A Reading from the Book of Genesis (17:17, 15-16)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
(Psalm refrain to be sung by soloist and repeated by all)
“ I will praise you, Lord,
in the assembly of your people.”
22 Praise the Lord, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.
23 For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.
24 My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
25 The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: *
“May your heart live for ever!”
26 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
27 For kingship belongs to the Lord; *
he rules over the nations.
28 To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
29 My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
30 They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (4:13-25)
The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark (8:31-38)
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Sunday’s gospel reading concluded with the basic message of Jesus’ life and ministry (Mark 1:15): “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” That message is, of course, also the basic message of the season of Lent: a call to repent and live in the kingdom of God.
But it is essential to remember what “repent” means. Its Greek root mean to turn around 180 degrees and head in the opposite direction. Often we use that word “repent” to refer to something that other people need to do: to abandon their lives of exploitation and hedonism and whatever else they might have been pursuing and to become, well, more like us. (Isn’t that the ideal?) But there’s always that disturbing phrase in our Ash Wednesday liturgy that refers to “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.” Repentance is for all of us; but repent of what?
Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer began his Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer with these words: “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.” That is, there is nothing so good and so positive that we, given enough time, cannot distort. We begin with something good, something very positive, but we twist it to conform to what we want it to be instead of what God wants it to be — and what God calls us to be.
Passages like today’s gospel reading serve to remind us of Jesus’ basic call to discipleship. And they can serve also to remind us of the ways that we try to water that call down and to make it conform to what we would like it to mean, instead of what Jesus clearly meant it to mean. It calls us fundamentally to turn away from a focus on ourselves, to deny ourselves, and to follow Jesus in his focus on God and in his self-sacrificing service to others. Yet it seems that we, who call ourselves his followers, are always ready to try to find a way around that radical summons.
During the religious revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, great religious leaders, like the Wesley brothers, challenged people’s complacency with their faith and called them to a faith that was personal, one that made a real difference in their lives, one that became a passion for them. The movement that they began started a great renewal in the church.
But it was only a matter of time before people began to take a faith that was personal and turn it into a faith that was private; and there is a big difference between the two. It was only a matter of time before people ceased to focus outwardly, on others, as Jesus did, and began to focus inwardly, on their own private relationship with God. They ceased to celebrate what God could do through them for the sake of the world, and began to focus on what God could do for them, with service to others coming in only a distant second, if at all. It was a worldview that was just as self-centered as the so-called non-religious people whom they criticized; they had simply replaced a focus on getting material things for themselves with a focus on getting so-called religious things for themselves. They themselves were still the center, not God and not others.
That distortion of the gospel message is not just a relatively unimportant note in church history, one that can be relegated to the past like some of the obscure Trinitarian controversies of the church’s early centuries. It is a distortion that has directly affected our own religious heritage and that persists, albeit unconsciously, even among mainline Christians today.
Many of us here, and I include myself, were brought up at a time in which the emphasis in our religious life was on ourselves: on what God can do for me and on God taking care of me. The lessons that we were taught as children directed our attention toward that private, self-focused approach to faith. And that emphasis was reinforced in the ways that we prayed and in the hymns that we sang. As I mentioned about a month ago, the hymns that we sing have a profound effect on our religious thinking. And many of the best-loved old hymns that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Protestant evangelicalism, and that some people love to sing in churches even today, reinforce that self-focused approach to a life of faith. And they continue to have that effect. Over the years, we came to accept that private focus on ourselves and on what God can do for me as what a Christian life is all about. Many people love those old songs and love the focus on themselves.
But there is one huge problem with that approach to Christian faith and life: it directly contradicts both the teaching and the example given to us by Jesus. It is essentially an attempt to do what Peter was trying to do in today’s gospel reading. In the verses that appear right before today’s passage, Peter had declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But now, he was trying to tell Jesus what kind of Messiah he wanted him to be: none of this suffering stuff, none of this denying yourself stuff, none of this living your life for the sake of God and of others stuff. Peter wanted to define what “being a follower of Jesus” meant instead of listening to what Jesus was telling everyone it meant.
Jesus’ message of self-denial, Jesus’ message of the cross, posed a direct challenge to Peter; and it continues to pose a direct challenge to those who try to take a watered-down and distorted approach to the Christian faith and life today. As Lamar Williamson points out, “To say ‘Christ’ to someone is to give up the right to define what ‘Christ’ means.” To affirm Jesus as the Christ and to commit ourselves to living as his followers necessarily means a turning away from ourselves. And it’s not enough, as the saying goes, to “give up something”; instead, the same author goes on to insist, “The call is not to deny ourselves something, but to deny self.” Then he continues, looking especially at the author of the second gospel, the one who gave us today’s gospel reading and the one who serves as the patron of this parish, and declares: “Mark is a lion: strong and tough. Here “to be a Christian” is to follow Jesus on his costly way in an imitation of Christ that brushes aside the pieties usually associated with that phrase and goes for the jugular of life itself.” To be a Christian means following Jesus in turning away from ourselves and living our lives for the sake of God and in service to the people of God.
That call can still come as a shock to us, if we dare to take it seriously. Once we have learned something, once it has been ingrained in us and reinforced year after year, it’s terribly hard to change. It’s terribly hard to “repent”: to turn around 180 degrees and go the opposite direction. It is terribly hard to turn away from a self-centered approach to our faith and to do what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Yet that is what Jesus’ words and what the season of Lent call us to do. And there’s nothing at all in today’s gospel reading that even remotely claims that it is going to be easy. But then, it’s the message of the cross. And it is the only way that Jesus gives to us to experience and to live in the kingdom of God. It is the message that God calls us to hear again during this season of Lent. And it is the message that God calls us to pass along to the children who are to come after us: those who are here with us now and those who will be joining us in just a few minutes, as well as those who are yet to be born.
Deny yourself in order to find yourself. Die to yourself in order to live. That is the paradoxical but life-giving message of the cross.