Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 16, 2012:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-8 (Psalm 116:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: James 3:1-12

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

I can only imagine how much the Jesus in today's Gospel must have baffled people--Peter even goes so far as to rebuke him. It's important to remember that Jews during the time of Jesus weren't looking for the kind of spiritual savior that we have in mind when we use the term Messiah; Jews during this time period expected their Messiah to be a great warrior who would kick the Romans out of the homeland.

And here's Jesus, talking about being rejected by everyone and being killed and rising again; he mentions crosses--in that time, the only ones picking up a cross were those on their way to their own brutal public executions.

This Gospel was written during a later time of social upheaval (and written about an earlier time of social upheaval)--the reason the Gospel of Mark sounds so apocalyptic is because the Christian community feared attack from various quarters. This Gospel is written both to calm the community, as well as to give them strength to face what is coming, and the courage to do what must be done. The last chunk of the Gospel shows this motivation clearly. What good is our earthly life if, in preserving it, we lose our souls?

An intriguing question, even today--a time of social upheaval, where there are plenty of events to frighten us. Notice the language of Jesus. Following him is a choice. Crosses don't just fall on us out of the sky; we choose to pick them up when we follow Jesus.

It's a marketing scheme that you would never find in today's "How to Build a MegaChurch" model books. Emphasize suffering? Why on earth would people want a religion like that?

It's interesting also to reflect on Jesus' words at the close of this chapter--are we ashamed of Jesus? Do people know we are Christians by our actions? If they ask us about our faith life, are we able to speak coherently (or at least openly) about it?

I tend not to talk about my faith at work unless people bring it up or ask me questions. I also try not to overwhelm people with too much information. One Holy Week, a work colleague asked me why it's called "Good Friday," when the Crucifixion was such a terrible thing. I took a minute to collect my thoughts—after all, whole books have been written on the topic.

I talked about the traditional view of the Crucifixion as being necessary for salvation and redemption, that because of Christ's pain, we get into Heaven. I talked about my view, not as traditional but shared by many, that Heaven is a lovely bonus if it turns out like that, but that Christ really came to show us how to live here. I talked about what Crucifixion meant to the Romans, that it was a punishment reserved for enemies of the state.

I tried to stress the idea that this new way of life that Jesus proposed, a life where we care for each other and for the oppressed, was so radical that he was seen as a threat to the empire, and so he was killed.

I had love on the brain because of Maundy Thursday, and I stressed the love angle. At the end of our talk, my colleague said, "I really like this vision of yours, this God who loves us."

I hope that’s what sticks with her. So many people have had such negative encounters with the institution of religion and with specific Christians. So many people have heard such damaging theology, and I’m convinced it’s not the theology that points us to God.

Perhaps that’s our cross, in our post-modern lives in western, industrialized nations, to be the correcting vision of Christianity. We’re not likely to be martyred in a traditional way, like Christ, like Peter, like Paul. We’re much more likely to be thought of as freaks, to be shunned as one of those weird religious types.

In some ways, it’s a difficult cross to bear. In other ways, what a gift, to be the person who reminds society that there’s more to life than that which the larger culture wants us to focus upon. We live in an empire that’s deadly in so many ways. We can be the subversive yeast culture that rises undetected, leavening the loaves of the societies in which we find ourselves.

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