Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Second Sunday of Lent, 28th of February 2021
There is a joke I have started using on social media when discussing distressing news of human beings doing wrong. People ask how something so dreadful could happen, how human beings could so misbehave and mistreat others, and I suggest that the answer is ‘total human depravity’. ‘Total depravity’ is a Calvinist doctrine. It does not actually argue that human beings are totally depraved, but it does argue that absolutely nothing we human beings do is free from sin. Even when we seek to do good, part of our motivation is the pleasure we get in being do-gooders. Nothing we do is every completely pure.
When I refer to ‘total human depravity’ I am, mostly, joking. I have only been here a few months, but you might have noticed how often I talk about us all being the beloved children of God, made in the image of God. In the Picture Book I read last week, Water Come Down by Walter Wangerin Jr, we were told that the new name we receive at baptism is ‘Child of God’ and I am absolutely convinced that that is who we are, that human beings are part of God’s good creation, loved by God. Over the next few years you are going to become tired of me saying so.
On the other hand, I also believe that we are all sinners, that part of being human is the human propensity to stuff things up, whether intentionally or unintentionally. ‘Sin’ is a difficult word for us twenty-first century people to hear. It tends not to be a word we use seriously anymore. But Christianity takes sin seriously. For Christians, sin is about our separation from God, about the way every single one of us fails to live up to our potential as the people God created us to be. ‘Sin’ is what causes us to do and say those things that have us waking up in the night in a cold sweat, or that leave us feeling as though we have got a rock in the pit of our stomachs as we wonder why on earth we would do or say something like that. That is why I am only mostly joking when I refer to ‘total human depravity’ as an explanation for human wrongdoing. I know that we are all sinners.
The reason that we start each Sunday’s service with a Prayer of Confession is that I am absolutely sure that none of us has lived perfectly over the preceding week. I am certain that as we enter worship all of us have thought, said, or done things of which we need to be washed clean, and the liturgy provides us with a ritual for doing that. We confess and are assured that God has already forgiven us.
We are sinners who need to be forgiven; we are the beloved children of God. Both these things are true. Lent is one of the times in the church year when we are invited, as God’s beloved children, to reflect on those things that keep us separate from God, and to ‘repent’, to turn our backs on them.
On this second Sunday of Lent the gospel reading comes from a pivotal moment in the Gospel according to Mark. Professor Brendan Byrne, who taught me Mark, says that there are three stories in this gospel. Story One is about who Jesus is. We know, because we have read the opening line of the gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ But the disciples and the crowds do not, and through the first half of the gospel they are asking who this person with power and authority can be. The answer the disciples reach is that he is the Messiah. Story Two is then about the sort of Messiah that Jesus will be. The second half of the gospel shows Jesus teaching his disciples that as Messiah he must suffer, be rejected, be put to death, and on the third day rise again. For the disciples this second story, about suffering and death, conflicts with the first. The two stories clash on the cross, when Jesus is taunted by the crowds who call: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ (Mark 15:31-32) These two apparently contradictory stories are resolved in the third story, which sees Jesus, the crucified messiah, as the Son of Man who returns in glory.
Today’s reading comes from the moment in the gospel when Mark’s Story One is replaced by his Story Two. The disciples now know what we readers have known from the beginning: who Jesus is. Peter has just answered Jesus’ question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ by saying ‘You are the Messiah’. What the disciples do not yet know is what sort of Messiah Jesus will be: ‘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.’ Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee is finished; he has begun his journey towards Jerusalem and his death, and along the way he will teach his disciples that he has come ‘to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’. (Mark 10:45) It is a difficult teaching; and Peter stumbles at it. Six days from today Jesus will take Peter, James, and John up a mountain where they will see him transfigured and hear God claim him as ‘my Son, the Beloved’ (Mark 9:2-8); it is no wonder the disciples will continue to have difficulty with the idea that Jesus is a suffering Messiah right until the end.
In today’s reading, Jesus not only speaks quite openly about his own suffering. He also speaks openly about the suffering that those who follow him can expect. And he does not limit this teaching to the disciples who have already chosen to follow him. He calls to the crowds, and speaks to them, too, when he talks about those who want to become his followers carrying their crosses and losing their lives. It is the exact opposite of a modern evangelical strategy. Rather than telling the crowds that following him will make their lives better in any way, Jesus speaks of judicial execution. The cross was an instrument of torturous death used to keep the population subdued under Roman rule. Carrying one’s cross was literally what criminals and slaves had to do as they went to their place of execution. Who would want to follow a Messiah whose followers risked crucifixion?
For Mark’s first readers, taking up the cross, losing their lives, meant risking quite literal death. They were being persecuted and they were being asked to stay faithful despite persecution. Christians throughout history have literally lost their lives for Jesus’ sake: from the early martyrs; through twentieth-century disciples like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero; to those who face imprisonment and death for their faith today in places like India or China or Egypt.
We do not face that sort of danger and death. For us, taking up the cross is metaphorical. We are instead called to lose our lives by recognising that our lives belong to God. We are called to lose our lives by placing the needs of others before our own desires, by refusing to be seduced by a society that tells us that it is more important that we enjoy luxuries than that other people eat. We are called to lose our lives by rejecting the culture that tells us to put ourselves first; remember the old National Mutual ads from the 1990s that had the tagline: ‘for the most important person in the world – you’? Losing our lives in such a way is profoundly counter-cultural. There is a reason politicians win elections by promising us lower taxes, rather than by telling us that taxes will be kept the same or even increase to ensure that those most in need can live lives of dignity. We live in a world in which selfishness and self-centeredness are virtues, and yet Jesus calls his followers to deny ourselves.
As I said at the beginning of this reflection, we are all sinners. Self-sacrifice is not natural for us. Putting the needs of others before our own desires is a discipline that we need to practice. Lent offers us training time. Lent reminds us that just as we are God’s beloved children, so is every other human being alive today. We live in a world and a country in which some of God’s beloved children go hungry, or are homeless, or die prematurely because they do not have access to the medical treatment they need. ‘Total human depravity,’ that human propensity to stuff things up, sin, encourages us to think that that is not our responsibility. Jesus tells us otherwise.
‘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.’ It is not an easy message, neither self-evident nor popular. But it is the message that Jesus gives and the example that Jesus sets. Are we willing to take up Jesus’ challenge and follow him?