promise of God… you are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased… he walked straight ahead and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
So Jesus turned to Peter… Peter who had a cross ahead of him… a literal cross… and told him not to embrace sin… do not be tempted to step away… do not take up the sword… do not embrace death… do not let idolatry tempt you… but live into the promise of grace that comes from God’s love… that is the life that is everlasting… that is the life that will go on and on… because that is the life of promise for all generations… the life that is more abundant than all the stars and all the grains of sand… deny yourself and follow me. And you too… you too will see the promise that is… even if only in the one.
Paul who had embraced death early on in his Pharisaic devotion to the culturally bound divisive aspect of the Jewish law… who put to death those who stepped outside the bubble… Paul… though as good as dead… by grace had the life of promise revealed to him… the scales falling from his eyes… and he learned to finally live towards that promise. Not his fulfillment of the promise… but to the promise of God’s fulfillment. His call was to live to the promise in faith.
Saints, our call is no different. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Amen.