Talk for 28th February

Reflection for Sunday 28th February 2021

Rev. Steve Painting:

Mark 8:31-38

I don’t know if you’ve ever come in on the end of a conversation and realise later that you got the wrong end of the stick. If we look at this passage from Mark’s gospel without visiting the part of the conversation that took place before it, we may well fail to fully grasp what is going on. The conversation started with Jesus asking his disciples who people think he is. After they have reported what others have said about him, Jesus goes on to ask them ‘but what about you, who do you say I am?’ It is left to Peter to respond and he simply replies, ‘You are the Christ.’ The Christ (or in Hebrew, the Messiah) refers to Israel’s expected king who would have an eternal mandate to rule wisely over God’s people. Jesus does not deny that he is the Christ, he simply tells his disciples not to tell others that he is. What he clearly does do though, is let them know that in being the Christ he must face rejection, suffering and death but also resurrection. This scenario does not meet anyone’s expectations. To Peter, it is incomprehensible and scandalous that the Christ should fall at the hands of human authorities. Neither does Peter hear or at least, he does not understand, Jesus’ words about rising again. So he rebukes Jesus.

Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke, shows I think, that it takes him back to the wilderness and his confrontation with Satan immediately following his baptism. Through Peter’s words, Satan again tempts Jesus to work out his calling in a way that is inconsistent with the way of God and more common to the way of fallen human beings. It will not be long before Jesus hears the same voice of Satan in the garden of Gethsemane, when he is prompted to ask his Father whether there might be an alternative way to fulfil his mission.

Back to the conversation we’re looking at today though, and Jesus counters his temptation with words of rebuke to Peter and to Satan. Within this rebuke is the essence of what is taking place in the whole conversation. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.’ Jesus’ disciples have to learn to get into their minds the things of God. That was true then and it is true for Jesus’ disciples today, but the things of God do not come naturally to us. The radical principles of the kingdom of God go against the grain of all that seems rational. They make no sense when we look at them from a worldly perspective. Jesus then, has to spell out the essence of those principles in stark terms that his disciples will understand. Such is the magnitude of this message that Jesus at this point, also draws the crowd into the conversation and informs his hearers ‘If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ We need to recognise that this instruction conflicts with all our basic human instincts. Self-denial is completely alien to us and so we cannot assume that simply with a little effort, we will be able to manage it. We can only really achieve it with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus adds, ‘whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’. The world tells us that our well-being is dependent on us gaining material security, status, significance and purpose. Paradoxically, as Jesus highlights here, we only really find fullness of life when we are prepared to relinquish our quest for those things.

Jesus takes this point even further. ‘What is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? he asks. We are faced then, with a trade-off. It is either the spoils of the world or the health of the soul. We cannot have both and there is no sitting on the fence, for Jesus has in this conversation, taken the fence away. It is a trade-off however, that should not need contemplation. Jesus makes it clear that the eternal health of the soul is more valuable than all the attractive yet temporal riches that the world has to offer. When we think about it, it does make sense. Our souls are only safe in the kingdom of heaven and only complete when we are able to look outward and recognise that we are part of something much bigger. If our lives are absorbed with ourselves, our horizons shrink. If we are constantly looking inwards in order to satisfy ourselves, feed ourselves, protect ourselves and fulfil personal ambition, we lose sight of God and connection with the rest of creation. The sights of the disciple must therefore be set on Jesus and the gospel. We have to accept that what he asks of us takes precedence and trust that it is for our well-being as well as for that of our environment and the people among whom we live. Jesus’ way will not always appeal to the demands of self but it will be the saving of our souls.

Returning to the initial reaction of Peter, it is quite possible that he could only see failure in the future that Jesus presented for himself. Peter’s vision of the Christ was perhaps of one that established his rule by overpowering his opponents through the political and military machinations of the world. In our pride we delight in being associated with successful, influential, respected and famous people. It gives us the sense that by association, we are important too. Peter though was going to have to get used to being known as an associate and friend of a convicted blasphemer, liar and insurgent. Following his crucifixion, Jesus was reviled by many and certainly by the religious establishment of the day. By association, so were his followers. Jesus final message to Peter and all those listening to his words that day were ‘Don’t be ashamed of me just because the world tells you, you should be.’  

To be a disciple of Jesus then, we are required to lose our lives, to let go of our need to establish wealth, status, influence and significance and be prepared to take on a life where we have none of the things that make us great in a worldly sense. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, the apostle Paul writes, ‘the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.’ In the world’s eyes, what prospective Christ is going to establish his rule by getting himself crucified?’ The world though only takes into account the power of men, but the power of God goes far beyond. It stretches to the point of resurrection and new life for all, but to open up that power in our lives we have to let go of the urge to seek worldly power.

As we continue through this season of Lent we might reflect on the Christ who had no concern for his personal security, image or status but only that he would do the will of his Father. We might also in prayer, ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and follow him.


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