Sunday, February 25, 2018

Following Jesus to the Cross and Beyond

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38


How old is old? When I was a teenager, old was 35. When I was 35, old was 60. Now that I am 70, I don’t think of myself as old. My body might say I am old, but in my mind and in my heart, I am still around 39 – the same age as Jack Benny.


Abram and Sarai were old. Abram was 99 and Sarai was 89. Way too old to be having babies. But they still wanted children. And God promised them children, again and again, until they finally had a son, named Isaac, some time after this promise was made. As a sign of this promise, God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah.


In all, they waited over 25 years for the promise to be fulfilled. I am sure they had moments of doubt, days of despair, and months when they found it hard to believe in God’s promise that a baby was possible for their aged bodies. Yet, they tried hard to listen to the promise and believe God could make it happen.


Paul uses Abraham (and let’s not forget Sarah!) as models of faithfully following God. They were “blameless”, according to Genesis, and “righteous”, according to Paul. This means God saw no fault in them. It doesn’t mean they worked hard to be sinless; it means God saw them as good, pleasing, worthy of divine love and mercy. All Sarah and Abraham needed to do was have a little faith.


… The Gospel reading for today is from the middle of Mark. It is a turning point, from teaching to the movement toward Jerusalem and crucifixion. From now on in Mark, Jesus talks frequently about his eventual end on the cross. A few of these conversations are recorded, but there are probably many times when Jesus talks about this.


In the verses immediately before this text, Peter scores an A by saying Jesus is the Messiah. But he speaks with an understanding from his culture and tradition that the Messiah will be a military ruler like King David. “When will he begin to gather an army?” many are wondering by this time in Jesus ministry.


When Jesus declares that he will be arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified, and then rise again, the disciples don’t hear the last part. They only hear that Jesus will be crucified. His body will be dead, is what they hear. But, why would they think anything different? They have never known anyone who came back from the dead.


… How many of you have been watching the Olympics? I have been interested in the family from Minnesota with daughters on opposing teams in ice hockey. Marissa Brandt was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby. Hannah Brandt is a natural daughter, and Marissa’s slightly younger sister. They both played ice hockey in high school and college.


Hannah made the USA Olympic hockey team, and Marissa was contacted by South Korea to play on their Olympic team. While Team USA played on into the finals, winning gold against Canada, the Korean team was out early after five losses. Fortunately for the sisters and their parents, they were not forced to compete against each other. So, they were always sisters and never adversaries on Olympic ice. I want to use this sense of adversaries to help us understand Jesus’ words to Peter.

The word translated in English as satan in Hebrew is ha-satan. The word really means “the adversary”, in the way teams are adversaries on the ice, or the way nations are adversaries for control of land and power. The meaning of satan as the devil is a later understanding of the word, and not intended by Jesus in this conversation with Peter.


Peter, with his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, is yesterday’s star teammate. Today he is Jesus’ adversary. Jesus has a game plan, and he needs the disciples to be on his team, supporting him all the way to the end of the game. He doesn’t want the disciples to be adversaries, fighting against his game plan.


Peter and the disciples are sure from Jesus’ words that the game will end with Jesus’ death. They don’t understand that the resurrection will be the way Jesus scores the winning goal, and the victory hand-slapping will be the spread of the good news that death is not the end of life. The disciples were limited in their belief that the human body can do only so much, but we know now that God is more powerful than death.


… In about the year 1204, Francis of Assisi heard God say, “Rebuild my Church.” Francis understood the words to mean repair this church building which lay in ruins. So, block by block, he put the church back together. As time went on, Francis understood the words to mean rebuild, reform, the Church (with a capital C).


As he prayed and listened to God, he grew and grew in faith. He became intent on being as much like Jesus as possible. He gave away his only clothes. He lived in a cave even in the winter, without a fire to keep him warm. He kissed lepers, the most outcast people of that time. In the last few years of his life, he developed stigmata, signs of the wounds of Jesus on his hands, feet, and side. Francis offered his whole being, body and soul, to Jesus.


… I doubt many of us are willing to give up our whole beings, body and soul, to follow Jesus as Peter, Paul, and Francis did. Most of us have normal lives, whether we are in school, work for a living, or are retired. Following Jesus fits in and around our schedule of church, car repairs, grocery shopping, doctor visits, kids’ sports events, and so forth.


If we pay attention, we can fit a lot of Jesus into those routine events. We can be kind and considerate even when it would be easy to be rude. We can listen with respect to those with whom we disagree. We can be generous with whatever God has given us.


We can learn from the youth of Parkland, Florida, that if something is important, we need to stand up for it and speak out. We can remember that in the 1960s we stood up and spoke out for civil rights and against war. We can believe and support the women who publicly declare that they have been oppressed and abused. We can become more aware of the ways in which some people are still not treated as equal in America, and around the world.


Please pray with me: Amazing God, we give you thanks for your incarnate life among us. We thank you for Abraham and Sarah, for Peter, for Paul, and for Francis. May we be just as faithful as they were. Lead us to follow you with our whole beings. Amen