“He said all this quite openly . . .” A Sermon for Feb. 28

Texts: Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

Last week the New York Times ran a story about a disagreement between residents of rural Vermont. At first glance this doesn’t sound like a topic worthy of coverage in a national newspaper. Here’s what happened: A stocky man with a bushy beard moved from northern New York State to Vermont and bought 30 acres outside a small town. He made the move because of Vermont’s lax gun laws. Vermont is a rural state with a long tradition of hunting and the like. The New Yorker bought the land in order to open a special kind of gun range. Specifically, he wanted to establish a tactical weapons training site, a place where people from wherever could come and practice using their personal assault rifles. He set up several life-like scenarios for live-fire drills. According to the New York Times he tried to sidestep the usual permit requirements by not charging admission and thereby not officially operating a business.

As you can imagine, the guy’s new neighbours, along with the rest of the town, were not enthused. One neighbour said it sometimes sounds like he’s living through the Vietnam War. Neighbours have installed security systems and some have even bought bullet proof vests. One of them keeps a letter in her kitchen in case the police are unable to find her. The town clerk has requested funds to install security cameras at the little, wooden administrative building.

When asked to explain himself, the owner of the gun range said, “If there’s two types of people in the world—people that are strong and people that are weak . . . I’m among the strong percentage.” You’ll want to read that again.

The contrast between that way of looking at things and the way of Jesus could not be starker. We see that in our text today. In the last part of chapter 8 Mark writes this: “Then [Jesus] 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.”

If that sounds ambiguous to anyone, let’s not forget that one of Jesus’ own students found the idea objectionable. It was Peter. Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Think of that for a moment: a student found the idea that his teacher would voluntarily walk the way of suffering and rejection so objectionable that he told his teacher off.

Jesus was insistent. He responded to Peter quite firmly. It was actually more than firm: Jesus identified Peter’s objection as satanic!  He told Peter, “‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” That’s pretty clear.

Let’s focus on Jesus words: “the Son of Man must undergo suffering and be rejected . . . .” In the gospels Jesus often uses the term “Son of Man” in speaking of himself. It is an awkward phrase. Scholars don’t agree on what exactly it means. However, at some level it seems to indicate the representative role of Jesus. So, given his unique role in God’s restorative project, Jesus believes that he “must” suffer and be rejected.

Now, in some parts of the Christian family the common way to describe this is to say that Jesus “must” suffer because God demands punishment of sin. Or sometimes they even say that God’s wrath “must” be satisfied.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but my guess is that the live-fire gun enthusiast might like this description of why Jesus “must” suffer and be rejected. He might think that Jesus “must” suffer because the only way to achieve peace and stability is if someone suffers. Maybe those who are weak. There was a popular Christian preacher a few years ago who liked to describe Jesus as a thoroughly ripped MMA fighter with a tattoo on his leg, a sword in his hand, sitting astride a gallant steed, galloping boldly into battle against Satan and the powers of evil. In his eyes Jesus had to be like G.I. Joe or John Wayne.

You can keep that picture of Jesus in your mind if you like. It’s not totally unbiblical. But here’s what I think it misses. The suffering and death of Jesus can’t be separated from his teaching. The foundational truth is that the evils of violence and pointless suffering can’t be defeated on their own terms. We don’t fight murder with murder. We don’t fight oppression with oppression. We don’t fight brute force with brute force. The whole system must be changed. God’s peacable intentions are achieved through peacable means. The whole ecosystem must be reborn.

Here’s how Michele Hershberger, a Mennonite teacher and writer, puts its: “Jesus . . . was killed because he dared to threaten the injustice of his day, and he was committed to challenging it nonviolently. We are called to this same mission.” She goes on, “I believe the cross was and is necessary because Jesus had to face the worst evil could do. Jesus had to enter into the vortex of cruelty and even in that immense pain and hatred, respond with love. This broke the system, unmasked it for what it truly was.” Michele Hershberger has written a short book on the subject, if you’d like to think about this a bit more.

At a time when guys with guns are dividing the world up between the strong and weak and claiming that because of their interest in violence, they are among the strong—we need to hear the story of God. We need to hear it over and over again. There’s nothing weak about Jesus, but Jesus is moved by compassion and he operates with humility. Jesus has a deep sense that he has a role to play in God’s redemptive work. So he voluntarily chooses a path that involves suffering and rejection because this is how change comes. This is how the system is exposed and broken. Evil isn’t defeated by evil means. Evil is defeated with compassion and self-offering love. This is the essential shape of Jesus’ ministry. This is anything but violent narcissism.

To put it differently, this path of suffering and rejection, the path that Jesus takes, is not a little side trail that we accept or reject. If our journey with God is biblical in any sense, we must reckon with this essential shape of Jesus ministry and our calling as disciples. Jesus did not say, “It’s simply an accidental matter that as God’s revelatory presence I have decided to suffer.” Jesus did not say, “Suffering is my thing, but God is different. You can just do you.”

. . .

This is the time of year when we really begin to notice that the days are getting longer and that sun feels warmer. For me this means that I start thinking about canoeing. I’m so excited by this prospect that I find myself starting to read the Bible through the lens of Canadian-style canoeing. I admit this is a full-on syncretism of distinct religious traditions, but here’s where it takes me.  

There are some poorly designed canoes that have totally flat hulls (or bottoms). They feel stable at first, but if you start to lean a bit too much they flip quite easily. Canoeing nerds say they have little “secondary stability.” On the other hand, classic Canadian canoes, the kind you use in the backcountry have hulls that are rounder. This means they can feel a bit tippy when you first get in. They even rock a little when you’re paddling. But the advantage is that it’s really hard to tip them over. They have less “primary stability,” but much better “secondary stability.” These kinds of canoes are built for the waves. They are built for navigating rapids. These kinds of canoes get more stable when loaded with a week’s worth of gear.

Jesus says that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  He said this quite openly.

When the pressure is on or when we’re feeling vulnerable, it’s tempting to jump past this and to think of God’s power as violence and force. It’s tempting to think of God’s reconciling work as something that keeps suffering at arms-length. It’s tempting because this is what we know of power. This looks and feels like the path to stability.

However, if we are to take Jesus’ words seriously we must hear his firm correction of Peter. It is also a correction to our common way of thinking. God’s blessed future cannot be brought about except by God’s blessed way. We find this blessed stability and peace through compassion. God works it out through humility, through the voluntary suffering of one who chooses to walk into the vortex of cruelty and, when facing hatred, responds with love. It feels less secure at first, but in connecting the goal of peace with the means of peace, God’s Spirit changes everything. It’s there that we find security for all.

Amen   

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