On Wednesday, starting at noon, Uniting will be trying to set a GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ for the Largest Macarena dance, and at the same time raise dementia awareness. If you’re free, why not join in?
“How do you write an Easter sermon when your eyes are full of tears”. These were the words, posted by a good friend on Facebook, that greeted me as I squinted at my phone first thing on Wednesday morning.
I’d gone to bed without hearing any news the night before, so I wasn’t aware of the bombings that had taken place. Those words, that question, were the first indication I had that another terrorist attack had joined the growing list: Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, Paris, and now Brussels. That another group of innocent lives had been taken, more families bereaved, more children left without a parent.
“How do you write an Easter sermon when your eyes are full of tears”. That question hasn’t left me over the days that have passed since Wednesday.
But as I write these words, on the evening of Good Friday, having just presided at three services; on Wednesday, at a funeral, saying farewell with a family to a much loved grandmother; on Thursday night remembering the events of the last supper and the hours thereafter, as Jesus was taken, tried, and sentenced to death; and then on Friday morning hearing the choir sing Jesus’s words from the cross, and reflecting upon them, I began to wonder.
Perhaps that is the only way to write an Easter sermon.
Perhaps the miracle that lies at the heart of the great mystery of Easter, the miracle of the resurrection only makes any sense at all when we come to it with tears in our eyes, fear in our belly, pain in our heart.
Perhaps resurrection only means anything because it comes out of death.
Twice in the last ten days I’ve stood in this place and looked at a coffin, as I prepared to lead those who mourn the death of a loved one. And as I’ve looked I reflected how small a coffin looks. How small a thing, to hold so much. So many memories, so many hopes and dreams, so many regrets, so many goodbyes.
And yet there is a moment in the funeral service, when I say the words “this is the hope of resurrection: that it is love, and not death, that writes the final act in the great drama of our lives”.
At a funeral we a brought face to face with the reality of death, and it is then that the promise that we hear in the resurrection of Jesus really starts to mean something.
The reality of resurrection has no meaning except for the reality that we fear death – our deaths, and perhaps more, the deaths of those we love.
The promise of hope in the resurrection has no meaning except for the reality that we face situations of despair, situations in which we can see no way forwards.
The ministry of reconciliation created by the resurrection has no meaning except for the reality that in our lives and the lives of those around us we face intractable conflict between people who simply cannot see a possibility of change.
God’s words of peace spoken by the resurrection have no meaning, except that our lives are distorted, perverted, by the absence of peace; by fear, by conflict, by enmity, by envy, by pain.
The resurrection is nothing except that we come to it in tears. Tears for ourselves; tears for the victims of terrorism in Europe, Syria, Turkey, Iraq; tears for the refugees fleeing those horrors; tears for those we know facing hardship, sickness, relationship breakdown; tears for the children abused in our institutions whose stories are only now being told; tears for those parents who watch their children go hungry to bed in a world that produces enough for all.
The resurrection of Jesus is not, as an archbishop once controversially said, just a conjuring trick with bones; it’s not something to be recorded in “believe it or not” and wondered at before moving on to the next show.
It might be that, if our lives were perfect, if everything was just hunky dory, if the “good” we offer up to the question “how ya doin’?” was the whole truth.
The resurrection mattered to the first followers of Jesus because their situation was hopeless, because they had given up, because the violence of the powers of the world had won. It mattered to them because everything that they had pinned their hopes and lives and futures upon had been torn away.
And the resurrection matters to us, really, for the same reasons.
New life has meaning because of death.
New hope has meaning because of despair.
New faith has meaning because of doubt.
New peace has meaning because of conflict.
And I say those words and I think, “yeah, but you know what? My life’s actually pretty good.” And it is, seriously. It really does not suck to be me. I have a job that, for all its frustrations, I love. I have a great family, good schools, high speed internet. I live in a free society, with free healthcare and rights and privileges of a functional democracy. And I happen to be in one of the most amazing cities in the world. Sure, some people have more. But really, most don’t. I am so much one of the lucky ones.
But then I think, I’ve got two kids, eight and twelve going on eighteen. And I really don’t know whether the threat of militant Islamist terrorism, or the slow motion train wreck of climate change, or the terrifying rise of demagoguery in our democratic systems, especially, at present, in the United States, gives me more cause for fear for their future.
Or perhaps what frightens me most of all is the possibility that my kids might do well enough, be smart enough and lucky enough, to rise above it, to be part of the 1% of the 1% who can fiddle while Rome burns, gaining the world, but losing themselves.
And those fears drive me back to Good Friday, to Jesus’ cry from the cross “it is accomplished”, to the silent tears of Easter Saturday.
And then, only then, do I dare go with women, to the tomb, to anoint the body of the one who I hoped was the answer.
And only then, can I draw near to the great mystery, the unfathomable miracle, that is the resurrection.
So I don’t know if you come to worship today with tears or with fears; but this I do know: that it is to those tears or fears that the resurrection speaks.
Because that is what the resurrection is. New life out of death.
On Good Friday Jesus had accepted, into himself, the final reality of being human. He had faced with unswerving, unconditional love everything that this broken world could throw at him; injustice, betrayal, deceit, mockery, brutality, contempt, hatred, execution.
His life had asked the question: what if we believed that God was love? What if we lived as if that were true? What if we had the faith to treat others, whoever they were, as worthy of respect, deserving of honour? What if we offered hospitality to the stranger, love to the enemy, forgiveness to all? What if we lived with the naivety and hopefulness of love?
And Good Friday gave the answer that every cynical – or realistic – observer would have offered: live like that, open to others, and they’ll take advantage of you, abuse your trust, and, in the end, they’ll kill you.
It might be by a nail bomb in a railway station. It might be on a cross outside the city. But if you let your guard up for long enough to love the enemy, to welcome the stranger, you will suffer for it.
And all those who had bought into his mission, his vision of a Kingdom in which this wasn’t the way it ended, were defeated. Broken. Hopeless.
And then comes Easter morning.
When God says “you want to know what happens when you choose to live the life I created you for? The life of love and self giving, the life of welcoming the outsider, embracing the other, speaking for the voiceless and fighting for the powerless?”
“This is what happens – pain, and tears, and the darkness of the valley.”
“But then… something new. New life. New hope. New relationships. New opportunities. New directions.”
“Because God is love. And whatever the cynics may say, love wins. And it is never too late to write another chapter.”
So don’t come to Easter Sunday just looking for the celebration. That’s as hollow as a chocolate egg. Come to Easter Sunday through the tears, with the doubts. Come to Easter Sunday as people who have sought to live God’s way and know what it costs; or come as people who have understood what it costs, and shied away.
Come with the pain of Good Friday and the doubt and fear of Saturday.
Come with whatever death it is you bear, because it is only out of death that resurrection has anything to offer.
The flowers are in the shape of a cross.
But from the cross come the flowers.
On Saturday April 2nd, from noon until 3:30pm, we will be hosting a free women’s health afternoon, with speakers including a Psychologist, a Physiotherapist, a Fitness Leader & a Dietitian. Gourmet Lunch & Refreshments provided.
Donations welcome, supporting Soroptimist International Hornsby
Bookings: trybooking.com/188336 or Contact Kerrie Curran on 9487 3455 or 0412 870 376.
Our story from Mark Chapter 14, the anointing of Jesus, seems to represent a beautiful moment of calm in the eye of the storm.
And there was certainly need of calm. A few chapters – and a few days – before, we’ve had the loud excitement of the triumphal entry: the crowds declaring their praise of Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus enters Jerusalem, and goes straight to the Temple, as any pilgrim come to the city for the festival would have done.
But when he’s looked around, he goes back out of the city.
If you read large chunks Mark’s gospel, quickly, as one might read a book or a magazine, you will be struck by how Mark portrays events as always moving rapidly – its all ‘immediately Jesus did this’ ‘straightaway they went there’. Jesus’ life, in Mark’s telling, is one of action, of dynamism; its the story of man who knows what he is doing and gets on with it. But just a couple of times in the gospel there are moments like this – pauses in the action. These are moments when the whole story – no, the whole world – seems to hold its breath, waiting. And they occur at the key moments of decision in Jesus’ life – at the start of his ministry, at the transfiguration, and here, on the point of entry into Jerusalem. Moments when Jesus has to decide what direction his mission is going to take.
So as Jesus walked, or rode, back to Bethany that night, he surely reflected on what he had seen – on the state of Jerusalem. He had seen the Temple, seen the crowds, seen the soldiers. But he doesn’t stay. Perhaps there was no room for him, once again; the city was crowded, and he had good friends in Bethany, just a couple of miles away.
Perhaps he needed the space to think about what was going to happen next.
And it seems as if Bethany is where he stayed for those fateful few days. The second half of Mark 11, and all of chapters 12 and 13, tell of the conflicts and arguments of the week; the clearing of the Temple, the debates with the scribes, in which he systematically takes apart their petty arguments and condemns their greed and hypocrisy – causing an ever increasing flame of resentment to grow, culminating in the opening words of Chapter 14: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’”
Two days before the Passover – Wednesday night. The last night that Jesus would be free. And once again, he is in Bethany, dining with friends. John’s gospel, for his own literary reasons, places this story in the home of Martha and Mary, but the older tradition of Mark identifies – probably more accurately – the house as that of Simon the Leper. But wherever the story takes place, what happens is striking.
A woman comes to him, bringing an incredibly valuable jar of ointment; worth, if the commentary of those present is accurate, the same a year’s wages for a labourer. And she anoints Jesus with it.
Why? Why would she do this? Anointing with rich perfumes really only occurred, within the Jewish tradition, at three times: people were anointed as priests, they were anointed as kings, and they were anointed after their death in preparation for burial.
Who knows which of these the woman believed that she was doing? Was she echoing the words of those who waved palm branches and cried “Hosanna” to the coming King, in her own way identifying Jesus as the King who would save the people – an act of rebellion against the power of Rome?
Or was her action some soft of rebellion against the corruption of the priesthood, of the Sadducees, so deeply compromised in their accommodation of Rome that they no longer stood as priests in the eyes of many? Was she naming Jesus as priest?
Or was she, as Jesus seems to have taken the action, recognising that the path he was on would not lead to glory, but to death, and preparing his body for burial?
My guess, for what it’s worth, is that she didn’t know. That she was inspired into this extravagant act of worship, sensing only that she must do it, that he was worth it and that somehow it mattered, without really knowing why.
But whatever the reason she brought it, Jesus receives her offering: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”.
It will be told, as it has been told today, in remembrance of her. Even though no-one who heard these words or wrote them down thought it worthwhile to record her name.
What rich irony. Even as they remembered and recorded Jesus’ words, that this act would be retold in remembrance of her, even as they noted the importance Jesus placed on the act of this women, they still didn’t think her name was worthy of record.
And what do we remember, when we retell the story?
We remember not her act, but the argument that followed – “why was this ointment wasted?” one asks “when the money could instead have been given to the poor?” – the classic argument of those who speak out against extravagance in the worship of God. I’m sure that for all the great Cathedrals in Europe, there were those who, as the work went on, asked the same question – “why waste money on this building when people go hungry?”. I’m sure the same was asked as the ground was prepared for this building – “couldn’t the money be better spent?”
And it’s always a fair question to be asked. We may be grateful that previous generations took the decisions they did, to build cathedrals which have rung through the centuries with God’s praises, and where today many will find, in those stones soaked in prayers, a closeness and connection to God that they do not find elsewhere. And we may be grateful, even as we fix a leaking roof, for those who laid the stones that now give us shelter as we worship.
But when we see the extravagance of many in the western Church, ourselves, surely included, and at the same time see our brothers and sisters throughout the world without the money to train teachers or pastors, or to educate – or even feed – their children, doesn’t something in us cry out with those same words? I know I’ve spoken them; I believe they are a good and right question to ask.
And if you read the passage carefully, Jesus’ doesn’t condemn the question; indeed, his words that the poor will always be with you affirm the desire of those who would redirect resources from extravagance to generosity. No, his criticism is directed at their treatment of this anonymous woman. For they did not just make their case: they were angry, and they scolded her for her act. “Leave her alone,” he says, “why do you trouble her?” “You have the poor with you, you can always show kindness to them; but she has done what she could, here, now.”
I don’t know about you, but in those words I hear Jesus saying “You want to help the poor? Great! Do it, with my blessing and more! You’ll never be short of opportunities. It’s the work of a lifetime; not to be solved by a single gesture, however generous – never, truly, to be solved, in fact. The poor will always be with you; for you will go amongst them in service, and they will be drawn to you for your acts of love and for your commitment to justice.”
“But don’t knock her act of love and worship. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but this is just one moment, one place, one person. And she has done what she could do, in service to me.”
I’ve got lots of Facebook friends who are passionate, committed followers of Jesus of all different denominational, political, and theological persuasions. And it’s amazing just how much energy seems to be spent in debate amongst ourselves. Some of the smartest Christians I know seem to spend hours at loggerheads with each other.
Can you imagine just how much more followers of Jesus could do if we heard these words? “Leave her alone, she is doing good service to me. Leave him alone, he is serving me in his way. Stop worrying so much about what others do; the poor will always be with you, and there is plenty of room for all to serve, even if their service doesn’t look like yours.”
Can you imagine it? No, I can’t either. But maybe its something to take up – not for Lent, but for life – a little less time and energy spent worrying about how others are serving God, and a little more spent doing the things God has called me to do.
We are looking for a creative and energetic choir director to take over and grow the St John’s choir. We want someone with a passion for four-voice Christian choral music and for developing the musical aspects of worship. Applications for either part-time or contract employment will be considered.
The successful applicant must be willing to work within the ethos of the Uniting Church of Australia. Although it is not a requirement, the congregation would welcome the successful applicant becoming involved in the regular morning worship and the life of the church community. The congregation would love to welcome applicants to join in a worship service with us to experience the joy which we receive from our music.
A detailed job description is available here: Choir Director job description revised
Now here’s one of those phrases that I’d never noticed before. They were going towards Jerusalem, Jesus going ahead of the disciples, who were filled with alarm; and those following behind were afraid.
The passage follows on immediately from last week’s discussion, the camel and the eye of the needle, and Jesus’ promise that “with God, all things are possible”; Peter’s interjection that they, at least, had left everything behind for him, and Jesus’ assurance that their sacrifice would not go unrewarded. Not really something to instil fear in the disciples, or in those who followed.
But Jesus walked ahead of them, and they were afraid. As if they followed, but reluctantly, not wanting to go the way he was going. Perhaps they already had a sense of what Jesus was about to tell them. Perhaps they knew what would happen when the things that Jesus had been preaching – his challenge to the assumptions of the wealthy and powerful that their status was right and just in the eyes of God – his talk of ‘Kingdom’ and his non-conformity to the religious expectations of the day – perhaps they realised that he was not going to be well received in Jerusalem: by the crowds, perhaps, but not by those in power, not by the Temple, not by the Romans.
So of course, Jesus, realising that his followers were afraid, stopped, and spoke words of comfort to them, gave them the assurance that all would be well? “We’re going to Jerusalem, but don’t be afraid”? Surely, that’s what Jesus would do?
“‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him”
Some pep-talk. Jesus refuses to sugar coat the message for his followers, refuses to tell them just the good. He wants those who would follow him to do so with their eyes open, grasping that the work of the Kingdom of God, the lives of those who choose to serve the Kingdom of God, is not easy, peaceful, glorious; but hard work, sometimes suffering, often not respected, rarely valued.
But it seems that whatever Jesus does, he isn’t able to shake the sense amongst his disciples that there is glory to be had. And that makes sense, right? He’s just told them those who have left everything behind will be rewarded with a hundred-fold; and that plays pretty straight into their expectations – a new Kingdom is being established. And where there is a Kingdom, there is a King. Jesus. That’s fine. And where there is a King, there are advisors, ministers, generals, ambassadors – there are a whole load of great jobs, roles with responsibility and – not to beat around the bush – wealth and power.
And who better to sit at Jesus’ side when he takes the throne, who better to be the advisors that Jesus turns to, his council, his cabinet, than those who’ve been with him right from the start.
It seems as if, whatever Jesus says and does, he can’t get his followers past these deeply ingrained assumptions about what the Kingdom of God is like.
But he tries once more. This time challenging what they think it means to be great.
Because, he says, you know what it means to be great, right? Because you look at those who are great today – you see what greatness is. Greatness is the power to lord it over others. Greatness is the tyrant who can compel others into obedience to their will. Greatness is power, greatness is force, greatness is control of others.
And I love the way Jesus starts his description “among the Gentiles”. As if to point out to those who follow him that what they are looking at is not the greatness of the people of Israel, not the greatness of the people of God, but the greatness of some foreign power, some godless heathens.
It’s like he’s saying to them – don’t you remember? Those stories you heard as a child? Jewish greatness was never like Gentile greatness. Don’t you remember that it was Moses, the outsider rejected by Gentile and Jew, and not Pharaoh, who was great. That it was David the youngest son of a shepherd, not Goliath, who was great. That it was Gideon and his undersized army who was great. That it was Deborah, sitting under a palm tree who overcame Sisera and his army of 100,000.
That you’ve always been the underdog, measuring greatness with a different measure, marching to a different beat, to the nations around you.
Jesus doesn’t say “it shouldn’t be like this amongst you” – he says “it is not like this amongst you”. It’s not a declaration of a new idea; it’s a reminder that, for the people of God, it was always thus: whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all; whoever wants to be first, must be the slave of all.”
And then he moves their eyes from the past, from the life of the people of God through the ages, to the immediate present and the coming future. “You’re following me, you’ve named me as king, as great – so look at how I show greatness. Do I have servants? Do I send people out at my beck and call? Do people bring me sweet drinks, rich food, comfortable clothes? Do I look like the rulers of Rome, in their fancy chariots and show-off clothes?”
“Or have I given my time, my life, my ministry, in the service of others. Have I been there when people needed to talk to me? Have I provided for the needs of others; needs physical, spiritual or emotional?”
“And more – that you have not yet seen, but that I have been trying to explain to you – do you not yet understand that the path my greatness demands I walk is one that will lead to death?”
But of course this is a message that we have all heard many times. We sing “servant king”, we sing “brother sister let me serve you”. The idea that the life of the followers of Jesus is a life of service, a life of giving of oneself for others, is not a new one to us. We don’t expect glory from our faith, we don’t expect respect, we certainly don’t expect to get rich serving God.
We know that the call to greatness in the life of the disciple of Jesus is a call to service.
But I wonder what we think that means?
So it got me thinking – who has been great in your life?
Who is the person, who are the people, who have been great for you? Who comes to mind?
Think about that person, those people.
Some of them might have been “great” in the measure of the world, but I’m guessing that most of them weren’t. Even if they were, I’m willing to bet that the reason they were great for you was not because of their prestige, their wealth, their power, or their title.
And I’d like you to think, for a moment, about what it was that made them great for you. What was it about their lives, their words, their attitude, their actions?
I’m going to give you a few moments to reflect on that, and then we’ll join together to sing #650, “Brother, Sister, let me serve you”. And as we sing, I’d like you to allow your reflections and your memories of those who have been great in your life to shape the prayer that is this song, a prayer that we each, in our turn, may be great in the way of the Kingdom, great in our willingness to serve one another, to serve those to who God has sent us, those God sends us across our path.
On Good Friday, March 25th, at 9:30am, join us as we are led by St. John’s Choir through the words of Jesus from the Cross, remembered in music, reflection, and silence.
If it wasn’t a bit disrespectful, I’d have to say that at this point in the story, Jesus has pulled off the biggest bait and switch in history.
For the opening couple of years of his ministry he’s been all “the Kingdom of God is at hand”, “good news for the poor”, “the year of the Lord’s favour”, recovery of sight for the blind, healing for the sick, deliverance for the oppressed.
He’s been preaching, in short, a story quite consistent with the role that the crowds have placed him in – a prophet, a man in the line of Elijah and John, calling the people of God to true worship, true obedience, true life; and promising them – or at least allowing them to believe – that the kingdom they have been crying out for, the Kingdom that they read of in their scriptures, the Kingdom in which the people of Israel would once again be free – that that Kingdom was at hand, forcefully advancing.
And now with the crowds at his back and his loyal lieutenants at his side, he is heading for Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish power, but also, within the province, the centre of Roman power.
And then suddenly he starts to tell a different story. How the Son of Man must suffer, and die. How his followers must themselves take up their cross.
Now there’s a phrase that we’ve probably lost the power of, by reading it in spiritual terms. Taking up your cross in the day of Jesus was an image that was very specific, very full of meaning for those who heard him: it meant to face arrest and execution. We don’t have any phrase that carries that same weight, in a society enlightened enough to reject execution; but one might imagine Bonheoffer, who I quoted last week, reading those words as he walked to the scaffold, and hearing “if any would follow me, they must place their head in the noose”…
Bait and switch. Promised the Kingdom was at hand, suddenly the disciples were expected to grasp that this Kingdom didn’t come with earthly power, military success, political influence; but that it came with suffering, weakness, and death.
What sort of Kingdom was this?
And today, their preconceptions, their mindsets, their worldviews, were in for another radical shake up. Because of this rich man (a rich young ruler, in other gospel accounts) who seems to be exactly everything that a good Jew, a worthy citizen of the Kingdom, should be.
By his own account, which Jesus doesn’t challenge, he’s lived well. He’s kept the law, lived the way God wanted him to. I don’t think we need hear in his words the sort of arrogance or lack of self awareness that they are sometimes read to suggest; he isn’t claiming to be perfect, to have never broken any of the rules. That’s not really the way the Torah worked. His claim is that he has lived a life in keeping with deep meaning of the law, what Jewish tradition calls “the living Torah”, of which the written word of the law, the “written Torah”, is but a reflection. All of this, he says, I’ve done.
He’s wealthy, and he is one of the good guys; a man truly blessed by God.
But Jesus looks at him, with love, and says “you lack one thing”.
Interesting choice of words, really. Not “there’s one more thing you need to do”. Not “there’s one rule you’re not following”. Not “there’s one fault you need to overcome”. But “you lack one thing”. This was a wealthy man. “Lack” was not a word that would usually be applied to his life. If he lacked something, he could get it.
So what did he lack? What was Jesus’ point?
We might look at Jesus’ words that followed and suggest that he lacked generosity; that he was too attached to his wealth; and clearly that seems as if it might have been so.
But I wonder if Jesus might actually have been playing a rather different game, echoing back to the man the question he asked. As if to say “yeah, you’ve lived well. But something is still missing, right? There’s something you still feel you need. That’s why you’ve come to me – you know you lack something, but you don’t know what it is. Tell you what – you want to discover what it is you lack? Get rid of your stuff, it’s in the way, give it to those who need it – don’t worry, you’ll have treasure in heaven – and follow me. I’m not going to tell you what that thing you lack is; maybe there isn’t even a word for it. But if you follow me, you will find it.”
And the man leaves, shocked and grieving. But you know, there is a part of me that thinks maybe he didn’t just walk away. Maybe he was grieving for what he was about to leave behind. He loved his stuff, and he was going to miss it.
It was going to be very hard for him to follow. But maybe he had the courage he needed to do it.
We simply don’t know. So it probably doesn’t matter to us.
What matters is what comes next.
Jesus turns to his disciples and hits them with the punchline. “How hard it is for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”.
And they are perplexed. Well, perplexed that does seem to be the default state of mind for the disciples. Perplexed now because this goes against everything that they think they know about the way the world is.
For these men and women, living as they did in a society with clear social order, and little social mobility, a society in which that social order was closely tied, interwoven with, the religious order; it was obvious that those with wealth, power, respectability, would have the best chance, the first chance, to enter the things of God.
It’s not just that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing – for of course, the wealthy and powerful who were corrupt were all too well known – but simply that in everything in life, those at the top got the first choice, the best pick, most opportunities.
You can see it in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words “how hard it is for those who are rich to enter the Kingdom” – “then who can be saved? If they can’t, with all they have going for them, what chance do we have?”
Now surely that is the set up line for Jesus to hit them with “the first shall be last and the last first”. “It’s hard for them, they are now first, they shall be last. You, currently last, shall be first!” It would be a beautiful way to wrap the story up.
But he doesn’t. He looks at them and says, loosely translated, “yup. Mortals, eh. Sucks to be you”. Surely he then pauses, just for a moment, before adding “or at least it would, if God were not involved.”
I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that because they are poor they are in a better place than the rich. I think he’s trying to tell them that they are in exactly the same place.
That all the things they think matter when it comes to entering God’s Kingdom, don’t.
That the things that they might think give some an advantage before God, don’t.
Because before God we all fall together into the one category: “mortals”. “with mortals it is impossible”. Unable to save ourselves.
Anything we have which we think might give us a leg up into the Kingdom, forget it.
Generations of good solid Presbyterian forefathers? Nope.
Honours degree in theology? Nope.
Good, respectable, life? Sorry.
Being able to recite the books of the Bible (I’m sure many of you can. I can’t)?
A lifetime of service to the Church. No.
Education? Wealth? Name? Title?
All of us – we are camels looking down the eye of that needle, and saying “I’m a camel. That’s a needle. This is not happening.”
But with God, all things are possible.
Even for camels.
So we come today to a turning point in Mark’s gospel. It’s quite common amongst those who study the gospel to divide it into two parts; everything that leads up to Mark 8:29, and Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ, and everything that come after it. And despite my very strong inclination to always try to find a different reading than the default – if only to provoke myself into looking with fresh eyes – for once I’m just going to have to agree. My apologies. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
Because there is no question about it – up to this point Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom, demonstrating the kingdom by his life, his example, his miracles; after this point the key has changed – Jesus is no longer wandering around the villages teaching; he is heading towards the finale, towards Jerusalem, towards Good Friday. In Luke’s telling of the same story the author describes Jesus as “setting his face towards Jerusalem” – love that phrase – resolutely determined to face the worst that can be thrown at him, determined to see it through.
But here, today, we stand at the turning point. A linked set of stories that, at their heart, are all about one question.
Who is Jesus?
It starts with one of those conversations – there must have been hundreds of them. Jesus and the disciples were walking from village to village – as they walked, they surely talked. And inevitably, they would have talked about what had happened, what was going to happen, what it all meant. Or maybe they speculated on who was going to win the cricket. I don’t know.
We only have a few brief glimpses into these times – this is one of them. And Jesus starts by asking them a question. “Who do people say that I am?”
Now this question turns out to be bizarrely controversial amongst theologians. Did Jesus need to ask? Did he not already know? Surely, with his incredibly profound understanding of people, not to mention his intimacy with God, Jesus already had the answer to his question at this fingertips? Perhaps he was just using the question for rhetorical effect, setting the disciples up for the question that came after.
Well, maybe. But on the other hand, if Jesus’ humanity truly meant that he had set aside the omniscience of God, doesn’t it make perfect sense to suggest that if he wanted to know what people thought, he would need to ask? The disciples were far more likely to hear the gossip about Jesus than he was himself – for the subject of gossip is, of course, always the last to hear it.
But I have to admit, I don’t really find that controversy very interesting. More interesting, to me, at least, is the reply. I’ve spoken before about the creative tension in Old Testament tradition between the Law – the rules, the regulations, in their broadest and most life giving sense; and the Prophets – the voices of those who spoke from outside, who challenged the powers that be, who called for justice even when justice didn’t fit with law.
And the people, it seemed, have placed Jesus very firmly amongst the prophets. John, or Elijah, or another of the prophets.
Now this doesn’t mean they thought the dead Elijah or John had returned (that would definitely have been frowned upon); the sense is more “one who had picked up the mantle of…, one who was speaking and working in the tradition of…”. Of John – who spoke out against corruption in high places and gave his life for it; of Elijah, who carried the faith in the one true God when everyone around him kow-towed to the rule of Ahab (a Jewish king, who had turned from God to worship the idols of the Canaanites – surely a reference that resonated with those who saw the Jewish temple leadership in bed with the Roman authorities).
The people saw in Jesus a rejection of what Judaism in their time had become (at least at the official level), a rejection of the real-politick of bowing the knee to the Ahab of their day: Rome.
But Jesus persists. It’s not enough for him to know what the crowds have understood. What about you, he asks? What have you seen in me?
And Peter – ah, Peter, the man who always seemed to speak or act before his brain got into gear – Peter speaks out: “You are the Messiah”. The Christ. The promised one. The one who is going to save us.
But look, we all know this story. We know where it goes from here, to Peter’s inability to grasp what his answer means, his rebuke by Jesus, the whole “take up your cross” thing – the Messiah who will suffer, whose followers will suffer; and then the transfiguration, as if to give God’s “yes” to what Jesus has been telling them.
We all know that story.
But the real question is one for us.
What would you say to Jesus’ question?
Dietrich Bonheoffer, from the prison cell in wartime Germany in which he spent the last 18 months of his life, before being executed in the dying days of world war 2, wrote a series of letters to his friend and fellow theologian Eberhard Bethge; letters smuggled out by sympathetic prison guards. In the very first of these letters he asks the question which haunts him, and which forms the central theme of his work in those final months.
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.
Facing the reality of the secular evil, Bonheoffer in his letters asks what Peter’s declaration, and the central faith statement of the Church – Jesus is Lord – might actually mean.
Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?
Because what the horrors of Nazi Germany had proved to Bonheoffer was that the personal piety of the Protestant Church of his day, which saw Jesus, in the words of Thomas, as “my Lord and my God”; Lord of those who accepted him, a Lordship that would not rock the boat, and allowed many – most – to go along with the rise of Nazism, holding, as they did, that the politics of the secular world were totally separate from the Lordship of Christ; that that sense of who Jesus was was entirely inadequate to face the reality of the broken world.
Could it be, he asked, that Jesus might truly be Lord, not just of the religious individuals, but of the secular world? “In that case,” her wrote, “Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?
What does that mean. I believe we face the same question as we look at a world torn by powers of violence and hatred, powers secular and powers of distorted religion. Does our faith have anything to say to the non-Christian world? Does our declaration “Jesus is Lord” have any meaning outside of the religious group who accept it as true for their lives?
Who is Jesus Christ for us today?
Is he Lord of us, of his Church?
Or truly Lord of the whole, secular world?
And if so, what does that mean about where we will find him, how we should look for him, how, most of all, we should live for him.
And that is the question that Jesus actually goes on to answer: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”. Jesus absolutely rejects Peter’s understanding of who he is – and tells his followers that if they want to understand him, to follow him, to find him, what they are going to need to look at most of all is the cross. That they must be the ones who will lose their lives to find them. That they will not find Jesus in power, in authority, in control, but in weakness. As Bonheoffer would write later, in partial answer to his own question:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. … Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
As we draw closer to Good Friday, as we reflect through this time of Lent, it is a very good time to remember that it was not by power that Jesus saved the world, but by weakness. Not by taking control, but by emptying himself of his divinity to take on the form of humanity. Not by demanding that his enemies recognise him for who he is, but by allowing them to decide who he would be. Not by pushing aside those who would oppose him, but by being himself pushed out of the world, on to the cross.
Who is Jesus Christ for us, today? I suspect that if our answer to that question does not at least start at the cross, we haven’t heard his words.
It doesn’t end at the cross, of course. But it must start there. Not in victory, but in defeat.