Posted: Sunday 25th February 2018
Good News not Easy News, 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2018
Romans 4.13-25/ Mark 8.31-38
Rev’d Simon Buckley, St Anne’s Soho
Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me a bit of a scene in a soap opera: a family gathering at some kind of celebration, maybe a wedding or a post-Christening knees-up in the Queen Vic at which someone says something out of turn, lets some cat out of the bag and the mood turns ugly as the event quickly descends from being a joyful party into brawling in the street.
Even without ‘alleluias’ the announcement of the gospel, suggests that you’re going to hear Good News. The passage appointed for today follows on from three exhilarating events: Jesus feeding four thousand people, him healing a blind man and then Peter acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. So we’re reasonable in our assumption that we’re about to hear something that will lift our spirits and put a spring in our step. But instead of something upbeat what we get is Jesus telling everyone that the Son of Man (a term he frequently uses about himself in Mark’s gospel) is going suffer, be rejected and killed and rise again. Not the good news that everyone had gathered to hear. So Peter pulls him aside and quietly rebukes Jesus, but Jesus then rebukes Peter in front of everyone. If not quite a punch up at the Rovers Return the atmosphere is a million miles from the joyful awe at the miraculous feeding of the crowd with which this chapter of Mark’s gospel had begun.
I quite understand Peter’s reaction. Firstly, this is not what he was expecting either for Jesus or himself. He had responded to Jesus’ call to “come, follow me and I will make you fish for people”, and only now is the plain reality of what this might entail beginning to sink home: “take up your cross and follow me on the path of rejection and suffering” It reminds me of Churchill’s great rallying cry to the chaps of Great Britain to join up with his enticing offer not of glory or the promise of medals but only “blood, toil, sweat and tears”! But for Peter who has seen Jesus work all manner of miracles and wonders the thought that suffering might be part of God’s way for either of them seems unimaginable. And we too might well also wonder why Jesus had to endure the suffering and death that we commemorate week by week in the Eucharist and consider particularly as the days of Lent lead towards Passiontide and Good Friday. Why couldn’t Jesus have ‘miracle-d his way out’ of all the messy stuff. Surely if he was really God’s Son then, as those who were to stand at the foot of the cross mocking were to say “why didn’t he just use his healing powers to get out of here? ”.
There’s a funny thing about the healing miracles of Jesus that Mark particularly highlights in his retelling of the Jesus story. Almost invariably when Jesus heals someone or performs some great wonder he says “don’t tell anyone about this”. For example he heals a deaf man and says “don’t tell anyone”, a blind man and says “don’t even go back to your village so people see what’s happened”, to the disciples who saw him transfigured he says “keep this to yourselves until after the resurrection”. Though unsurprisingly not everyone did keep quiet, word spread about him and what he had done for people so the crowds around him grew daily. But why does Jesus seem to want to keep his powers slightly under wraps? When prompted by compassion he’ll use them for the benefit of others- yes, that’s fine; but to use them to affirm who he is, he’s more than reticent. If you recall the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness the first two things he resisted was using his powers to prove a point- to prove that he had power to turn stones into bread; and that he had special power as God’s Son which meant he wasn’t subject to the dangers of life experienced by ordinary people- “jump off the temple and God will save you”, said the devil.
Jesus is trying to avoid his ministry being just about the things he could do, and do for the people who gathered around him. Jesus’ ministry was about more than that : it was not about impressing people with powerful actions, by doing things for them to satisfy their immediate needs, but about leading them into a relationship of trust with him. Yes physical healing restores to one man his sight and to another his hearing, but the event that would change everything through which sins would be forgiven and people released from guilt and fear would be achieved by a very different, surprising, nay shocking way.
The event that was to change everything – even how we think and talk about God was to take everyone by surprise. Rowan Williams, in his recent book ‘meeting God in Mark’ notes that Mark’s gospel appears to have been written for a church that was a bit too much in love with miracles, wonderworking and success- a church that was putting too much store on tangible signs of God’s favour and assistance. At the time when Mark’s gospel was being written what was coming at it thick and fast was persecution and threat and it’s as though Mark – who can’t deny all the miracles Jesus did- is helping his readers make sense of their suffering. Just imagine a Christian reading this gospel today in Afghanistan or parts of Nigeria, rural India or Indonesia, where God isn’t stepping down to solve problems, in a world where suffering and the risk of death are daily occurrences.
Very often we are a bit like the first disciples who would much rather believe in a god who, in a rather exaggerated way, would run the world as we would- if we were god! Like the Jim Carrey character in the film Bruce Almighty, who discovers that using power to solve problems is not what actually makes you God and that a world that is manipulated to go exactly the way you would like it to go is neither real nor ultimately satisfying or indeed as ‘good’ as we might think.
The God who Jesus incarnates- shows in his life- is one whose supreme power is not in removing our painful human experiences but sharing them. One who lives with us and transforms those experiences by his presence, a God who respects our humanity and maturity (even if humans don’t always!) rather than cossets us as children. A God who shares the fullness of our life rather than sanitizes it.
Of course we shall still pray for those in need- ourselves included- for healing and for miracles; but perhaps the greatest miracle has already happened : which is that by Jesus’ experience of suffering, death and resurrection, God is already there with those for whom we pray. This is why St Paul said “we preach Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Ahead of all the miracles that Mark said (in effect) “don’t make too much of these” Paul points us to the cross as the greatest sign of God’s activity- more than feeding 5,000 surprising as that may seem.
We may think of signs of ‘God’s kingdom’ (if we think in those terms) or of ‘God’s blessing’ being most evident through times of prosperity and events that are characterised by happiness, and like Peter, resist the possibility, or should I say the reality, that it is through the apparent opposite of these things that God has worked most decisively. But that’s what the gospel is pointing us towards: that whilst healings brought gratitude and joy, it was the cross that elicited – even from one of the group who carried out Jesus’ execution- the reverent recognition that ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’.
That’s why the story of Jesus’ suffering and death remains good news for us- a story of triumph not defeat. The moment when God is fully revealed as he is in and through Christ who is most fully seen to be who he is, Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us after all as we too are most fully ourselves – most accessible, most loveable, most real – at those moments when we are most vulnerable, broken and powerless, rather than when being the ‘we’ we like to project, hide behind or pretend to be. Of course we’d prefer it to be otherwise but Jesus rebuked Peter and rebukes us when we think we can walk a different path to him.
As the penultimate verse of our opening hymn put it:
Take up thy cross, and follow Christ
Nor think till death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.