Costly grace (Second Sunday in Lent Year B, 4 March 2012)

Costly grace

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
Mark 8.27-38

Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within us.


You know, nothing bad is supposed to happen to messiahs. A ‘messiah’ is someone whom God has anointed and chosen. A messiah stops bullets in his teeth, leaps buildings with a single bound, and puts all the bad guys where they belong. A messiah strides to inevitable victory; he cannot be defeated.

Jesus has created a huge stir in Galilee. He has healed people, touched lepers, confronted forces of demonic proportions, and spoken with authority. People are talking about him. They have all sorts of ideas about who he is: he must be some hero back from the grave, someone like John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.

So when Jesus asks the disciples who he is, it’s not altogether obvious that he is the One they had been waiting for to deliver Israel: the Messiah. But Peter gets it—or does he?

Peter says the right thing:

You are the Messiah.

But warning bells are ringing for Jesus. He’s not you’re normal kind of messiah. He isn’t a messiah who’ll lead the troops to victory, throw the Romans out and bring in the golden age. Jesus is a messiah who dies in defeat. They’d never heard of such a thing before. So while Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he is talking about the wrong kind of messiah. Jesus needs to help them all to see what sort of messiah he is.

So he says to them, ‘quite openly’, no secrets:

…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.

They didn’t hear that last bit. It’s like when you go to the doctor, and she says, ‘You’ve got a lump. It might be cancer, but we’ll be able to remove it and you should be ok.’

You’ve stopped listening at the word ‘cancer’. The glimmer of hope the doctor threw out was just white noise. You walk away feeling stunned.

Peter heard words like ‘great suffering’, ‘rejected’ and ‘killed’. Nothing else penetrated.

Peter had the answer that he had been taught. ‘Messiah’ equals ‘Man of Steel’ equals a rebuke for Jesus.

Jesus feels the pull to be a glorious Messiah, a heroic Messiah. It’s a satanic temptation. Why else would he say to Peter,

Get behind me, Satan!

Last week, Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted. He’s still having wilderness times—and sometimes they come when he’s around his closest circle. ‘Get behind me, Satan.’

We are reminded here that God’s ways are not our ways. We saw that last week—At his baptism, God declares to Jesus:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

If I were God, the next thing would be a coronation or a public announcement or a party. But God drives Jesus out into the desert for forty days. God’s ways are definitely not ours.

And God’s ways don’t automatically become our ways. We need to be taught by the Spirit. We need a change of heart. We need to follow Jesus if we want to walk in God’s ways.

So Jesus says,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

This is for anyone who wants to follow Jesus. Not just the special ones, the keen ones; not just the ministers and the priests. Any who want to follow Jesus may only do it by denying themselves and taking up their cross. Jesus is walking to the cross of Calvary from this point on. Following him is not always easy.

You know, I really wish I didn’t have to deny myself. I’m not good at that. And you know, whatever Jesus means by ‘denying yourself’, he has got to be talking about more than giving up choccies for Lent. I love choccies, but I’d much prefer to give them up than to carry a hard, heavy, splintery cross.

But Jesus says it’s not optional. Remember?

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

What does it mean to deny yourself, if it’s more than not having choccies until Easter?

I find this helpful:

To deny oneself is to place Jesus’ priorities, purposes, and path ahead of our own; to take up the cross is to be willing to suffer the consequences of faithful living; to follow him is to travel to unknown destinations that promise to be both dangerous and life-giving. The all-encompassing nature of this call is both frightening and demanding.

Let’s take those one at a time.

‘To deny oneself is to place Jesus’ priorities, purposes, and path ahead of our own.’ As we grow up, we naturally have hopes and dreams for the future. We want to have a good job, a nice car, a good-looking partner. We want to travel and do interesting things.

Disciples need to ask themselves: What are Jesus’ ‘priorities, purposes and path’? In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard the message of Jesus in summary:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

We can see what the kingdom of God is about by following Jesus’ concerns. In Mark’s Gospel, they include these:

  • Jesus wanted healing for people
  • Jesus called a diverse group of people around him to become the beginning of a New Israel, and eventually a new humanity
  • Jesus taught that wealth was more of an obstacle to living in God’s kingdom than a sign of God’s blessing
  • Jesus took the place of a servant
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man, the truly Human One
  • Jesus said love of God and love of neighbour are at the centre of the life of faith
  • Jesus was prepared to go to the cross to make his life and his death one seamless service for others

Jesus says the kingdom has already come. It has arrived in him, and we are his Body, the Church. We are called by Jesus to live as a sign of the Kingdom’s coming here and now.

Those are Jesus’ priorities. When we live this way, we deny ourselves—for his sake.

Jesus says someone who denies themselves also takes up the cross; and Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm says that to take up the cross is ‘to be willing to suffer the consequences of faithful living’.

There are consequences to denying ourselves for Jesus’ sake. We might take a less well-paying job for his sake. We might live in a less affluent area for his sake. We might give to the poor and be unable to afford the things we want—all for his sake.

We may open our house to others for his sake. People may misunderstand us, or even reject us. We bear that for his sake.

Bearing the cross is living with the consequences of being a disciple.

Following Jesus is going wherever we go as we deny ourselves and bear the cross.

It may be to places we’ve never been, like Mwandi in Zambia, or to Chennai in India. It may be to new directions in Christian living. It may be to glimpse the implications of believing that God’s grace is limitless.

It means being willing to move—literally and in our spirits.

There’s one thing we must be careful about. This is not a new kind of law. It’s how we live in God’s grace. We heard today that God said to Abraham,

I am God of the Mountains; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.

God makes a covenant with us. God binds himself to us. God calls us to the life of discipleship, and that is what God’s grace means. We don’t have to succeed at this to please God; we already please God; we are called God’s ‘Beloved’.

It’s Lent, and we must remember that bad things do happen to messiahs. A ‘messiah’ is not invulnerable. God anointed and chose Messiah Jesus to announce the coming of the kingdom; more than that, to be the coming kingdom in his own flesh. We’re going to renew the new covenant soon as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Here, Christ is with us on the way, and we are his. The kingdom is come. Amen.

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