Mark 8: 31-end.
HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!
I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name. From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ". Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...
"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!
All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)
So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Sister Shelley, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!
It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world. They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead. Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!
According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry turns...it pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.
Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts. Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard? So he rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)
But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff. And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God thinks...to see things from God's perspective".
Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering. And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity. It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross. It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal. Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.
But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to suffer...it was part of the divine plan. But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross".(Mark 8:34
Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.
First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?
To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first. It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?". Think about this: if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism. We too are called to live that way...to live generously…
…And to live lightly upon the earth. The son of man had nowhere to lay his head. To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour. There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth: “He who dies with the most toys, wins”.
Nothing of course could be further from the truth. “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns. “This very night, your life will be required of you”. You can’t take any of it with you. Jesus says: “Deny yourself. Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal. Build up treasure for heaven”.
Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?
A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy. Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others. And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.
Lucy’s body was failing her. But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker. She said something very profound to me. She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me. I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people. That none of us can exist in isolation."
I was intensely moved by what Lucy said. After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God. There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering. She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.
Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church. All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.
We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.
May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you. May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.
And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Shelley!