March 19, 2000
Second Sunday in Lent
Pop psychotherapist Scott Peck says that one of the main reasons why we need other people is for what Peck calls "friction." The solitary person has no one to rub against, therefore no one to smooth rough edges, no one to promote warmth, energy, or creativity. Other people give us "friction."
I hope that's one reason why you come to church, not just to rub up against other people (we try to discourage undergraduates from such behavior in church!) but to rub against the Word of God. Church is a place, not where we snuggle up close to God, but where, in being met by God, we get "friction."
That's not what I was taught in seminary. When I was in seminary, someone told us: the preacher stands in pulpit with the Bible in one hand and today's newspaper in the other. In 20 minutes, the preacher seeks to bridge the gap, that great gap between our world and the Bible's world. It is curious that, when we think of the gap between us and God, we characterize it as a problem of time, a problem of history. Modern people tend to think this way. We are privileged to live at the summit of human development - namely Durham - and therefore look down from our serene heights with good natured condescension upon those who got here before us.
Is our problem with God, and God's word, really a problem of time, the gap of years between us and God? Today's gospel has got me to wondering if our greatest problem with the gospel is a problem of our idolatry. To be brought, say, on a Sunday morning, into the presence of the living God is to be made aware of a gap, a gap between us and God which has little to do with the two thousand year interval between us and the Bible. The gap is there because we are unaccustomed to looking at the living God.
We preachers, often in the interest of a misguided evangelism, are forever guilty of attempting inappropriately to bridge that gap, to domesticate the gospel, to housebreak God, producing a gospel which is honey to make the world's solutions go down easier rather than salt, light.
"Poor old church, you're out of date, out of touch. You need to render yourselves "user friendly." Try to get the gospel down to a slogan for a bumper sticker, a church billboard."
Years ago, Reuel Howe interviewed laypeople, probing their ideas about preaching. Howe's most frequently heard lay complaint was that sermons were too long on analysis of problems and too short on solutions. People want sermons that, in twenty minutes or less, provide resolution to life's conflicts, answers to our questions, solutions.(1)
True, the gospel can be an answer to our deepest questions, solution to our most pressing problems. Yet before it is answer, it is a question. Or should we say that within the gospel's answer is the provocation of our most perplexing questions? If this be God, in the presence of this Jew from Nazareth, then who are we? How then should we live? If Jesus of Nazareth is God, then, What is going on in the world?
Too often popular American evangelism presents the gospel as the solution to all our problems, the resolution of all conflict, another technique for making nice people even nicer, successful people even more successful.
"My life was a mess. I was on drugs. I was addicted to sex. Ate high cholesterol snacks. Then I found Jesus....and everything got fixed."
But then there are all those moments in scripture when Jesus appears uninterested in getting close to us and our needs. Rather, he seems more intent in increasing the distance between who we think he is and who he really is. Jesus seems more interested in widening the gap between us and God rather than bridging the gap. And what to do with that?
Like today's gospel. By now, in Mark's gospel, Jesus' disciples have been with him for some time. They think that they have gotten to know him fairly well. Right there, "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ,and be killed."
The shock is almost more than they can take. Is this any way for a Messiah to act? Peter took Jesus aside and urged him to stop talking like this. Such talk will cause people to begin having negative thoughts. They might get depressed. How do you expect us to attract people to your movement, Peter might have asked, if you talk like this?
Jesus rebukes Peter's rebuke with, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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."
It was strange. No doubt there were many following Jesus that day who were following precisely because they thought that, by following him, they would save their lives, make their lives better and more fulfilling. Now, these tough words from Jesus.
Mark doesn't say this, but I expect that after this conflicted teaching, the crowds around Jesus got smaller as the gap between who Jesus was and who people expected him to be got greater.
Gerhard Ebeling once said that "Theology is necessary in order to make preaching as hard for the preacher as it has to be."(2) Whenever preaching gets easy, an over simplification of the gospel into rules for better living, proverbial wisdom with a dash of pop psychology, Leo Bascaglia dressed up like Jesus, theology comes along and pushes preaching toward petulance. What Ebeling claims for theology, also ought to be true for Sunday worship. Encounter with scripture keeps reminding us that we do not own God. Scripture keeps making Jesus available to us and also keeps Jesus as some distance from us, in order that the space between us and the throne of God might be kept free, untamed, threatening, and demanding.
Poor disciples in Mark. They have been following Jesus, listening to his every word. Here, almost toward the end, they don't have the foggiest notion of what he's about. And poor us, here, this Second Sunday of Lent, gathered in order to get close to Jesus. But then, in the scripture, we sense a gap, a growing gap, between us and Jesus. Perhaps we have come seeking to get our lives fixed, to make life easier. But here Jesus speaks of losing our lives, of taking up our cross and following him. With somber warning Jesus indicates that things could get rough for us if we want to walk with him down his narrow path.
Richard Hays noted, in the class which I teach with him, that the Common Lectionary, that table of scripture readings that we use here on Sundays, will almost invariably excise, delete, and edit out any biblical texts that depict the wrath, anger, or judgment of God. You'll be reading along in some lectionary text, then there's a break of a few verses before the passage begins again. Check out those verses that are omitted and often, says Hays, they are verses of judgement, God set against us and our ways. "That way," said Hays, "we can make Jesus over into anything we want."
We can lessen the gap, make Jesus over until he looks more like us. But not this Sunday, in this season of the cross. Jesus now stands against us, rebukes us, judges. "Get behind me, Satan!" he says to his own disciples.
In such moments, on Sundays like this one, we realize that Jesus, though he is God with us, God come to us, is still at some distance from us. We cannot tame him, make him over into our image. He resists us, patiently though firmly teaches us, determined to have us on his terms rather than to acquiesce into our terms.
Did I tell you about the woman who accosted me at the front door, at the end of service, after I had preached on forgiveness?
"Do you mean to tell me that Jesus expects me to forgive my abusive husband who made my life hell for ten years until I got the courage to leave him, I'm supposed to forgive him?"
I immediately sensed my failure as a preacher. Defensively I said, "Well, we only have twenty minutes for the sermon, I can't properly qualify and nuance everything. But I do feel that, though I am deeply concerned about the problem of spouse abuse, I do feel that Jesus does tell us to forgive our enemies, and who is a greater enemy than your ex-husband? I do think that Jesus probably did mean for us to ."
"Good," she said, "just checking!" With that she went forth, going forth, I think, with a burden placed upon her back, a burden not of her own devising, to walk a narrow way quite different from the ways of the world. Who told me as a preacher to attempt to lessen that gap, that life-giving gospel gap, between us and the gospel? Who told me that she was unable to be called by Jesus?
Sometimes we gather and he blesses us. Sometimes, like this Sunday, he rebukes us, as he rebuked Peter. If you don't want to risk that, then you best not be here. On the other hand, if you are up to the risk, if you want some adventure, if you are willing to meet a God whom you had not expected to meet, he is yours for the journey.
In just a few more weeks, our forty-day Lenten journey with Jesus will be over. We shall see where his path finally leads. The cost of faithfulness will be made painfully apparent for all to see as he is lifted up on a cross.
Dare you follow him down that path, even at a distance?
Let us pray to God for the grace to follow:
"O Lord, who has taught us that to gain the whole world and to lose our souls is great folly, grant us the grace so to lose ourselves that we may truly find ourselves anew in the life of grace, and so to forget ourselves that we may be remembered in your kingdom."
-- Reinhold Niebuhr
ENCOUNTERING THE TEXT:
Today's gospel is a great watershed in Mark's gospel. After this point, events move quickly toward the cross. The section, Mark 8:22 through 10:52, contains some of the most dramatic moments of Jesus' ministry. The section opens and closes with different stories about Jesus' healing of blind men. Commentators often describe these healings as paradigms of the faith experience of the disciples who move through the Gospel from blindness to half-sight to seeing Jesus for who he really is through the patient teaching and revelation of Jesus. We can grant that it is certainly the case that Mark 8:22-10:52 contains important information about the identity of Christ and discipleship. Between the two stories about blind men, there are three recognizable and repetitive cycles of material: 8:31-9:30; 9:31-10:32; 10:33-45.
Though their symmetry is not perfect, in each section there is (1) a Passion prediction, (2) an ensuing misunderstanding on the part of the disciples, and (3) instruction(s) by Jesus on discipleship. In today's interpretation of this passage, we will want to make a good deal of the misunderstanding of Peter. Jesus notes, rebukes, and ministers to Peter's misunderstanding.
Today's gospel is the first Passion prediction by Jesus and the first instance of subsequent misunderstanding on the part of the disciples.
The text as a whole presents a sharp exchange in conversation: Jesus teaches; Peter attempts to rebuke him; and Jesus severely rebukes Peter, ending the dialogue and having the final say. Jesus' words are hard to hear. There is great misunderstanding on the part of his followers.
Jesus' followers find it difficult to hear about the suffering of Christ. If Christ is the Lord, if Christ is indeed the Son of God, then Christ should be all powerful and untouched by pain. This is surely behind Peter's rebuke of Jesus.
You might note that the verb used here, "to rebuke," is significant. It occurs twice in this passage: first, to state what Peter does to Jesus, and then, to describe what Jesus does to Peter. Elsewhere in Mark the verb is used to say what Jesus does to the demons he reproaches in exorcism. A strong word in Mark's vocabulary, "to rebuke" is to confront and to condemn with the purpose of effecting radical change. Peter hears Jesus. Only lines earlier in the story we heard
Peter confess that Jesus was the Christ. Apparently Peter had a definition of the Messiah that was different from Jesus' own understanding. Mark recounts the sharp retort (literally), "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not thinking the things of God but the things of humans." These are strange but significant words that are loaded with meaning, particularly in the context of Mark's gospel. Jesus is there the suffering one who moves, throughout the gospel toward the cross.
Peter's exalted view of Jesus' identity is nothing less than satanic.
There is a great gap between who we think Jesus ought to be and who Jesus is. The good news is Jesus confronts the differences, ministers to us and our misunderstandings, and keeps calling us to follow him down his narrow way that leads ultimately to life.
1. Reuel Howe, Partners in Preaching, New York, The Seabury Press, 1967, pp. 25-30.
. 2. Word and Faith, p. 424
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