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‘Deny’ … the challenge of giving up the idea of a challenge.

Tracey Emin at her exhibition "Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner" at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 - 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, Turner Contemporary

Mark 8:31-38, Genesis 17:1-7 , 15-16

Lent is the season which is all about denial of the self and the mystery of God.

When it comes to the mystery in this challenging text I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Before we begin let’s set the stage…. ‘lets talk about the Gospel of Mark’ –

Having been side-lined for a long time, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Mark’s gospel. What it lacks in detail it gains in intensity. Most scholars put the writing of Mark at or around 60-70 AD/CE, about the time of the Judean revolution (important!) and acknowledge it as the first of the synoptic gospels. Mark’s writing is spare, urgent, and dramatic. Its narrative pacing of ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark ‘was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of humankind’. The emphasis of Mark’s text seems to be upon action and discipleship; he makes claims upon his audience, his Jesus leaps from the page – evoking transformation.

Mark’s writing could be described as a narrative of death.. a dramatic story and unfolding drama.. heading to a final moment of destiny. Mark cleverly puts together stories which lead the reader into rising tension.. he knows where the story will end.

An inversion of the world, radical (and open to misinterpretation).

Mark’s gospel is about re-interpreting the world.. his vision is truly apocalyptic – a revelation – that God’s kingdom is coming/has come and everything can change. But can his followers grasp this… can we still grasp this today? Mark is radical, revolutionary and subversive; Mark heralds a gospel of non-violent resistance to the forces of military, economic and religious oppression that the people of Judea were experiencing. (CM)

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

It’s worth noting that this passage is the first of three predictions about Jesus own death…  Mark is a clever writer, piecing together short anecdotes to create a compelling whole story; the three predictions are book-ended by two stories of blindness.. is this an accident or is Mark making a point about how it’s so easy to misunderstand/not-see the good news, how the shift in consciousness (a battle of cultures if you like) is so alien to what we are used to?

What makes sense to us is not what makes sense to God. Mystery.

So Jesus lets the cat out of the bag about his bleak ending, and is ‘rebuked’ (epitiman, ‘shut up’) by Peter, (‘don’t be so foolish Jesus’). In response, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, (epitemesen ‘shut up’, usually used against demons) the argument is strong and vehement…

God’s kingdom is the inversion of the world; what makes sense to us, self-preservation etc is not the same here. The love and life of God which Jesus speaks of is liberating, risky, going beyond our comfort zones – it relocates our identity with ‘the other’, and the (absurd) logic of this is beginning to loom disturbingly in the disciples minds. Despite the fact that the crowds are following and they are seeing many signs and miracles, the kingdom of Jesus is not like other kingdoms.. the reign of God wont see Jesus enthroned as a new leader (as they might have expected)… instead he announces his own killing? Something is really wrong.. Maybe Jesus is mistaken?

 Life as self (psyche)… a shift in priorities. The other is our life. Humans. Relating.

Today’s sermon is supposed to be about ‘realistic Christianity’, yet the challenge in the next section, (as Jesus draws all his listeners in) is even more bewildering and seems far from realistic.. We are suddenly confronted with talk of giving up your life to find it… this feels like too much, you can imagine the heat rising in the back of the neck, the discomfort, ‘now we are all too deeply involved… is there still a way to get out?’

Whilst it is certainly true that many people have, (and still do today) lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.. and we may remember them in our prayers this morning. But I don’t think this is the first thing Jesus is thinking of…

‘Life’ (psyche) also means soul or self.. what we might see is that Jesus is saying we must give up our selfhood.. our self-reliance, our self-madeness, our strong exterior.. our hope of control.

And if we did dare let go – where do we find ourselves? With ‘the other’.? with other people? with God..? This is about vulnerability and realising it is not us who hold even our own lives together.. we are not islands.. with live in relation .. we become human by being together.. (this church bears witness to such a community) the Eucharist reminds us weekly that we give ourselves away – yet receive our self back as a gift.

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

And as in Judea in 1st century so today there is a clash of cultures between those who perpetuate the dream of self-reliance, protectionism and closed borders – of all kinds; and those who choose to live openly, with the risk of the other and the unknown. We see this from the success-filled messages of social media to politicians who are not allowed to show any weakness etc.. Thank God for the antidote of poets and artists who reveal more subtle images of humankind.

Selfhood and Service

So let us hear this passage afresh… not an injunction to become a masochist, to invite pain or even death.. nor to think we can do things for God. Instead it is about shifting out priorities away from purely ourselves and recognising that we only become ourselves by virtue of others around us; even the stranger… it is from this vulnerable openness that our humanity properly flourishes, the human self becomes a we-self; identity found through intimacy… and it’s from that place of com/passion that all kinds of giving will occur.

The tragic shooting in Florida last week gave us the story of the gym coach Aaron Feis who ran towards the sound of gunfire to protect children and in so doing he lost his own life. He wasn’t seeking to die, he would happily have remained alive if he had the choice.. but his deep instinct was that the children’s lives were of value, and that he naturally, humanly, responded as he did. (There is much more to say of this sordid affair and the sordid response from men in power in American who are already silencing the voices of the voiceless… and yes please do read everything you want to into this!)

Jesus is reminding his followers that the gospel affects everything; upturning our understanding of politics economics education science art and people.

Faith not as construct but as gift.. beyond understanding, towards mystery.

So the kingdom of God is not contained, it defies usual logic, it shifts our priorities. Jesus could not be contained in Mark’s gospel.. and he cannot be contained today, even despite our best attempts to pin him down in theology and worship. Faith today is often neatly packaged.. “Jesus is the answer”, we may have heard, yet Mark shows over and over again that Jesus is far more the question, than the answer…

Scholar Ched Myers echoes the crowds at Golgotha; ‘If only Jesus would come down from the cross so we might believe (15:32)! Who of us’, he asks, ‘is really prepared to accept that by remaining there he shows the way to liberation, to acknowledge that in this moment [of redemptive suffering] the powers are overthrown and the kingdom [of God] is come in power and glory’ [cf. Mk. 13:26] …
Too often our religion appears to reduce this radical message to something neat and contained.. something polite and sanitised, whilst Mark is busily stirring up a revolution!

Embraced in grace. No presentation of good self, but our whole/broken self.

But that doesn’t make this inaccessible… in fact the opposite is true. The point of all this dialogue is that by ‘letting go’ of the self, our self-reliance.. and by letting go of the idea that Christianity is a task to maintain… we instead find ourselves held and loved. The illusion of distance from God becomes apparent. It is those who live openly who will live fully; and those who shore up defences who will shut down their own lives and others around them.

(Funny too that Abraham and Sarah were both deeply flawed people who, yet, still received a blessing; they allowed themselves to be open to a wild notion – though it took a lifetime to learn)

This apocalyptic good news is that God breaks into our worlds with love and grace. We don’t need to pretend.. we don’t need to present only our good self to God… we don’t need to do anything for God, we don’t need to make ourselves out to be something we’re not.. we need instead to let go of the ego, and realise – as difficult as it is – that we are wholly understood and totally loved; we are welcomed, warts and all – unmade bed and all, to feast on Christ, to share supper with him… and within that grace, (not prior to it) we may yet find ourselves – and our world – transformed with hope.

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Yes. It’s in this strange, terrifying world-shattering presence that we are finally disarmed, and instead find ourselves held in love, grace and a peace which surpasses all understanding. And that might be just fine!

 

Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.