They must take up their cross, and follow me (Fr Andrew)

Lent 2, 2021 St. John’s Upper Norwood

It could escape our notice, but each Lent there is a sub-text in our Sunday scripture readings. As we prepare to celebrate the climax of God’s purpose for us at Easter, in the redemption of the world, by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Old Testament readings on Sundays have a special part in our preparation, laying bare the slow and painstaking preparation that God takes on before revealing his final and everlasting covenant with us. It is a sequence that we will retrace again much more rapidly in one evening at the Easter Vigil Mass. Originally, of course, it was at this Vigil mass that baptismal candidates took the final step towards full membership of the church through baptism and anointing, and they are reminded that they are about to enter into a radically new and intimate, life-changing relationship with God Himself; They are about to be bonded with him.

We too need to explore once more the depth and tenacity of God’s love for each one of us, and our response to that, if we are to discover the freedom, and wholeness of what it means to be a child of God. Time and again God has offered humanity yet another chance, repeatedly offering us the chance of forgiveness and renewed dialogue, a relationship based upon love, and mercy, but, and this is where we can falter, a need for honesty about our response- that is what Lent asks us to uncover. As each new covenant opens up it lays bare yet another failing of the people of God to keep their part of the deal. In Jewish tradition there are five of these covenants.

The first we heard of last week-the covenant with Noah, gave the promise that God would always look upon humanity in mercy not in anger. This week we examine the covenant made with Abraham, as God reaffirms that he will set apart a chosen and precious people. Next week we will hear of the covenant made through Moses, as God gives his people the Torah, the Law and commandments meant to help them to live lives of holiness, a life of love not only for God, but also our neighbour. On Palm Sunday the covenant that God made with King David prepares us for the realisation that Jesus, descended from David, is the one Anointed to establish his Father’s final reign of justice, mercy and love. And as we stand before the font on Easter Eve, ready to renew our baptismal promises, we hear the prophet Jeremiah announces the arrival of this final and eternal covenant. ( Chapter 31) We will be given new hearts and new minds. God will remove our self-willed hearts of stone, and give us hearts of tenderness towards God and each other.

We should find comfort that every last one of those whom God restored to fellowship were flawed. Although we have an expurgated version of today’s story of Abraham, in fact the bits where he complains and doubts have been cut out, and the cynicism of Sarah when she laughs at what seems to her to be an impossibility, despite God’s assurance. As a young  man Moses’ response to injustice is to violence, and David cheats on his friends. Closer to home those who gather at the table of the New Covenant with their Master at the Last Supper will be running for cover when the going gets tough. And yet it is precisely through these flawed lives, our flawed lives, that God continues to further the work of redemption. He brokers a new beginning with us time and again. Thanks be to God for that!

In todays’ New Testament reading Paul is eager to use the story of Abraham to encourage the Christian community in Rome, because it is a very mixed group of both Jews and pagans. Tensions had grown in some churches as hard line Jewish converts argued that their pagan fellow believers should be keeping the ritual laws of Judaism. Paul wants to point his hearers back to Abraham as the source of unity. As once he honoured Ishmael, the son of his slave girl, who would become the father of the Arab nation, as his own, so now Abraham has become the father of all people of faith, says Paul. He points out that Abraham was chosen by God way before the giving of the Law to Moses, and he is blessed because of his faith, not for keeping his nose clean. God promises him that he will become “the father of many nations..”  He is to be seen as a model of faith, and the assurance that God’s people will never be abandoned. by God.

Abraham shows us that sometimes we may need to “hope against hope”, as Paul puts it. Abraham, he reminds us, was tested. But he did not ‘waver’, but “ grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”  Paul reminds us that we too will face the same times of testing and uncertainty.

Then in the Gospel we arrive at a turning point in Jesus ministry- and are faced full-on with the implications for him, and for those who are called into this new and ultimate Covenant with God. Jesus responds to Peter’s blunt answer to his question. “Who do people think I am?” Peter, characteristically, blurts out, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus accepts Peter’s insight, but in the same breath he undoes any expectation that his work as Messiah will not be without conflict. Any idea of a warrior King will have to be discarded, and along with it any notion of power and privilege for his followers. And Jesus has to keep on making the point; he repeats this prediction twice more in Mark’s Gospel. The disciples are heavily in denial about their master’s future, and the path Messiah will tread according to the prophets.

Jesus was under no illusion about his future. He saw his fate as tied up with that of any true prophet of God. The popular illusion was that the vision in Daniel of “one like the Son of man,” coming in glory would liberate and rescue God’s people instantly. But Jesus deliberately, by speaking about his inevitable suffering, links this image of the Anointed One with another prophetic image, that of Isaiah’s suffering servant. As he tries to make clear the depth and demands of his mission and identity, Peter remonstrates with him. “Of course that won’t happen!”

Mark makes it clear that although Jesus seems at first sight to be rebuking  Peter, he has an eye on the other disciples too. And then he turns his gaze to his other followers. God’s plans for those he loves and calls will go further than we can imagine.

Then comes the punch-line  “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, they must take up their cross, and follow me.” What does this mean? Rabbis often saw the image of Abraham’s son Isaac, carrying the wood for the fire as they journey to the place where Abraham will answer God’s calling to sacrifice his only son, as an image of martyrdom, and martyrdom for Jews in this occupied territory often meant crucifixion. It is the reading we hear at Morning Prayer on Good Friday.

Another suggestion picks up the idea of –the Anointed One. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a vision in which God prepares to act in judgment on Jerusalem for its sins, but first he tells a scribe to go out onto the city and to mark a cross, the Hebrew letter Tau, on the forehead of anyone who has repented of their sins, so that they may be spared in the coming judgment. One commentator suggest that Jesus may be saying,

“ Whoever does not put a mark on themselves with their cross, and dedicate themselves wholly to God cannot be my disciple.” Certainly anointing and marking became the way in which Christians began to be initiated, as they risked arrest, confiscation of their property or worse. We are marked women and men, set apart as God’s recognised witnesses. Are we seen as marked women and men by those about us, sharing that same sacrificial risking, loving and living we see in our Master?

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