Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wasting Jesus' Death


For the second Sunday in a row, we will hear Jesus predict his passion and death, and, again, Mark will pair that prediction with an embarrassing display by the disciples. It seems like the RCL knows that it's football season in SEC Country and wants to be sure that everyone has a chance to hear this tough teaching.

Last week was full of firsts--Peter was the first human being (rather than demon) to identify Jesus as the Messiah and, in reply, Jesus predicted his death for the first time. Unable to comprehend Jesus' radically unexpected, totally unconventional description of messianic identity, Peter rebuked his master (shame, shame!), and Jesus rebuked Peter right back, saying, "Get behind me, Satan!" This week (Mark 9:30-37), the RCL skips over the Transfiguration and the dramatic healing that follows it and jumps straight to Jesus' second passion prediction. (There are three in Mark, and the third will come on October 18.) And this time, instead of Peter sticking his foot into his mouth, it's the whole group of disciples, who embarrass themselves with seemingly no understanding of who Jesus is or what it means to follow him.

After a day of walking together, Jesus asked the disciples, "What were you arguing about on the way?" And like children "they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest." This time, Jesus' corrective strategy was different. He could have shamed them all by rebuking them: "What do you mean, 'Who is the greatest?' Haven't you been paying attention? Don't you know what I've been saying? Don't you even know who I am?" But their silence suggests they've already learned half of the lesson, which is not to boast. The other half--the part that eluded Peter last week, too--is making a connection between a life of total humility and God's principle work in the world.

For once, I want to applaud the authors of the lectionary for putting these two weeks' gospel lessons back together to make a point I wouldn't have seen as clearly. (You may be interested to know that the 1979 lectionary offered a choice last Sunday to read either the Transfiguration or Peter's confession but followed up with the same lesson as in the RCL this week.) Jesus' messianic work is to suffer and die and be raised again. Our Christian work is to follow him down a road that leads to death of self and new life in him. That's nothing new. But putting these two episodes next to each other reminds me how hard it is to understand that...and how hard it is to convey that to a congregation of success-driven, money-focused, cafeteria-lifestyle people like me.

Life gets in the way. We get in the way. Our first response is to refuse to follow a messiah whose fate is a shameful death. "This cannot happen to you, Lord!" we all exclaim. But Jesus forces us to accept the reality of his fate. About the time we are willing to accept Jesus' path for himself, our second response is to deny that path for ourselves. "After Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again, I wonder which one of us will be the greatest in his kingdom," we think in one form or another. But, of course, that is another example of missing the point--of wasting Jesus' death.

If we believe Jesus' death is limited to a particular moment in history, then we've forgotten what it means to follow the crucified one. There's a reason the principle image of our faith is the cross instead of the empty tomb. Yes, Jesus is the resurrected one, but he's first and foremost the one who suffered and died. His death and our union with that death is still our entrance into God's kingdom. His death was not an accident of history. It wasn't merely a reflection of the authorities' unwillingness to accept his message. It is his way. It is how God works. His humble, suffering, emptying is the method of God's work in the world. And, therefore, it must become the focus of our work in the world, too.

We waste Jesus' death if we relegate it to a moment from the past with no influence or power today. Yes, as a particular moment in time, his death set us free from sin once and for all. He does not die over and over. We are already reconciled to God. That reconciliation, however, must continue to shape who we are. It has affected us and must continue to affect us. His death is as unexpected an illogical to us as it was to his disciples. Accepting it--both its past reality and its present influence--is a daily struggle. It is the life of the Christian.

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