This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at my first main morning service in our new parish, St Christopher's, Allesley Park in Coventry. It's based on Mark 8:27-38 (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%208:27-38&version=NIV).
He was young, free and single. In the prime of his life. He’d only recently become famous, but all the reports suggested he had massive potential and that he could become something really special. Certainly those who knew him best never ceased to be amazed by the things he said and did. He had real talent. Could make a huge impact on the world stage. But then he died. Just like that. Came out of the blue. Here today, gone tomorrow. Cut off in his prime, or even before his prime. What a terrible tragedy! What a waste, a pointless loss of life!
You ask people about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, many people might react along those lines. He was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, cut off before he’d had a chance to make a real impact. At least Gandhi was killed when he was relatively old – Jesus was killed before his time. What a tragic waste of life. It was never meant to end that way. Or was it?
Could you turn in your Bibles to page … for we’re going to be spending some time looking at the passage from Mark 8:27-38 this morning. This passage is a pivotal passage in the Gospel of Mark. It’s hugely significant, because it raises key questions about the very nature of Jesus’ mission and kingship and, in turn, about the very nature of what it is to follow him.
The passage begins with a glorious moment of revelation when Peter declarss, “You are the Messiah.” You can imagine there being angels in heaven giving high fives and fist pumps, perhaps with an Andy Murray, “Come on!” at this moment. Someone got it! Someone understood what Jesus was all about! Or did he?
Forgive me if this is all repeating what you already know, but Jewish people at the time perceived the figure of the Messiah to be a liberator who would free the Israelites and defeat their enemies. And, at a time when the hand of the Romans was very heavy on Israel, there was no better time than this for the Messiah to appear. At long last, Peter thinks, we have found the man we’re waiting for. At long last, we can be free.
But then two confusing things happen. Firstly, we read in verse 30, “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” That’s strange, surely everyone should know about the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah. We need to shout it from the rooftops, not keep it shushed up! Just imagine the popular support that Jesus could get – we could raise up a people’s army to take on the Romans! So what good would it do to stay quiet?
And then in verse 31 Jesus explains that he’s going to suffer, face rejection and death. Well, that’s simply ridiculous! There’s no doubt in Peter’s or anyone else’s mind that the job of the Messiah is to overcome the oppressors, not to be killed by them. The idea of a crucified Messiah is just plain stupid. What good would that do? Surely Jesus has got this wrong! Peter has just had this eureka moment. He’s just demonstrated that he understands all about Jesus’ identity, so he takes it upon himself to correct Jesus. In fact, he rebukes him. Strong words are said.
But then Jesus responds in perhaps the most extraordinary way possible, in verse 33, “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Ouch! Why is Jesus so harsh to Peter? After all, he could have explained, in a very kind, gentle, British sort of way, “Peter old chap, I’m really sorry to have to say this, but I think you might have got the wrong end of the stick.” Instead, he seems to speak some of the harshest words of the Bible, delivering one of the most despicable insults possible. He basically says that in that moment, Peter is the embodiment of all that is evil.
But why? Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus faced a constant choice between taking the easy way, and the path of obedience. It began in the temple as a boy, when he chose to obey Mary and Joseph, rather than take the more exciting route of staying in the temple with the scholars; it continued in the desert when Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow to him; and it would come to a climax in Gethsemane, when Jesus sweated blood and pleaded with God to find another way, before submitting to the Father’s will.
Adrian Plass writes, “The vehemence of that rebuke may have reflected … the powerful inclination in Jesus himself to collude with the notion that he might evade or avoid the suffering and death that was clearly essential to the success of his mission. … Do you honestly think,' he might have gone on to say to Peter, 'that I want to be rejected and killed and all the rest of it? Almost everything in me would love to say to you, "Yes, yes, of course you're right. … So just don't tempt me, please!' (Adrian Plass, Never Mind the Reversing Ducks)
The issue here comes down to the kind of Messiah Jesus was sent to be. Peter, and I’m sure, the rest of the disciples, as I explained earlier, thought that Jesus was sent to fight the Jewish enemies of Rome and those other nations that caused the small nation such problems down the centuries.
Actually, Jesus had bigger fish to fry. There was a greater battle to be won, worse enemies to destroy. When Jesus came, he came to take on nothing less than the twin enemies of sin and death, which have power to destroy families and even whole communities and countries. It is sin that is behind every act of corruption, every incident of injustice committed by individuals or wider groups.
I was horrified to read the reports of how the police and emergency services acted to cover up the chaos surrounding the Hillsborough disaster. That chaos and confusion possibly contributed to the loss of some of the 96 lives lost that day. The cover up and subsequent heaping of blame onto supposed hooliganism and drunkenness of Liverpool fans has done even more damage to an already broken community. But the institutions of the emergency services themselves aren't the problem, but rather it's the fact that individuals within these institutions acted to avoid having to lose status, power or influence. Some sinned by lying, fabricating events and forcing people to change their stories. Some sinned more subtly by failing to speak out, even though they knew that something wasn't right. They gave into the temptation that all of us face to take the easy route.
The problem is, we're all flawed, we all fail. Although it's absolutely right to condemn the actions of those who colluded in the aftermath of the Hillsborough, who can honestly say, hand on heart that they wouldn't have acted in a similar way were they in their shoes? We all fail. We all see the easy route, and too often we take it. It's easier to blame someone else, especially when they're a soft target. It takes courage to stand up and admit you've got it wrong. It takes courage to stand up to injustice, especially when those who are perpetrating those injustices have the power to make your life very difficult or even threaten your livelihood. When you put your head above the parapet, you tend to get shot.
Jesus came to put his head above the parapet. He came to be shot. He came to save those who couldn’t save themselves.
He knows that God is calling him to follow the path of complete obedience. Peter's words are strongly seductive, which is why they need to be so ardently rejected. There is no room for compromise. Jesus' road is the road of complete, sacrificial obedience, which leads to the cross. The cross was the symbol of humiliation and punishment, but he sees beyond that, to the day of victory and vindication. He sees the empty tomb. He sees the victory over sin and death. He sees new life and new hope. He sees the day when humanity and God would live hand in hand. None of this would happen unless he is prepared to live sacrificially following God on the path of complete obedience.
But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus then turns his focus back to the disciples and the crowd that gathers around them, and in turn, to us. In verses 34 and 35 we read, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Although being saved by Jesus costs us nothing, because the price was paid on the cross; if we want to follow Jesus, it'll cost us everything. He calls us to that same path of total obedience without exception or reservation. This means putting the needs of others before our own. This means loving those in our community and beyond who are difficult to love. This means, in the words of one of the eucharistic prayers, touching untouchables with love. This means asking God together and individually, who it is he is calling us to serve, and then stepping out of our comfort zone, getting out of the church building, in order to reach out and extend God's kingdom. This means being prepared to get uncomfortable. This means being willing to change those parts of our individual and corporate lives that fail to serve our mission to be God's people serving this community. This means finding out the needs and longings inherent in our community and then meeting them, being Jesus' hands and feet and sharing God's love. It means taking risks and being willing to face failure and rejection. To put it bluntly, if we're not willing to endure hardship, rejection and humiliation for the sake of God and his kingdom, then we are not worthy to bear the name of the King through whom we have hope and new life.
Timothy Keller writes, “If your agenda is the end, then Jesus is just the means; you're using him. But if Jesus is the King, you cannot make him a means to your end. You can’t come to a king negotiating. You lay your sword at a king’s feet and say, “Command me.” If you try to negotiate instead, if you say, “I’ll obey you if …,” you aren’t recognising him as a king. But don’t forget that Jesus is not just a king; he’s a king on a cross. If he were only a king on a throne, you’d submit to him just because you have to. But he’s a king who went to the cross for you. Therefore you can submit to him out of love and trust. This means coming to him not negotiating but saying, “Lord, whatever you ask I will do, whatever you send I will accept.” When someone gave himself utterly for you, how can you not give yourself utterly to him? Taking up your cross means for you to die to self-determination, die to control of your own life, die to using him for your agenda.” – Timothy Keller, King’s Cross
I don’t know the community well enough yet to discern how exactly he is calling us to serve Allesley Park and Whoberley, but I’m so excited to be on this journey of discovery with you. He calls us to lay down our lives for him and for those whom we’re called to serve, but he only asks us to do what he’s already done for us. He also does so assuring us that in dying to our own agenda, we’ll find life in all its fullness.