The Second Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Over the past three weeks the Gospel lessons from Mark have pointed us in a single direction. With singular purpose each one has told us something very special about who Jesus is. I have told you before and will remind you again before this liturgical year us over, that Jesus’ identity is perhaps the most important theme in Mark’s Gospel. Mark wants his listeners to be sure, in no uncertain terms that we understand that Jesus is Messiah, but not just any Messiah.
Mark wants us to be certain to know that Jesus is not the Messiah who exercises worldly power, the one most people expected. Instead, as we learnt from the accounts of Jesus’ Baptism and Transfiguration of which we were reminded the past two Sundays, he is the one who is marked by God as the anointed, chosen one. As Jesus tells us no fewer than three times in this Gospel, he is the one who will suffer at the hands of evil men. As he tells us and the disciples and as we saw, just for an instant, at the Transfiguration, he is the one who will be raised from the dead and declare death powerless. Jesus is the messiah, the chosen one of the God of Israel who ushers in the new age of the Kingdom of God.
And yet, as grand as this all sounds, indeed as grand as Jesus really is, he is also not too grand or magnificent to be united with each and every one of us. Jesus shares both our baptism and our suffering. As we were baptised, we shared in his baptism. Whenever we suffer, as many of us have suffered, Jesus is there with us, our companion who knows what it is suffer at the hands of men, knows what it is not only to face death, but to die.
Jesus is, then, both the transcendent son of God whom we saw transfigured upon the mountain and our immanent, present, palpable brother who not only reveals the Kingdom of God to us, but invites us in through its gates, and promises us a share of resurrection life. In our Gospel readings since Epiphany, we have been shown exactly who Jesus is. We have been shown that this one with authority over the powers of the cosmos, who loves us so much that he is willing to go to death and back to give all a share in the Love of the God of Israel. And once given—given as a share of our being born into his creation and given as a share of our being baptised into his death and resurrection—this love is ours, ours indelibly.
Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This promise is, indeed, born of Jesus’ very identity. Jesus is the one who was baptised, as we are, and thereby invites us into life with him. Jesus is the one who will “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus experiences the vicissitudes of human life just as we do, and overcomes the death to which man puts him. He shows us that death is not the end. And he shows us that we are united with him, bound to him for ever and always. Nothing can change this fact, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come,” none of it. There is nothing within the human imagination—or beyond it—that could possibly alienate us from the love of God, given to us in baptism and tested in suffering.
This is good news indeed. However, as wonderful as this news sound, perhaps it sounds too good to be true. Perhaps that jaded voice in the back of our head hears this as fantastic, in the sense that it is, perhaps, fantasy. How can it be true? And Peter gives breath to that voice, expressing his wonder at how this could be true. What kind of messiah suffers and dies? Jesus makes it clear that it is precisely the one that God has sent us. Jesus’ answer to Peter’s doubt is both a swift and firm, confidence inspiring, rebuke to him and a challenge to us all:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?
God has made no mistake. God has sent this Messiah to share our human nature, to suffer as we do, and yet triumph over the forces of the world that stand in the way of the Kingdom now inaugurated.
Here, Jesus tells us that we have a choice to make; that we have been given the power to enter into this new life with him. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus asks, “to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.” It is “life” that we seek, the breath of life, the Spirit, that descended upon Jesus at his baptism. We can choose a life committed to the pursuit of worldly power, the kind of power exercised over our fellow human beings, the kind of power that enforces our will, as we gather riches only in our own self interest. Or, Jesus us tells us, we can choose the works of “life,” the real “life” authorised by God. This life, the life of the baptised, bound for ever to Jesus, is to devote ourselves to the works of the Kingdom of God rather than to the works of man.
This is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus: to acknowledging that suffering is real, that suffering is a part of human life, but that suffering is not the end of all things. In walking the way of the cross we gain life, that indelible connection with Jesus and with each other of which Saint Paul speaks, the life bound up in the love of God from which we shall never be separated.
And this new can offer us comfort, having spent the past year living under the shadow of death and disease. We have suffered as we have lived in fear, experienced the illness and death of hundreds of thousands of people in our nation alone, experienced illness and death closer to home, our own illnesses and the deaths of our friends and family. We have additionally had to live with the realisation that humans continue, two thousand years after the crucifixion, to treat each other unjustly. Yet our comfort comes in the relentless message of Christ, even during the year we have lived, even in Lent, that Jesus knows what it is to suffer as we do and yet goes up to the arms of the cross loving us and the world God has made, goes to the cross to show that while the suffering is real, that self-serving and cruel men who put him there will not win, that death itself will not have the final word.
Bound up in Jesus’ very identity, his being sent and baptised, tempted, castigated, and put to death, is the promise God gives us that we are valuable and integral partakers in the work Jesus has been sent to do, swept up into this pulsing, living, movement, and we are given a share in that resurrection from the dead that comes on the third day. Over these Lenten weeks, let this message seep into our very beings and allow it to energise us to carry on in the face to hardship and loss, confident in the love that grips us on all sides and will never let us go and prepare us for the resurrection that shall surely come in the Easter that awaits us.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
27 February 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume