February 28, 2021 Second Sunday in Lent The text is Mark 8: 31-38.
31 Then he began to teach them that 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On this Second Sunday in Lent we continue our journey with Jesus as he proclaims his message of the forgiveness, freedom, and salvation that will be realized with the coming of the kingdom of God. And we find ourselves deeply immersed in what are the hallmarks of Jesus’ teaching. His lessons, parables, and explanations of what was otherwise accepted theology are filled with an abundance of examples of contradiction. And in Mark this morning, Jesus offers up several opposing or conflicting messages.
And in the very first verse of this morning’s gospel reading, he drops the biggest bombshell of all on Peter and the others. He states that the Son of Man is destined to undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before he is to rise again. I can imagine poor Peter’s response to this news; he is dumbstruck at this revelation, so much so that he begs Jesus; “say it isn’t so!” “This couldn’t possibly be what the future has in store, for we are all counting on you, Jesus to be the warrior king who has come to free us from the persecution we suffer as God’s chosen people”. What Peter and the others accepted as their truth was completely different from what Jesus explained as the reality of his ministry and mission. They expected a victorious soldier to lead them in their fight against Roman oppression; Jesus informed them in no uncertain terms that he is, in fact destined to die at the hands of these very same Romans.
In response to Peter’s reproach at this news, Jesus rather harshly scolds Peter, the disciple who was to become the rock upon which the church would be built. He puts Peter in his place, going so far as to announce that it was the work of the devil that was causing Peter’s misunderstanding of Christ’s purpose. Then, Peter is admonished for thinking in human terms, while Jesus’ mission is a heavenly one, concerned only with God’s reign. And, to drive the point home even harder, we read that those who wish to save their lives must lose them; and those who forfeit their lives for Jesus’ sake will be spared. Jesus wasn’t known for his subtlety, and there is surely nothing subtle about these statements. What is obvious though, is that they each speak to the contradictions between who the disciples expected Jesus to be and what they hoped he would do, versus the true nature of his mission.
Then, the invitation to follow Jesus is made to the crowd, and this is also directed at each of us, we who are part of the current-day group of people anxious to hear the gospel message. And in the strongest yet example of things not being quite as we would expect, this proposal to follow comes with another contradiction. Those who choose to enter into discipleship with Jesus should expect to deny themselves; that is, to no longer place their own needs and desires before that of the gospel. We are all called to set our minds on divine, not human things, just as Peter was rebuked. We are to pick up the cross and enter into a full commitment to discipleship, an “all-in” participation in Christ’s ministry.
Martin Luther had quite a lot to say concerning this particular conflicting understanding of Christian discipleship. He formulated two distinct concepts which he called a “theology of the cross” and a “theology of glory”. These opposing doctrines are central to Lutheran dogma and are an integral part of Confirmation studies. They speak quite clearly to Luther’s understanding of the concepts that Jesus admonishes the disciples, and us to follow as we “take up our cross” of discipleship. Luther stated that the theology of the cross holds that the cross is the only source of knowledge of who God is and how God saves. While the theology of glory contrasts this with an emphasis on human abilities and reason. Thus, our “taking up” of the cross serves as the acknowledgement that only through participation in Christ’s mission may we be counted as his disciples. Again, rather cut-and-dry contrast between opposing concepts; “cross” vs. “glory”.
And while Peter and his contemporaries struggled with these seemingly unending contradictions, we have the benefit of knowing that they are the truth of Christ’s mission; we are witnesses to the resurrection. Unlike Peter, who let’s be honest struggled mightily to understand nearly everything that Jesus taught him, we who carry the cross today don’t have much of an excuse when we claim to not fully understand the cost of discipleship. It’s not a “lifestyle”, it is a lifelong commitment of service to others in response to Christ’s command. In this Lenten season we are called to more fully examine the depth of our commitment to discipleship, to discern the extent that we are willing to give up ourselves for the sake of the gospel. To look within ourselves to ask what it means to be recipients of God’s grace. For this unmerited mercy that comes from God is the ultimate goal for Jesus’ disciples, the ultimate gift that was obtained through Christ’s sacrifice.
And God’s grace is unmerited, for we are unworthy of it by our sin; yet God offers it freely and we are not required, or even able to earn it. Yet, even this grace of God may be responded to in contradictory ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived during the Nazi regime in Germany. He was hanged in prison for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler as WWII drew to a close. One of his most well-known writings deals with this very concept of the two ways we respond to God’s gift of grace. He titled it “Cheap Grace”; these are an excerpt of his writings.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession”. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ”. “Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again”. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ”. “Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us”.
Clearly, Bonhoeffer understood the theory of opposing concepts, of contradiction, of conflicting ways of looking at what appears to be a single truth. So, this morning we’ve heard from Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Jesus himself; all speaking to God’s people about the importance of knowing the proper way to act in response to the gospel. And the part that stings a bit is that we are expected to respond in ways that almost always seem contrary to how we would behave if we were left to our own devices. Our sinful nature tends to lead us toward the easier path, the behaviors that require less of us. And, if we don’t keep our guard up, if we allow ourselves to take the easy way, we do a disservice to the message of the Good News. And we run the risk of Jesus’ rebuke of our actions.
Lent is a time set aside specifically for us to reconnect with and reinforce the part of our being that acknowledges the need to focus on the divine things Christ represents, and not the human ones that would hold us back. To live our lives as believers in “cross” and not “glory” theology. To devote ourselves to the practice of “costly” and not “cheap” grace. To recognize that it is our calling to pick up the cross of discipleship and follow Christ’s commands to serve as he served. Living as disciples of Jesus Christ as we are called to do, does demand the constant struggle to act in ways that seem contradictory to how the world would have us live. Yet, even as we are called to pick up our cross and follow Christ’s commands in this world, we know that our discipleship will result in our ultimate rising to follow Jesus into God’s kingdom to come.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, help us to set our hearts and minds on divine things and not the human ones that contradict Christ’s message. Lead us toward the cross and away from our own need for earthly glory. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose cross we carry. Amen. God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.