“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So cloth us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name. Amen. (BCP p.101)
Some years ago I was asked to be a group leader in a Christian formation program. Those preparing for baptism and confirmation at the Easter vigil would gather weekly (much like in the early church). We would study the Bible, pray and talk about our experiences, our faith journeys. One evening we talked about the story of Abraham and Isaac.
After a particularly lively discussion that evening, as most of the group was leaving, one of the participants in the group came over and asked to talk. Plopping herself down in a chair next to me she stared at the floor. It was clear that she was having a difficult time. Some painfully silent moments later, she looked up and asked, “What kind of God is this?”
What kind of God indeed? The story of the sacrifice of Isaac jars us, as it did the member of my Bible group. It troubles us; it forces us into a situation of uncertainty and questioning. Our belief, our faith–like Isaac, like Abraham–lies exposed.
Simon Peter must have had a similar kind of shock and uncertainty when he heard the words of Jesus: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed.” This isn’t what happens to messiahs.
In first century Judaism the Messiah was though of in many terms. Some believed he would be the king whom God would provide for Israel; the king who would occupy the throne of David forever. Others thought the Messiah would be a political figure; others, a religious leader who would be glorious, wise and secure, a divine, supernatural, all-powerful “hero.” Still others though that the Messiah would be an eschatological leader who would usher in the end time–a time when Israel would return to its former glory and all would be well.
The idea that the Messiah, the glorious leader who would set Israel free from her oppressors should suffer and die, was utter nonsense for Peter and the disciples. This was scandalous and unacceptable according to Peter’s preconceived notions of Messiahship.
“Peter,” driven by unredeemed human impulses and not the saving purposes of God, “took him aside and began to rebuke him.” We can almost hear Peter’s words: “Wait Lord, you don’t understand, this isn’t they way its supposed to be. You’ve got it all wrong.”
Jesus however, will have none of it. He sets things straight. In telling Peter to “get behind” him, Jesus clearly shows us the way things are. In placing Peter and the other disciples behind him, Jesus reverses the order that Peter has tried to force on Jesus. In trying to tell Jesus how it should be, Peter was attempting to place himself, his own will, ahead of God’s, and Jesus will have none of it. Disciples are not to guide, control, protect or possess Jesus. The role of disciples is to follow, to let Jesus lead the way and show us the path.
At the heart of today’s lessons is the call to discipleship and in that call a clear recognition that no matter how hard we want it to be otherwise, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts nor are our ways God’s ways.
What kind of Christ is this? What kind of God is this? As things don’t go the way we expect them–when we’re not in control and life doesn’t go the way we want it to–as we feel helpless, and in pain–these are the questions that haunt and plague us. Simon Peter, Lorraine from formation class and we ourselves, all of us, out of our humanness, want to control and mold God according to our own wishes and our own expectations. We know the way it ought to be. But do we really?
Where divine action and human reason conflict, where our attempts to rationalize God–to get our mind around God’s will–where those attempts fail and collide, where we are forced to “let go and let God,” there, there in that moment, is the very essence of the cross and the meaning of discipleship. Discipleship means sharing in both Jesus’ glory and Jesus’ suffering, and in viewing both as expressions of divine necessity and power in God’s plan of salvation. In the light of this paradox, Mark illumines the meaning of discipleship. Jesus calls his disciples, you and me, to follow where he is going, and to go where he will be.
I don’t know about you, but following isn’t easy for modern day people. We are taught to be self-initiators, to be trailblazers. Set the mark–go for it. Isn’t that the way to success and fortune? Fame? Security? Take charge, be in control!
But this is exactly the opposite of what the call to faithfulness is. Discipleship is letting go of our preconceived notions of how things ought to be, of letting go and “letting God be God”. Discipleship is following in the way of Jesus. Following in the very way we least want to do. To deny self is not to deny oneself something but to deeply recognize that we are not our own but God’s. St. Paul, in the letter to the Galatians, writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In the denial of self, our false self, in the letting go of our enslaving preconceptions of how things ought to be, we find freedom, freedom that surpasses all else. A freedom that allows the totality of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ into our lives–our true selves. And it is here that God does provide. In faith we respond to the God who loves us, cares for us and died for us.
Abraham responds in faith, willing to do the very thing he least wants to do. Abraham is willing to offer the very thing he holds dearest, trusting that somehow God will fulfill the promise God made to him. Peter desperately wants Jesus to be the type of Messiah that Israel has long expected. He will, however, only understand the true meaning of discipleship later, as the Risen One calls his name on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Faith often means being called to offer up that which is dearest to us–to offer up that upon which all the hopes for the future depend–for the work of God to grow and bear fruit in a yet unimaginable way–to follow on a path we really can’t see clearly.
What kind of God asks a father to sacrifice his only son? The same God that willing offered to the world it’s Savior. To be disciples of Christ is to follow where we dare not go, where control is shaken and only the promise remains. Jesus is both the path and our source of strength to move ahead. Like the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning, we are told, “He is risen, he is not here. He has gone before you.” So we follow, trusting in the promise that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way.” Amen.