February 25, 2018 The Second Sunday in Lent


Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16, Psalm 22:22–30, Romans 4:13–25, Mark 8:31–38

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Amen.

I have spoken before of the thin places—those places in the world in which it seems the Divine and human meet and one can almost reach out and touch the Divine. Each of us likely has a thin place or two in our lives where we feel perfectly at peace with the creation and in which we especially meet God. I have a couple of thin places in my life: New Mexico, Maui, and particularly the beaches in Hawaii, and lately, Johnson lake, where I live. Jesus, too, had a thin place in the desert following his baptism where, filled with the Holy Spirit, he was tempted by Satan—the Accuser—but at the same time was at one with the wild beasts and ministered to by the angels. Throughout his ministry, Jesus needed to lean on this experience in the desert in which he chose the way of God over the way of the world—the way of Empire—for at numerous times in his ministry, Satan would show up again and try to get him to abandon God’s way and join the way of the world. Jesus needed to remember those thin places where he was perfectly at one with the creation and with God.

The Celtic concept of thin places is the notion that in addition to feeling close to the Divine and at one with the creation, it is also in the thin places that the way of the world fights extra hard to undermine the way of God in one’s life; and I would imagine that one of the tactics of the way of the world is to dress itself up to look reasonable and godly in order to tempt and confuse. How often, for example, can we see the positive in various courses of action set before us? And how often, when we are struggling with an issue, have we been given the advice to make two lists—one going in one direction, and one going in another—to list all the reasons why one should move either way? The assumption is that the longest list wins. But does it always?

In today’s Gospel reading, we have one of those incidents in which Jesus is again tempted to turn his back on God’s way in favor of the world’s way. After asking the disciples concerning speculation of his identity among the people, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Without hesitation, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. But then Jesus gives content to the meaning of Messiahship: “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.” This is too much for Peter who apparently had a different concept of Messiahship. So, Peter takes Jesus aside and scolds him. I can almost hear Peter voicing his list to Jesus, the list of reasons why Jesus’ concept of Messiahship was wrong-headed and a folly: “If you are dead, how can you lead a movement to overthrow the Romans?”; and, “Suffering and rejection are weak concepts. Suffering is for losers. No one wants to suffer, or follow someone who suffers. No one wants to be rejected; we all want to fit in somewhere. We must speak of strength and power, or if we must speak of suffering and rejection, then speak of inflicting suffering on our enemies and rejecting their ways”; and, “Do you want to scare these people away? Many of them have given up family, friends, and livelihood to follow you. Talk of suffering, rejection, and death does not inspire hope and loyalty.” And so the list goes.

It appears that Jesus was tempted by Peter’s reasoned rebuke. Peter did, after all, have some good points to make. But then, our text says, Jesus turned and looked at the disciples. In that action, Jesus realized what was happening—that Peter had become Satan, the Accuser, who was trying to get Jesus to abandon God’s way in favor of the way of the world. What was it about looking at the disciples that made Jesus see what was happening? After all, it is reasonable to speculate that Peter also was thinking of the disciples when delivering his rebuke to Jesus. I think Peter’s rebuke to Jesus was the world’s way cloaked in godly garb. After all, if Jesus were to succeed in Peter’s plan, Jesus would be a folk hero and all the people of Palestine would be freed from Roman oppression; and likely Jesus’ closest followers would be his top advisors with positions of power and authority in the new realm. Power. Strength. Authority. What can be more useful than these things in the world?

But Jesus sees another way—a way that can only be won through the giving away of one’s life even unto death. Jesus understood that this pattern of life—God’s way in the world—was the only way to defeat the way of the world that manifests itself in so many ways and in so many Empires in the world. The vision of Peter is at best temporary, affecting perhaps his generation alone. But eventually, in the place of Rome, another power would arise, and another, and another to take the place of the old (as indeed has happened through the centuries). But God’s way changes hearts and words and behaviors to take on the way of the world whenever and wherever it may arise throughout the ages; it is a vision that inspires people over and over again. The disciples who move Jesus to stay the course represent not just a straggly band of men who accompanied Jesus during his short life, but the great train of disciples throughout the ages, down to our own day and including us, who would find hope and inspiration in the giving away of their lives for the sake of the world and against the way of the world. My guess is that Jesus saw this when he looked at these disciples and came to hear Peter’s well-reasoned rebuke for what it was: an attempt to push him off-track and get him to abandon God’s way in the world.

Now in truth, life is lived in shades of gray, we know that. It is rare that a clear-cut way forward presents itself. Mostly, we move based on gut feelings that may not be fully developed in our understanding; and often, the lists we draw up are helpful in discerning the best way forward. Indeed, these things as well as others (such as holy conversation with good friends or spiritual directors, for instance) should be attended to, for they often help discern the way God in the world when God’s way seems clouded. And still, even with the best discernment possible, choosing how to act or speak in the world can sometimes feel confusing—and often the best we can do is close our eyes, plug our noses, and jump in, hoping we have made the best choice we can make to love God and our neighbor as deeply as we possibly can. We may even know the right choice to make and still choose differently because we discover we are not ready to walk the path we know we should. In any case, what is often most important is that we are even asking the question, “How do I discern the way of God and turn my back on the way of the world?”

Abram and Sarai were called by God to pick up and go to a new place—to walk by faith in the way of God. God promised to enter into covenant, into relationship with them and promised to bless them. Now, in my imagination, I do not see the couple willingly packing up and leaving their familiar place in full confidence simply because God spoke. In fact, Paul, in our second reading for today, seems to indicate that it was only over time that Abraham “grew strong in his faith” because he became “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” And maybe this is the point. Perhaps we can only finally choose the way of God as we come to understand its characteristics and traits and how to recognize it in our lives, and as we come to experience and trust “that God was able to do what he had promised.”

The way Jesus walked and invites us to walk is not the easy way, but it is the way of God, and God is able to do what [God] promised.” Amen.

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