A sermon on Romans 4:13-25 & Mark 8:31-38 by Nathan Nettleton
Misunderstanding Jesus and his message has a very long history. It goes right back to his first disciples and, in a way, perhaps further. Much of Jesus’s message was that people were already misunderstanding God, and then they went right on misunderstanding what he was saying about that. So don’t beat yourself up if you realise that you haven’t fully got a handle on what Jesus was on about. You’re in good company! None of us have got it all worked out. We’re all on a journey of discovery together. This season of Lent is a lot about the journey, and images of journeying and discovery will keep appearing throughout the season as we seek to follow Jesus on his final journey prior to his death, the journey that led to the cross. And on this journey, there will be lots of opportunities for Jesus to challenge us again to discover what it is that is so radically and startlingly new about the news that he was announcing. Tonight’s readings present us with some of those opportunities.
The passage we heard from the gospel according to Mark is one that I referred to two weeks ago when I was preaching about the transfiguration, because that story was clearly linked to this one and had to be understood in light of this one. I’m going to comment on it in more detail tonight, but first I want to touch on something of how the Apostle Paul expresses some similar things in the extract we heard from his letter to the church in Rome.
Paul uses Abraham as an illustration of the point he is trying to make about how we become the beneficiaries of God’s promises. Abraham often doesn’t feature very prominently in Christian thinking, but he is an extremely important figure in today’s religious landscape because he is the common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Abraham stories therefore can be very helpful in trying to find common starting points for peaceful dialogue between the three religions. The Apostle Paul is referring to God’s promise to Abraham to make him the father of many nations, and he is exploring how Abraham or any of his descendants come to be insiders to that promise. It is clearly not by belonging to a particular nation, because Paul is emphasising Abraham’s place as the father of many nations. It is clearly not by living in some special holy land, because although many disputes over the ownership of the holy land trace their arguments back to Abraham, Paul is arguing that the whole idea of a holy land was just a foretaste of the whole world becoming God’s domain. And it is not by following any religious code of behaviour or system of law. The law hadn’t even been given yet when these promises were made to Abraham, so the promise comes before the law. Instead, says Paul, this promise is intended for absolutely everyone, and it reaches everyone who puts their trust in God and in what God promises. Even that is not some kind of belief test. It doesn’t mean that there is a level of trust or faith that you have to measure up to. It is just that if you don’t trust the gift giver, you are not likely to trust the gift enough to accept it. One has to trust the gift giver to be able to receive the gift.
Now the thing that is so radical about what Paul is saying is the way he sets this trust or faith in contrast to law-keeping. Because Paul himself and most of his hearers were raised with a very strong sense that God’s promises favoured those whose behaviour conformed to a particular religious code of law. This remains an extremely widespread understanding today. Although most Christians will speak about salvation being by grace through faith alone, most of us also have some behavioural conditions that we feel sure are part of it. Salvation is by grace through faith alone, provided that you have first turned away from whichever behaviours are the current hot potato moral evils among us. You have to stop violating this law that we hold sacred. But Paul says, there now is no law, so neither is there any violation. The people had imagined that God was going to wipe out the violators, but instead God wiped out the laws so that people could no longer be seen as violators.
Now it may not be immediately obvious how similar this is to what is going on in our gospel reading, but it may start to become clearer when we look at what Jesus calls Peter when Peter is trying to talk him out of accepting a pathway of rejection, suffering and death. I’m sure you remember. Jesus calls Peter a satan. “Get behind me, you satan.” Now we tend to hear that word “satan” simply as a name, but it is actually a title or a job description. If you were introducing me to a visitor, and you just said “This is Nathan”, that wouldn’t tell them anything more than my name. But if you said, “This is the pastor”, the person would read a whole lot more into that introduction. Probably not all of it good!
If we do hear “satan” as more than just a name, we hear it as “evil”, but it actually has a particular meaning. You will sometimes see it translated as “the accuser”, which is more helpful. The word comes from the world of law and court cases. It means “the prosecutor”. That is, the satan is the one who is trying to prove a case against you and have you condemned and punished. Which is particularly illuminating if you realise that one of the names that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit is “the paraclete” which means “the counsel for the defence”. So perhaps now you begin to see why this relates to what Paul was saying about the law, because the satan is trying to prove you guilty under the law and have you condemned and punished, and the Holy Spirit is the defence counsel who standing up in your defence, and presumably arguing that there now is no law on which God judges us, and so there is therefore no violation of the law that can be prosecuted. “Acquit the accused, your honour!”
But what has any of this law-court stuff got to do with Peter? And what has it got to do with our journey of discipleship and the things that Jesus goes on to say about denying ourselves and taking up our crosses to follow him?
As I said two weeks ago, what Peter is arguing with Jesus about is what it means to be the messiah. Not obviously an matter of accusations and legal prosecutions. But actually, it is, albeit indirectly. Peter has just identified Jesus as the messiah, God’s anointed one who everyone has been waiting for. Jesus immediately begins telling the disciples, as we heard tonight, that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the religious lawyers, and be killed.” And in response to that, Peter pulls him aside and begins to rebuke him. So basically, what Peter is saying is that since, as we have just agreed, you are the messiah, God’s chosen champion, you can’t possibly undergo suffering, rejection and death. That’s not in the job description. Now Peter has a point here, which would have been easily understood in first century Israel. There had been quite a few wannabe messiahs over the last few decades, and suffering rejection and death had consistently been the proof of their failure. They had mostly ended up crucified by the Romans – therefore they were not true messiahs. “You, Jesus, are supposed to be the true messiah, and therefore your trajectory will be altogether different from these failed and false messiahs. You are going to be the biggest success of all time.”
Understandable, but success at what? Well, here is where we get back to the legal job descriptions. The true messiah was expected to be the one who brought down God’s judgement. The messiah is supposed to be, among other things, the judge of all the earth. The messiah is the one who finally sorts out the good from the bad, the virtuous from the wicked, the just from the unjust, and hands out God’s rewards and punishments accordingly. You can see Peter’s point. True messiahs don’t get tried, condemned and executed. They try and condemn others, and execute God’s judgement. “You’re sitting in the wrong chair, Jesus. You’re not the accused. You are the judge!”
So what does Jesus mean by labelling Peter’s argument as “satanic”, as the act of an accuser or prosector, or perhaps even grand high inquisitor? Well, what he is saying is that all this eager expectation of a judgement in which other people will be condemned and punished is actually an eagerness for something which is the satan’s game, not God’s game. As the Apostle John put it, “The Son came into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it.” Jesus is saying that all this desire to divide people up into the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, the acceptable and the unacceptable is the satan’s game, not God’s game. And if we, like Peter, try to recruit Jesus back to the old triumphant pathways of vengeance and judgement, we really are playing the satan’s game, not God’s game. Jesus actually equates the human game and the satanic game here when he says, “Get behind me, you satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” A mind set on the usual human things is the mind of a satan. Because you see, this game of accusation and condemnation is one that we humans get tangled up in all the time. It is our normal way of relating to others. We divide everyone up. We label our people as good, and other people as bad. Our people as saved and beloved by God, and other people as lost and condemned by God. We constantly reinforce our belief in our own goodness and our own place in God’s promises by comparing ourselves to others who are so obviously far less worthy than we are. It is the normal human way of reinforcing our sense of identity and belonging in a community. We are united to one another in our opposition to “them” and their evil ways. But when we do that, the Apostle Paul accuses us of trying to reinstate law as the means of becoming acceptable to God and making faith null and the promise void. And Jesus just says, “Get behind me, you satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
So Jesus goes on to describe what it means to follow him as denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. Cling to your life, and you’ll lose it, he says, but let go of it, and you will find life to the full. Can you see how in light of what he has just been saying to Peter, that means that we need to give up trying to be the winners, the successful ones who get to stand proudly alongside the judge and the prosecutor when others are being condemned to death? We have to give up what looks to all the world like the desirable place for good successful religious people. We have to give up that place and, by refusing to side with the powers of prosecution, risk becoming the accused ourselves, the rejected ones, the suffering ones, the ones condemned to carry a cross into the place of shame and death.
I’m not going to sugar coat that. It is what it is. If, like Jesus, you stop playing the morally superior – identify with the righteous and condemn the others – game, you will very likely be regarded as going soft on sin, or giving comfort to terrorists and enemies, or just odd and unAustralian. You will find that people who previously welcomed you as “one of us” look at you with suspicion and keep their distance. You’ve stopped playing the compulsory game, the us-and-them game, the human game, the satanic game. In short, you will have taken sides with the one who knew his journey into the “holy city” would lead to his rejection, suffering and death. And if you take sides with him, and continue to follow him on into the valley of death, on this journey that we recommit ourselves to each Lent, then you may indeed find yourself as insiders to God’s promises, as those who emerge from the valley of death into the promised land of resurrection life and the wide open spaces of God’s limitless love.