The Unacceptable Messiah
Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
The Unacceptable Messiah
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen
Frederick Buechner wrote that after his baptism Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus, and that during Lent Christians are to ask in one way or another what it means to be Christians. The central question for the season we’re in, the thing we are supposed to be setting our minds on during these forty days of Lent is a divine one: Who is this Jesus that we worship and what does he require from those of us who profess to believe that we are called to follow him? As New Testament scholar William Gloer puts it, before we can understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus [the] Messiah we must understand what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah, and the hard part about that is that Jesus’ answers are as unacceptable to us now as they were to his disciples then.
At their center the Holy Gospels (and all of Holy Scripture, for that matter) are stories about conflict of one sort or another; conflicts between the will of God and the ways of the world, internal and external conflicts within ourselves, conflicts between good and evil. Chapter eight, the chapter from which today’s gospel reading is taken, is the midpoint of Mark’s Gospel and it marks a radical shift. The second half of the Gospel moves beyond the narrative of wilderness and sea-crossings and miraculous healings and a new narrative, Jesus’ southward journey to Jerusalem, begins. The journey begins in the Northern most regions of Palestine, a place called Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks in the verses that immediately precede today’s Gospel reading, “Who do people say that I am?” That question that is followed by another: “And who do you say that I am?” When Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah our verses from today’s Gospel begin and Jesus teaches his disciples (and subsequently the “crowds” who had come to see him) that the son of man, or the human one, the Messiah, must undergo great suffering and be killed and in three days rise again. At this point the only thing “going south” is Jesus’ message. “We are going to Galilee and eventually to Jerusalem where conflicts with the authorities, both political and religious, will end with my crucifixion. But that’s the only way this can work.” “This can’t be!” is Peter’s response.
Fitting for the season of Lent, a season of self examination and repentance for the church both communally and individually, is the fact that the focus at the midpoint in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t center on Jesus’ conflict with the authorities but rather on the dissimilarity between what Jesus understands his being Messiah means and how those who are trying to follow him do. We know about what the disciples were thinking, or misunderstanding, believing that if Jesus were the Messiah that meant deliverance from Roman oppression, or some kind of political revolution. So hearing that Jesus understood that being or becoming Messiah meant his certain death was a shock to them. Simply put, they were looking for the birth of their Messiah; Jesus’ death was unacceptable. Two more times on this Southern journey Jesus will remind his disciples about what was about to happen and two more times the magical thinking of the disciples will keep them from hearing or seeing the truth. And we, those of us who have been listening and paying attention to the gospel narrative all these years and who already know how it’s all going to turn out are much the same! We’d rather conjure another way; we’d rather think that being a disciple of Jesus is something other than a denial of self that leads to our suffering and death! With Peter we say to Jesus, this is unacceptable! But’s it’s the only way, Jesus says. “If any want to be my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I’d be lying to you if I told you that I understand exactly what this radical call to discipleship means for us today, for you or for me or even if I’m willing to embrace it, completely. With you I ask, “What would it mean to deny myself and take up my cross?” “How can I save my life by losing it?” “What would taking up my cross look like in these trying times and in this, our own adulterous and sinful generation?” Searching the scriptures we find some hints, but can we sell all that we have and give it to the poor? Can we turn the other cheek and love our enemies and those that persecute us? Can we forgive those who trespass against us? Can we stop worrying about what we will eat or drink and wear knowing that life is more than food and the body more than clothing? Can we strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness? All of it seems somewhat unacceptable, futile if not unreasonable, risky and certainly costly. But such is the calling of Christ. And every day it’s a new question. And every question invites a new day and our Southward journey toward death and resurrection.
In the coming weeks in our Lenten season we’ll leave The Gospel According to Mark and spend the time remaining reading from John’s Gospel. Next week Jesus will overturn the tables and accuse the Temple leaders in Jerusalem of turning God’s House into a den of robbers. He’ll talk of himself as being the Temple that will be torn down and then raised up. He’ll say that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it can bear no fruit. We’ll continue to struggle with what all of this means for us and hope that somehow we can be raised to new life in Christ, to a closer walk with the unacceptable savior. As we move South toward Jesus in Jerusalem explicit connections will be made which imply that one step forward in our journey with Jesus, as reluctant as we are to take it, is when our worship takes place not only in the sanctuary but our when worship becomes our witness in the world.
As someone called to preach and teach in the church one of the many blessings is the gift of the places one goes and the things one learns as we journey toward the point of writing words like these on paper. Yesterday I read about Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929). Kennedy was an Anglican priest and poet who served as a chaplain in the First World War. After the war Kennedy was appointed to the Church of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr in London but his pacifism and zeal for social action led him to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship and travels throughout Britain on speaking tours. In 1923 when addressing the Anglo Catholic Congress, an outgrowth of the Oxford Movement, Kennedy said:
“It is not enough to make the devotional life our main concern, and allow an occasional lecture or preachment on social matters to be added as a make-weight. The social life must be brought right into the heart of our devotion, and our devotion right into the heart of our social life. There is only one spiritual life, and that is the sacramental life – sacramental in its fullest, its widest, and its deepest sense, which means the consecration of the whole man and all his human relationships to God. There must be free and open passage between the sanctuary and the street. We must destroy within ourselves our present feeling that we descend to a lower level when we leave the song of the angels and the archangels and begin to study economic conditions, questions of wages, hours and housing. It is hard, very hard, but it must be done. It must be done not only for the sake of the street, but for the sake of the sanctuary, too.” Interestingly enough The Anglo Catholic Congress opened on June 29th, 1920, with a High Mass at the Anglican Church of St. Alban, Holborn, in the London districts of Camden. As we often say in Morning Prayer, hear what the spirit is saying to the churches!
Before we leave Mark and turn to John for the remainder of this Lenten season, hear this. As Mark’s narrative shifts away from sea crossing and miraculous healing to selflessness and service, from a theology of glory to a theology of the cross, Mark frames the transition by beginning and ending with stories about the blind receiving their sight. In the middle of the transition he adds a story about Jesus telling the father of a son with an unclean spirit that his son can be healed and that all things are possible for those who believe, to which the father responds, “I believe, but help my unbelief!” Such could be our mantra for the remaining weeks of this season: We believe, Lord, yet help our unbelief.
In our customary time of silence in response to the gospel, a time that you are invited to use as you will, we might contrast what we find unacceptable insofar as is the call of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with what we find unacceptable in the world in which we live. We might consider that which is no longer acceptable in our personal or private lives if we are to begin following Jesus; we might confess what in us might or must need to die in order that we begin see a new way of living; a life in Christ.