The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
Oh Lord, uphold thou me, that I may uplifted thee. Amen.
In our gospel for this morning, Peter was looking for a quick fix and an instant answer to his people’s political problems. He was under the false assumption that to end the Roman occupation of Israel, all you had to do was find the promised Messiah, fire up the crowds, mix in a little armed revolt, and the Jewish people could be set free.
Now Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah. In the verses just before our reading for this morning, he says as much, and he is the first of the disciples to do so. But Peter’s idea of Messiah, and the reality of Jesus as Messiah, were very different. Peter was sure the Messiah would be a great general and leader, a charismatic figure who would rally the Jewish people, lead an insurrection and toss out the hated Roman invaders. What Peter learns and cannot stomach in our lesson for this morning is that Jesus the Messiah hasn’t come to lead them in battle and wage war. Rather, he has come to lay down his life to suffer and die in order to walk the way of love.
When Jesus announces this fundamentally different understanding of Messiah to his disciples, Peter pulls him aside and the scripture says, “rebukes him,” tries to set him straight. It’s understandable. I mean, put yourself in Peter’s shoes. As the Reverend Dr. John Burnham points out, imagine that your country has been invaded and is being ruled by godless men. Sense now that the tension is mounting and that you were about to go into battle, that you were about to conduct a coup d’état, that you and the other disciples are going to attempt to overthrow this government by sudden violent strike. The odds are stacked against you, but you have a very strong belief that God is on your side because the Messiah has come. And his name is Jesus. When Peter pulls Jesus aside and challenges him with this vision of military might and political power, Jesus knows that the temptation to earthly power, the devil plagued him with for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. And that it was that temptation that had come back to plague him in these words of Peter. Turning on his friend, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.”
Jesus goes on to tell Peter and the other disciples that not only must the son of man suffer and die, but if they want to follow him, then they too will need to pick up their crosses and willingly suffer for the way of love. Because those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life, the sake of the gospel will save it.
This is a powerful passage. It is in fact, the center point of Mark’s gospel. And from this moment on Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem and makes his way to the cross. So, let’s take a deeper look. Let’s take a deeper look and ask, what does Jesus mean when he says the son of man must undergo great suffering and be killed.
There’s a theory that’s been widespread in the church for centuries that says, Jesus must suffer and die because God needs someone to atone for our sin. It’s called substitutionary atonement, and it goes something like this.
We rang up a big debt of sin with God, a debt we couldn’t repay. So God sent his son to be killed in our place. As a substitute sacrifice for our sins. In short, Jesus comes to die to pay our debts to God. The truth is, I never liked this theory very much. Because if our God is the God of love, as scripture tells us, then love doesn’t need payment in order to forgive. Love doesn’t demand suffering and death in order to forgive. On the contrary, love forgives in spite of everything. Freely, completely without strings attached. Now when Jesus told his disciples that he must suffer and die, what he pointed out for them was that his way of love, his way of peaceful open-handed, truth-telling, sickness-healing, justice-seeking, poor-protecting love. This kingdom of love that he came to reveal to us was not something that the powerful could abide. It threatened their very existence and so they were going to kill him.
Jesus’ suffering and death were not the price to be paid for the forgiveness of sins. They were the cost of love. On this Sunday when we give thanks for the work and the legacy of historically black colleges and universities, I can think of no finer examples of what I’m talking about than the men and women who came out of so many of these institutions and walked Jesus’ way of love in their struggle for civil rights. There are so many of them, Medgar Evers out of Alcorn State, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman out of Howard University, Septima Clark out of Benedict College, Martin Luther King Jr out of Morehouse College, Thurgood Marshall out of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and John Lewis out of American Baptist College in Nashville. Just to name the tip of the iceberg.
Individuals determined to change the world, to fight for justice, to end oppression, not through violence or hatred, but through love. And just like Jesus, some of them paid with their lives. One of the books I’ve enjoyed reading the most during these days of pandemic has been John Meacham’s most recent book, His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. In fact, as a little plug, John will be with us on March 23rd, to talk about John Lewis’s life as a great example of Christ-like leadership. Meacham’s book is powerful. It tells the powerful story of a remarkable man, John Lewis, who lived in hope and dedicated his life to the struggle for justice. Among other things, it tells the story how a young John Lewis was trained by James Lawson in the ways of non-violence.
This was the same James Lawson, who later drafted a statement of principles for the famous student non-violent coordinating committee, or SNCC as it was called. In part, those principles read, non-violence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Through non-violence, courage displaces fear, love transforms hate, acceptance dissipates prejudice, hope ends despair, peace dominates war, faith reconciles doubt, mutual regard cancels enmity, justice for all overthrows injustice, love is the central motif of non-violence, love is the force by which God binds himself, man to himself, and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme. It remains loving and forgiving. Even in the midst of hostility, it matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil all the while persisting in love.
Lawson taught Lewis who taught others that the bigotry, discrimination and hatred experienced by so many African Americans then, and unfortunately still to this day, could only be defeated by love. Christ-like love. As John Lewis would later say, hate is too heavy a burden to bear. If you start hating people, you have to decide who you’re going to hate tomorrow and who you’re going to hate next week. Just love everybody. Or as King said, “Just love the hell out of everybody. It’s the better way. It’s the best way.”
My friends we need Jesus’ way of love now more than ever. We’ve seen too much violence and anger and hatred in the past year. The world needs a better way, and we are the ones being asked to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We are being asked to take up our own sufferings, our own hurts, our own struggles, and in spite of them to walk the way of love. To carry them with us, as we set about working for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being. Just as the disciples were being asked by Jesus to lose their lives, their lives of petty jealousies, and fear, and suspicion, and competition, and anxiety, and arrogance, and pride, and greed, and envy, and anger, and vengeance. As Dr. Robert Pace writes, “Because their lives focused too much on these things, so our lives focus too much on these things and we have to lose them.”
We are called instead to turn our attention to divine things – love of God, love of neighbor, forgiveness. Jesus came to show us that this is the only way. It may mean that we have to lose something of our own lives to do it, but we’re promised we will find Christ’s life in the process. And when all is said and done, that’s the only life worth living anyway. Amen.