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Fr. John Allison

Lent 2B

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

February 25, 2024

Christ Church, Hudson


Our Gospel reading today has us revisiting a question I asked two weeks ago on the last Sunday after the Epiphany when we read the story of the Transfiguration which took place just eight days after the events we read of today: Who is the Messiah, the Christ?

The teaching that Jesus offers in our passage today comes in response to Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus had just asked the disciples who people say that he is and after they name various prophets that people speculate Jesus really is, it’s Peter who boldly says, “You are the Messiah,” to which Jesus responds that they are not to tell anyone just yet. It’s here then that he begins to teach them about the suffering that he is to undergo, about what it really means to be the Messiah. He will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes (essentially the whole religious establishment); he will be killed and after three days rise again. This is not the Messiah any of them expected, and it’s with these upset expectations that Peter rebukes Jesus. Mark doesn’t share exactly what Peter said but I imagine it was something like, “Snap out of it! You’re the Messiah—that means that you’re going to vanquish our oppressors and lead us to victory and triumph and live with prestige and power.” But Jesus says no. That’s not it. In fact, he strongly rebukes Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” 

As I’ve pondered Jesus’ strong rebuke to Peter I’ve been thinking of it as a parallel to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, which we recounted last Sunday as we began our Lenten journey.  Mark doesn’t recount it with the same detail as elsewhere in the Gospels but we know that in the wilderness Jesus was tempted to greatness by Satan and Jesus resisted. He said no, much as he said no Peter. Control and power and prestige are not what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Indeed, as Jesus says to Peter, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

I think in saying that, Jesus gets to the heart of our task in Lent: We are to realign our lives to Christ, to God’s love as expressed in the life of Jesus.  To empty ourselves of those things that cloud our vision and divert our attention from God’s presence in our lives. To set our mind on divine things.

What’s difficult for me in this is that Jesus contrasts divine things with human things, the implication being that we are to deny aspects of our humanity, and in many ways that seems to contradict the theology of the Incarnation, the idea that God redeems the material world in taking on human form in the person of Jesus, that the promise of resurrection, of being raised to new life, is the life to which we are called to live now—not in some distant, disembodied future but now. 

The problem, I think, is that the new life toward which Jesus leads us embodies values that are often at odds with what society values. Protestant reformer Martin Luther contrasted these two views as the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is built on what people expect God to be—an all-powerful vanquisher of evil that satisfies our every need. The theology of the Cross, however, is grounded in the weakness of suffering and death. The theology of glory confirms what we want and expect in a God; the theology of the Cross contradicts everything that we imagine God should be.

If your feeling bewildered by all this then I’ve managed to perhaps capture some of the confusion that Peter and the other disciples must have been feeling as Jesus taught them about what was going to happen to him. When he calls the crowd to them and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” his listeners would have had a very different understanding than us who have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight. For us, the cross is a symbol of resurrection; it points us to God’s love and promise of new life. For those of Jesus’ time it was a symbol of fear, and shame. It was understood as the chief means of execution for those who stood against the emperor. It was, essentially, the electric chair of Jesus’ time and to exhort people to embrace this symbol would have been perplexing to say the least. What we’re going to see, however, all through this season of Lent is how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is further illuminated in the suffering and death that culminates in Holy Week. That’s the key way that Lent differs from Epiphany: In Epiphany we saw miracles and healings that pointed us to Jesus’ identity; in Lent Jesus points us to his suffering and death and resurrection as the ultimate revelation of his identity. In this season of Lent, this season of lengthening, of growth, we are invited to this journey with Jesus. We are invited not just into the forty days of the temptation and emptiness of the wilderness but also on the journey to the Cross and, ultimately, to transformation, to resurrection. 

Our practices of prayer and fasting and giving are meant to prepare us, to empty us, or to perhaps stretch us, as we embrace our own calls to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. “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.” This is the paradox of the way of Jesus. 

One biblical commentator I read often says, “Lent’s hardest sacrifice is giving up illusion: illusions about God, the world, safety, yourself. Peter tries to cling to an illusion. Jesus’ harsh rebuke is devastating—meant not only for Peter, but for all of us.” 

What illusions must you let go of? What are the thoughts about God, or about the world or yourself that you need to reexamine? Those are questions that are at the heart of all of our readings today: from Peter’s assumptions about the messiah to Abraham’s faith in a promise that seemed impossible. In this season of Lent, especially, each of us is called to discern what gets in our way, to look into our hearts for the new life to which God calls us. That’s the path to resurrection. 

I said earlier that I was troubled by the divide that Jesus seems to delineate between the human and the divine. While the two do seem mutually at odds, I think that’s one of the illusions that we create for ourselves—indeed it’s an illusion that is reconciled in Christ being fully human and fully divine. A favorite quote of mine is from the early church bishop Irenaeus, who said, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” As we continue together on our Lenten journey, let us remember that, though we are tempted down many paths that divert us from God’s love, Lent is a journey toward being fully alive, a journey ultimately to resurrection. Amen.