Old Testament: Genesis (17:1-7, 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.”
The Response: Psalm (22:22-30)
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.
The Epistle: 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 Gospel: 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
Judy and I don’t watch TV very much; but, once in a while, a series comes along that is so well done that we become “regulars.” The past two seasons, we have been watching the Netflix series “The Crown,” which is based on people and events that are part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
During its various episodes, I have been reminded of events, both significant and secondary, that were the “news” of the time. And I have been reminded of certain traditions and practices that I had forgotten. Among them is the custom of new monarchs taking new names. Elizabeth chose to keep her given name when she accepted the crown; but that was a break from her immediate predecessors. Her uncle, who had gone by “David,” had chosen to use his first name and was known as Edward VIII; and her father, Albert, had taken the name George VI.
There is a long tradition of kings and popes, among others, taking new names when they have accepted new responsibilities. It is an ancient practice. And both today’s first reading and gospel reading present us with examples of a change of name. In the first reading, the change is explicit: “Abram” becomes “Abraham,” and “Sarai” becomes “Sarah.” But in the gospel, a change of name lies behind the scene. It is not specifically mentioned in these verses, but it is critical to what takes place.
In the verses that immediately precede this passage, Jesus comes to Caesarea Philippi; and there he asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter answers him, “You are the Messiah.” That designation – “Messiah” or “Anointed One” in Hebrew, and “Christ” in Greek — was not originally a name, but a title. It identified Jesus’ unique and central role in the coming of the reign of God. Jesus was “the Messiah”: Jesus was “the Christ.” But even before the last books of the New Testament had been completed, “Christ” “or “Messiah” had become another name for the now crucified and risen Jesus.
But that change of name, that unique identity, quickly became a problem. Peter was willing to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ; but, as we heard in today’s gospel reading, he was willing to do so only on his own terms: only as long as Jesus conformed to Peter’s idea of what he wanted the Messiah to be. Jesus immediately made it crystal clear that neither Peter nor anyone else had the right to do that. As New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson puts it (Mark, p. 153), “To say ‘Christ’ to someone is to give up the right to define what ‘Christ’ means; it is to acknowledge the other’s authority to define the term and with it the meaning of the confession. Peter tries to behave like a patron, not a disciple.” And Jesus quickly puts him in his place.
In 2000 years, we still don’t seem to have learned the hard lesson that Jesus taught Peter on that day. We Christians still try to define — and especially to limit — what we mean when we acknowledge Jesus as God’s Messiah, as God’s Christ: what it means to be a Christian.
Mark’s version of the gospel, from which most of our Sunday gospel readings are taken this year, makes that contrast between Jesus’ meaning and our attempted meaning especially stark. In comparing various New Testament writers, the same commentator observes (Ibid., pp. 154-5): “What does it means to be a Christian? In answer to this question Paul and John emphasize believing in Jesus Christ. Matthew stresses obedience to the law as authoritatively interpreted by Jesus. 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.”
Mark’s Jesus is not looking for people who content themselves with saying that they believe in him: theoretical Christians, whose real focus is on themselves and making life easy for themselves, rather than on God and the ways of God. Mark’s Jesus is not looking for people who limit their allegiance to so-called “religious matters,” but who try to sideline Jesus’ central concerns: such as actively caring for the poor and vulnerable, transforming society to reflect God’s justice, and ensuring that what God has provided for all serves the needs of all.
Mark’s Jesus is looking for people who are willing to dedicate their lives and dedicate themselves to living and embodying the values of the reign of God. Mark’s Jesus is a teacher and leader who insists that living even now in the reign of God makes everything else subordinate, because living the kingdom penetrates to the very heart of who we are and of who God calls us to be. “What does it profit you to gain the whole world, but to lose your very soul, your very self?”
Such a radical call is by its nature formidable; and accepting its necessity for the fullness of life is something that we naturally and instinctively avoid. At first, that call seems totally irrational.
In our Genesis reading, we heard of God’s call to Abraham and of God’s promise to Abraham. But what the reading didn’t include was Abraham’s initial response to that call and promise. The very next verse (17:17) begins, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.” Abraham’s first response to God’s call and promise was to laugh at how ridiculous it was. The very idea of what God has promised seemed utterly absurd.
And in our gospel reading, Peter and, implicitly, the other disciples along with him had the same sort of reaction to Jesus’ call to take up a cross and follow him. It, too, was an idea that was so alien to people’s common attitudes and assumptions that it was hard to take it seriously and far harder to accept and adopt it as one’s own.
And yet, Mark insists, that is exactly what following Jesus demands. And deciding to change who we are, to change our name, in a sense, to claim the name, the title of “Christian” commits us to that costly discipleship and to following Jesus wherever he might lead.