Lent II, Year B
Mk 8:31-38 or Mk 9:2-9
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 Sarah 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."
For 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.
Then he began to teach them 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."
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We have observed, at many points in Mark’s gospel, that the theme of Jesus death is a structuring principle. The revelation that we have murdered God’s agent, Jesus, should have (by the standards of our mimetically structured culture) put us in some very hot water. Instead, we will be greeted with an announcement of peace at Jesus’ resurrection. God has come as Peacemaker once and for all.
Had Jesus acted like any other savior or hero or messiah, he would have come back from the dead with a warrior’s vengeance. He would have been the divine Rambo. Thankfully, it didn’t happen that way!
Scholars recognize that a turning point occurs in Mark’s gospel with our reading for today. Some have seen the gospel in the form of a chiasmus whose center is this text. No matter how we see it, it is not possible to hurry by this text, inasmuch as it informs us that a very specific rejection and violent death will befall God’s agent.
There is going to be a severe price to pay for bringing the gospel of the kingdom. There will be a harsh penalty exacted for healings and exorcisms. A Roman cross awaits one who would dare to teach sedition, to teach the people mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. James Allison (Raising Abel) is surely correct to observe that Jesus’ ministry and message was not about death but Life. But to systems of death, life is poison.
The perfect example is found when Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for teaching about the impending doom and consequent glory of the Son of Man. There is still room in Peter’s thinking for divine justice and the right to retaliation, ergo, the right to determine another’s death, in short, the right to ‘holy war.’ This apparent rebuke of Peter’s comes full circle when Jesus rejects Peter’s rebuke with a stinging rebuke of his own. He calls Peter ‘Satan.’
Peter is limited in his thinking, no matter how high a Christology he may have. He has yet to realize ‘the secret of the kingdom.’ And this failure is named quite clearly, ‘Satan.’ Strange don’t you think? To call such a miscue ‘Satan?” We are reminded of our studies in Epiphany on Satan, where we discovered the fruitfulness of considering the ‘Satan’ as an anthropological category. That anthropological category has a specific theology of a retributive god, in short, a god like Satan, the Prosecutor, the Grand Inquisitor. Jesus rejects such a role for himself because God is not like that.
In a world dominated by wars and rumors of wars, and a Christian heritage replete with justifications for all kinds of violence, abuse and retaliation, can we see that every time we involve or invoke God in any kind of violence or retribution we are simply placing God amongst all the other gods of religion? We are committing idolatry. Are we aware of just how similar our Jesus looks to either Hercules or Rocky? Do we discern from a position of revelation, the cross of the Son of Man? Or will we, like Peter, persist in believing that violence is its own remedy. Walk tall, Jesus, and carry a big stick.
“You, Satan, go away.” Ouch.
There has been a lingering question in Jesus studies that vexes almost every student of the subject, namely, the Son of Man sayings. In particular a great deal of energy has gone into the discussion of the authenticity of many of the sayings. More specifically, the notion that the Jesus of history might have referred to a suffering and dying Son of Man has been challenged quite seriously.
The concept of the dying/rising God, popularized in Roman society by Mithraism, seemed a more apt analogue than the concept of a suffering Messiah to twentieth century scholars. And so Son of Man sayings like the ones that occur in today’s texts were relegated to a certain rather vague ‘Hellenistic Christianity.’ Viola! The revelatory difference that occurs in the dying and rising of Jesus is completely obscured when it is overlaid with a mythical framework.
However, there is ample justification for considering the Son of Man saying in today’s text as an authentic utterance of Jesus. It can be noted that Mark’s placement of this ‘shift’ or change in Jesus’ teaching occurred ‘mid-way’ through his brief ministry. The Fourth Gospel may help us here. After the feeding of the five thousand the author writes, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again into the hills by himself” (John 6.15). The multitudes had interpreted the sign of Jesus as God’s blessing upon them and were willing to go to war for him. They would make him king.
That unwanted action could only provoke anger and fear at the highest levels. And it did. There were some that would see to it that this nonsense had a quick ending. Even if Jesus were not thinking about the Isaianic servant, he would have been astute enough to realize the political implications of the crowd’s response. That he may have seen it coming as he reflected upon Second Isaiah (which Bruce Chilton has demonstrated had a great impact on Jesus in its targumic form) should surprise no one, particularly the theologians.
One final observation: Following Jesus as he follows in the steps of the Father will cost you. Mark’s theology of radical discipleship is seen in his structuring of this narrative around the Son of Man sayings. The wisdom contained in these aphorisms is a question set before every single one of us, “What good is it for someone to gain the entire world, yet forfeit their soul?” Well, what was the answer for Jesus?
There is a definite danger for us as interpreters of this passage. Even as Jesus confronts the demonic/mimetic thinking that led Peter to rebuke Jesus earlier, his actions and words tempt us to reject those who are themselves the victims of that kind of thinking. Let’s be honest. None of us is centered enough, peaceful enough to use language like that of Jesus. The only place where we can use the statement “Get behind me Satan!” might be in response to the Satan we find in ourselves.
As we all know, we are all too often guilty of pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s eye while overlooking the log in our own. While it isn’t our purpose here to highlight our own violent tendencies, we do find it important to be reminded that with texts like this in particular we can mistakenly find authorization for our desire to make scapegoats of others.
It raises the question then, how we preach peace without demonizing those who do not. The answers lie in our ability to own and love (yes love!) our own mimetic tendencies. Without a life of prayer to inform that work, we are doomed. Prayer helps us to see ourselves and others through the eyes of Jesus who redeems rather than rejects.
If we are preaching Jesus as the coming Judge, if we are speaking of a God who comes to punish and reward, we are not hearing what Jesus has to say to us about who he is and who he knows the Creator to be. It may be that we are an affront to him and like Peter, the proclamation of western Christianity may also be judged by the cross of Christ.
This week, I got my first copy of the new magazine published by Crosswalk.com. On the cover, there were references to several articles to be found inside. One was entitled “Seven Attributes of a Just War.” My heart sank.
In the early paragraphs of the article, the author speaks of the two major errors concerning war, pacifism and warmongering. He goes on to say that pacifism is in error because it gives equal weight to Jesus’ teaching about peace whether in regard to the individual or a government. Then he says that most “so-called pacifists” would also take up arms to protect their families if they were endangered.
That the author is heir of Augustine is easy to see. That he masks his disdain for “pacifists” very poorly is also easy to see. I won’t comment on the dualism that permits the author, with Augustine, to suggest that God grants a right to violence to a collection of humans not granted to a single human. Nor will I comment meaningfully on the dreadful exegesis of Romans that most of this is built upon. (See our article “Stanley on War” for more of all that.) But I do want to speak to the contention that I, a pacifist, would take up arms to defend my wife or children.
There is built into that argument an intentional blindness to the fact that any need to defend my family is built upon an earlier violence, whether economic or social, or perhaps even physical. If I do not engage in mimetic rivalry of some sort, there will never be a threat to my family. Having said that, I admit that my family and I are so deeply embedded in a mimetic system that little short of hermitage offers any refuge. Still, the author focuses, quite intentionally, on only the last in a series of violent interactions, so as to discredit the “pacifist.”
What the author fails to recognize is that pacifism permits the use of force, but not violence. I differentiate between the two in this way. Violence is force used against the other, force is morally and ethically neutral. It may be used on behalf of a brother or sister, or against an “other.” The discussion of pacifism has suffered because this distinction is too rarely employed.
Does this permit me deadly force? I think not. Does it permit me to use force so as to restrain my brother or sister from doing harm to another (and in so doing to harm themselves)? Absolutely. Force as protective restraint, force that does not render our brother or sister as “Other,” that continues to hold that offending sibling in love, even as it contains her/his violence, is not only permitted, it is demanded by my love for the offender.
But this does not permit me to go to war. Nor does it permit me to take up a gun and shoot the man breaking into my house, no matter how violent his intentions. In both these cases, I have allowed the rival’s violence to create my own, reducing me to a “double.” I may interpose myself, (The wonderful motto of the Christian Peacekeeper Teams, “Get in the way” comes to mind.) even seek to restrain my brother or sister, but not harm. Never harm.
A final comment. The author is right to suggest that I might actually take up a gun and use it (if I owned one) in defense of my family. (Somehow, it always comes to that, because it is so much easier to imagine sacrificing one’s self than to see one’s family harmed.) What the author fails to realize is that, even if I did, I would never suggest that what I did was “justified” in God’s eyes. Forgiven? Yes. But not justified.
We humans have a tendency toward self-justification. In relation to divinity, this propensity will be designated by the term religion. Whether archaic or modern, monotheistic or pluralistic, liberal or conservative our attempts to win favor from God are all bound up in the sacrificial principle of do ut des, that is, we give or sacrifice something to God in order to receive something back (blessing, fortune, benefit).
Paul’s argument is not that Christianity supersedes Judaism; nor can his argument be construed as saying only negative things about Judaism. To do this is to engage the sacrificial, to scapegoat Judaism. The fact is that Christianity, as a religion, has the same elements of religion that Paul criticizes in his own Judaism.
This problem in Christianity became acute at the time of the Reformation when justification by faith became the article by which the church stands or falls. Faith is neither a condition nor a requirement, but a response (of gratitude, eucharistia) to grace (charis). When however, one then came to discuss the Christian life, there arose three responses: the Lutheran, which says that nothing can be added to faith’s response (the law’s function is to lead us to despair and to see our need for grace); the Calvinist which re-appropriates the law, because Jesus fulfilled the Law, so too in faith we fulfill the Law (sanctification) and the Anabaptist, the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus but we are now under the lex Christi, the law of Christ. The Anabaptists rejected the Calvinist understanding of being back under the law (the 3rd use of the law) since they asserted that certain parts of the Old Testament moral law (oaths, the sword) had been rendered invalid in Christ’s injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount. They saw Lutheranism as having no real doctrine of sanctification by which the visible church could be known since once one believed there was no apparent need for obedience in the Christian life. In reaction to Luther, they immediately began using the law of Christ in the sort of legalistic, shunning-enforced way in which some Pharisees had used the law of Moses.
Luther’s great insight about justification by faith then became buried under debates about the relation between the Testaments, the role of the Old Testament law in the Christian life and the relation of faith and consequent obedience, and further debates about original sin and free will and election. In short, as soon as Luther made his momentous discovery, it was covered up again with religion.
Today, we see just how bad the situation has become when groups insist on coming to salvation ‘by grace through faith alone’ then turn around and impose varieties of moral standards. I still recall with some mirth when as a brand new ‘born again’ Christian at the tender age of 18 I joined a Baptist church. Once a month we would affirm the Nicene Creed at the back of the hymnal. As we concluded the creed with the words “and of his kingdom there shall be no end” neatly typed right below we also read/said “I will not partake of any alcoholic beverage.” There it was, an affirmation of faith with a semi-Pelagian codicil, a mark by which one could distinguish us true believers from all of those false (liberal) believers. This type of add-on affirms justification by faith but proceeds to affirm sanctification by works, which is to import the law back into the Christian life and thus turn it from life to death.
Here in Lancaster (PA) County, we have plenty of so-called peace churches, churches which follow their Anabaptist forebears in rejecting the sword. But they have in turn also rejected Luther’s (and Paul’s) insight that before God we stand as justified sinners by faith alone. Each sect has its distinguishing social markers, from dress to the use of technology, hierarchical structures and codes of conduct. Some are written, many are passed on from generation to generation without ever asking why these things matter.
Even, or especially in churches where the Sermon on the Mount is highly prized, a religious way of thinking has taken root and grown wild, sucking the life out of these congregations like trees covered with kudzu. So, one cannot turn to the peace church tradition to discern just how radical Paul’s insight is. Nor does mainline Constantinian/Augustinian influenced Christianity help, for they are stuck in endless debates about which parts of the law were fulfilled in Christ and which parts were abrogated, which parts are essential for Christian life today.
What is the heart of the problem? The problem arises when faith in Christ is faith in his sacrificial death, whereby Jesus propitiates the wrath of an angry God. By accepting that Jesus “paid it all, all to him I owe” I am given my entry card into heaven when I die. I can do nothing to effect my salvation, but I can do things that affect it. This faith in a sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death can only have as its corollary ethics which are also sacrificial. That is, Jesus’ life is seen as the fulfillment of a sacrificial interpretation of the law, his sacrificial death is the means by which I am purged of sin and guilt so that like Him, I may then be obedient to a sacrificial interpretation of the law. In short, Jesus’ death frees me to become law-obedient. This is the vicious endless circle of Christian religion.
This is to miss the crucial connections Paul makes between sin, law and wrath. The problem with the law is not in the law itself (a point Paul makes clear in Romans 7); the problem with the law is the human condition. We all use the law for our own benefit and to the detriment of others. According to the mimetic theory we are so bound to one another in negative mimesis, and its products, prohibition, ritual and myth, that we use law to justify our violence, especially our religious violence (zeal). Thus the law brings not life, but death by the way we use it. And so Christianity has fallen easily back into various forms of legalism over its two thousand year history.
However, if Jesus’ death is seen as the destruction of the violence of the principalities and powers (sin, death and the devil) this also means that Christ is the ‘end of the law’ (Romans 10:4). It means that what counts before God is a new orientation, one not based upon a sacrificial principle either in theology or ethics, but a principle that reflects the grace operative in the Christ event and which is reflected in us as our response. This way is the way of love, God’s love for us in freely forgiving our sin, our love for God in gratitude and joy and our love for one another imitating God in Christ when we like Jesus and God renounce the process of retaliation and vengeance, forgiving others, loving our enemies, being peacemakers, not because we have to but because we may. This is the gracious invitation of God in Christ in the gospel.
I found the expositions of James Dunn Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary), C.K. Barrett The Epistle to the Romans (Harpers New Testament Commentary) and Ernst Kasemann Commentary on Romans to be most helpful. I cannot recommend highly enough the book by Robert Hamerton-Kelly on Paul Sacred Violence which though out of print can still be found on www.amazon.com. H-K has taken a lot of heat over this work, and perhaps there are places things might have been said differently, but overall it is as ground breaking as Luther’s original insight.
Luther’s insights are marvelously explored in many books; two of the most helpful are Alister E. McGrath The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (although with no mention of the Anabaptist contribution) and his Luther’s Theology of the Cross. A very technical though illuminating discussion can be found in Johann Heinz’s doctoral dissertation Justification and Merit: Luther vs. Catholicism.
Preaching a text like this can be very dangerous. There will always be a tendency when speaking of the free gracious character of the gospel to want to end the sermon with a call to religion, a must, a should, an ought. Our task as preachers is to preach of this wonderful God in such a way that we elicit from our congregations thanksgiving and joy.
On the other hand, preaching a text like this is a necessary one these days when so much of Christendom has slipped away from the non/anti sacrificial message of the gospel into sacrificial forms of the gospel. For some the ditty holds true:
Free from the law, O blessed condition
I can sin as I please, and still have remission
The fear of such an antinomian response propels us to inject some form of law back into the equation without even realizing it. The challenge is to speak of the grace of God as a breaking through our sacrificial horizon, our adherence to religious zeal, our scapegoating tendencies, our fascination with retributive atonement or vengeful eschatology. It is to be able to say to everyone that faith in Christ does mean something startling, eschatological, life changing because it is the work of God in us by the Spirit of Jesus who conforms us to the image of Jesus who imitated His Father. In this Trinitarian confession, we become the community who embodies ‘humanity living eschatologically’, living now as we will live in the Kingdom of God’s love.