24th Sunday 2021
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
These are tough readings this Sunday. They begin with the third of four passages from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah usually called the Servant Songs. These songs may have originally referred to a particular prophet or to the people in general in exile in Babylon, but for the Church, they are seen as pointing directly to Christ. We use all four passages during Holy Week as prophetic declarations of what would become a reality on Good Friday. The first two songs speak about the call of the Servant. The Fourth Servant Song reads almost like a description of Good Friday. The Servant is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows. He takes our sins upon himself and is crushed for our offences. By his wounds, we are healed. He will die, but then his life will be restored.
Today’s passage is from the Third Servant Song. The servant is treated horribly. People beat him and pull his beard. They hit him in the face and even spit on him. All this hurts the servant, but it doesn’t make him change what he is saying and doing. The servant has his mind set on doing God’s will.
Jesus teaches that there are more important things than the values of the world. Jesus calls His followers, He calls us, to put Him before everything else in the world, even our own lives. “He who loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”
The resoluteness of the Suffering Servant not to turn back no matter what suffering must be faced is the same resoluteness Jesus’ shows in his choice to face suffering and death so that all may have life. Whatever his disciples might be thinking, he knew for certain that ahead lay an inescapable cross. Things could not go on much longer. The opposition was gathering itself to strike. It is easy to be resolute about what brings us joy, pleasure, advancement, possessions, and honor. It is far more difficult to be resolute about what costs us dearly of our time, energy, resources, and even our very life.
Jesus is troubled. From a breathless silence and he put the question which meant so much, “Who do you say that I am?” And suddenly Peter realized what he had always known deep down in his heart that this was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God. But immediately after Peter’s exclamation, Jesus says that he will suffer and be put to death. When Jesus connected Messiahship with suffering and death, he was making statements that were to the disciples both incredible and incomprehensible. All their lives they had thought of the Messiah in terms of irresistible conquest, and they were now being presented with an idea which staggered them. That is why Peter so violently protested. To him the whole thing was impossible. Peter protests. “You can’t be asking us to accept the cross.”
Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me, Satan. You are judging not by God’s standards, but human ones.” Why would he go this far? Why go to the extreme of comparing Peter to Satan? Yet, if we check out the temptations in the desert, we notice that the devil’s enticements had the same hidden motivations as Peter’s did. Save yourself. Do not give up your life for others. That is why Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” Peter is saying “Run away, run away!” We all have to save ourselves!
“You are the Christ”. While Peter had the facts straight, he had Jesus wrong. Peter imagined he knew Jesus well, but he didn’t appreciate the most important things about his purpose and mission: what it cost Jesus to be the Christ, and what it might cost Peter to be his disciple. Jesus never sought to lure us to himself by the offer of an easy way; he sought to challenge us. He came not to make life easy but to call us to greatness and live our life to the full.
As spiritual writer Margaret Silf says, belief in God doesn’t mean defining God correctly; it means living a life of trust in God. Which is why the Letter of James argues that faith is the starting point of works and has no meaning apart from them.
The Letter of James has some of the strongest language in scripture about the necessity of living your faith. From two weeks ago: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22); and today: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” What good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has “no power to save.” The writer of the Epistle is very clear. Faith may be the central response in our relationship to God; but faith, like love, must find expression in our actions if it is to be real.
At every Sunday Eucharist, the assembly prays for the needs of the church, public authorities and the world, those oppressed by any need, and the local community. To pray for others is a good, generous, and necessary thing to do. But to pray for someone without actually doing more for them, though, results in nothing but good intentions. “Faith itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Eberhard Bethage, the great friend of Lutheran Deitrich Bonhoeffer said “Even the prayer of intercession cannot simply be taken for granted; it will do justice to the situation only if one has gathered the relevant information, analyzed the situation and entered into solidarity with those concerned. If not, prayer becomes a verbal exercise in creating an alibi.”
Yet, the poor will always be with us. So also, will the physical and moral evils that make them so. Our efforts are dwarfed before their immensity. There are times though when our lives make sense in a way Vaclav Havel once described. Steadiness, he suggests, lies “not in the conviction that something will turn out well, but in the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The violence against young girls in the sex trade and trafficking of women is horrific. Awareness angers the soul but leaves one with a sense of helplessness. From my time in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, a person is confronted daily with men and women and some so very young, totally destroyed by drugs and ravaged by life. In the end, it is not our task to end the sin and suffering of the world or to stop the endless violence. On the feast of the triumph of the cross Moses was instructed, to “look at the poisonous serpent and live”. We must not bury our heads in the sand. Follow a different way: to take opportunities, small as they may be, to reduce hatred and carnage, to let go fears, and to entrust even our inadequate efforts into the hands of God. This is the taking up of our daily cross.
The way of the world would demand that Jesus limit his sacrifice valuing present joy over eternal happiness. The way of the world would basically be concerned with number one. Jesus is urging us to let go, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. Our happiness, we need to learn, is not in having or grabbing, but in sharing what we have. It is in grieving at the foot of the cross like Mary; it is to be willing to enter someone’s pain even when I can’t fix it.