You bet your life
Passage: Mark 8:31-36
Date: March 12, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Gracious God, this morning, silence in us any voice but your own, that hearing, we may also believe and thus live into your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today's lectionary reading is the fulcrum in Mark's gospel, a pivotal turning point. Up to now, Jesus has been out and about in Galilee, teaching, healing, casting out demons, calling disciples. With the question of Jesus' identity, and Peter's confession, a new section begins. This part now focuses on what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, and for his followers to be Christ-ones, prominent themes for the rest of Mark. I want to back up and begin reading with those verses about who Jesus is, vs 27. Note, the names given to Jesus are titles of immense status and honor, among the most honored of all. Listen. Listen to the words and to the undercurrents: Mark 8:27-36.
A number of years ago, I conducted a beautiful intimate wedding in a country home. Only family and closest friends were crowded into the small livingroom. Oregon has a waiting period between wedding license purchase and when it can be used. Inadvertently the couple had forgotten to get their licence in time. So, they had gone to Vancouver the previous day and been married. Only five of us knew this. When it came time for them to say their vows to each other, the groom began repeating after me. "...to be my wife," I said. He whispered, barely audible, "to be my..." There was a long pause. Then I saw his mouth move, forming a series of "w-s". Finally, out it came, not audibly, "w,w,w,w,wi-f-e." I told the gathered loved ones that he had actually said the vow, and we continued. It was wonderful-his nervousness, and the seriousness with which he understood what he was undertaking. He bet his life on these promises.
Sometimes, as I help couples prepare for their weddings, we talk about the rings they will exchange. For me rings are much more than beautiful gifts each receives from the other. They visibly celebrate a new reality. Rings tell everyone about a new loyalty, a new commitment, a new exclusiveness. They announce a radical change, a dramatic reorientation: neither is any longer available. Both are taken, pledged to each other and to their well-being. Then, after their vows and rings, couples spend the rest of their lives living into their new relationship with each other and with their larger society. Life will never be the same for either of them. Without knowing the future, they bet their lives on it.
In a very different but parallel manner, a dramatic transformation of relationship is described in today's encounter with Jesus. Two more times in Mark's gospel, Jesus will speak about what is to come, be misunderstood, and have to correct and teach. So important were these episodes in the early church that they appear in Matthew and Luke as well, three times each.
With sparse description, Jesus tells his closest and dearest what being the messiah will mean for his future. Deeply loyal Peter, probably expressing the shock of all of them, takes serious issue with Jesus. The word is "rebuke." Earlier in Mark, Jesus had "rebuked" the demons. Here, a follower publicly challenges, rebukes his esteemed and loved teacher. Not a proper thing to do in an honor/shame society. Jesus' response is swift and firm. Mark uses the same "rebuke" word. "Get behind me" does not mean banishment or even punishment. Rather, it commands Peter to get back into his place as a follower, not as Jesus' leader or instructor. He is not to usurp Jesus place. In other gospels, in the wilderness Jesus was tempted to follow the ways of humans, rather than the ways of God. Here, Jesus will not be tempted, even by Peter.
His instruction in the meaning of discipleship follows immediately. Redemptive suffering is to be part of God's plan for Jesus. Surely anyone with eyes could have foreseen the clash that was to come. There was a radical discontinuity between God's purposes and humanity's. From Jesus' point of view, the only way through it was to be faithful to his understanding of God, even if it meant deep suffering and death. All he could do was to trust that God would use him for ultimate good. Remember, this was written after Easter. God was in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to God's self. That's the Easter proclamation. In mystery I do not understand, the holy way was to be through suffering and death. Weakness and humiliation would be God's vehicles for new life. Then Jesus said, " If any of you want to be a follower of mine, you must walk in this same path, a path so unlike what you expect, so unlike what you have known, but God's path." Perhaps these words were of great encouragement to Mark's community, as it experienced opposition and suffering.
When we repeat the Apostles' Creed, we say this faith: "I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead..." In our 1990 Statement of Faith as Presbyterian Christians, we affirm, "In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve."
This is our faith "ring." On this one who lived, suffered, was executed and raised, we bet our lives. Well, maybe. Ronald Goetz suggests that most of us take our stand with Peter. We actually want a savior who can justify the good life we have now. Much of the time, we do not want to face the profound difference between our values and God's. This has been the church's history from the beginning-wrestling with Jesus, rebuking and saying yes. (Christian Century, 3/12/96, p. 263-4) Friends, as much as I like them and find them comfortable, middle class western values and lifestyle are not the goal of our faith. Nor do we find it in our capitalist economic system. Not even in one person/one vote democracy. The symbol of our faith is the oppressor's instrument, the cross-in our day, perhaps the lethal injection table, the gas chamber, the firing squad. The symbol reminds us that when we say yes to Jesus Christ, when we seek to follow him in our living, we bet our lives on God's way. We say we want to trust that God and no other. We want to be committed to the One who suffered for the whole world. We want to be infused with the life of the One who gave his life that we might live. We are no longer available to any other gods. At school, when we try new things, when we are tempted in all sorts of ways, we remember, we belong to this God. On the job, where often our work provides income without meaning and purpose, we remember, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even a crummy corporation. In relationships which break our hearts, in political situations which seem impossible and unjust, we remember, God can use suffering redemptively, and Jesus was not exempt from it. So we pray for God's powerful presence in its weakness.
Friday, the body of Tom Fox, member of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq, was found. His witness and his words remind me of the radical discontinuity between the ways of Christ and our own. Listen to his faith. He said,
"We reject violence to punish anyone. We ask that there be no retaliation on relatives or property. We forgive those who consider us their enemies. We hope that in loving both friends and enemies and by intervening nonviolently to aid those who are systematically oppressed, we can contribute in some small way to transforming this volatile situation."
I'm so glad, ours is not a bunch of religious rules, any more than a marriage is contained in a contract on the refrigerator door. Rather, ours is the privilege of living into Christ's wholeness, not into our brokenness. Yes, we move forward unevenly, like a healthy marriage. Yes, the adventure, like marriage, is "until death does us part." Except we believe there will be no parting, but rather a fulfilling. In life and in death we belong to this God. On that we bet our very lives. Thanks be to God.