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Another Temptation Story: The Second Sunday in Lent

Gen 17:1-7, 15-16
Rom 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, let us pray:

O Lord, who has taught us that to gain the whole world and to lose our souls is great folly; grant us the grace to lose ourselves that we may truly find ourselves anew in the life of grace, and so to forget ourselves that we may be remembered in your kingdom. Amen.

There’s a story that comes from the first few centuries of the Church. About a wise and renowned hermit, who had a practice of not eating each day.

On one occasion a couple of monks went out in search of him, hoping, I think, to have some of his saintliness rub off on them.

They found him, and, being more down-to-earth than they expected, he started cooking some soup, and cutting some bread, that they might share a meal together. The monks were shocked, disappointed, and a bit guilty, because this was a day when the hermit would usually not eat. They tried to convince him to stop, so that they could focus on spiritual things, but he continued to cook.

And he answered them with this: “There’s a blessing that comes in following one’s discipline, like fasting. But there is a double blessing in celebrating together today: a blessing in showing hospitality to guests. And a blessing in giving up one’s self-will.”

That hermit understood that, while the usual, everyday expression of his vocation was a solitary one, the ultimate Christian mission is a communal one. Something to always remember in the backs of our heads: that while we’re each individuals, marked off from one another by a layer of skin and the air between us; God chose a people; Jesus called apostles and other followers; and the early Church, identifying itself as the “Body of Christ,” was comprised of many different individuals and local assemblies, with differing gifts and vocations necessary to the realization of the whole.

Jesus seems well aware of this very human tendency to favour ourselves and our own will, in his harsh rebuke of Peter, as he challenges that Peter is setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things. And this comes right after another exchange — where Peter’s the hero. Jesus asks his followers: who do people say that I am, and eventually, who do YOU say that I am? Peter speaks up: “you are the Christ, the messiah.” And perhaps seeming strange to us, Jesus has hard words for them; that they’re to keep quiet on this. That little scene has a three-part structure: a meditation on who Jesus is; Peter speaks up; and difficult words for the disciples.

This leads into the interaction in today’s gospel, with that same three-part structure: a meditation on who Jesus is (“the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…”); Peter pipes in (rebuking Jesus for thinking so negatively); and hard words (“Get behind me Satan.”). Here it seems that Jesus, or the author of the Gospel, is implying that Peter-as-Satan, in trying to turn Jesus away from the Cross, is tempting him, just as Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. A temptation to save one’s skin. A temptation to look out for number one. A temptation — taking some inspiration from the moral of the Spider-Man movies and comics — to grasp at the great power, but neglect the great responsibility that comes with it.

And Peter’s corrected — harshly — that to always default to a position of me-first self-survival is to think humanly, but not divinely. But the way of Jesus, and the way of the faithful Church, is to keep our self-will in check. This is easier said than done. Because it will likely bring us into situations that go beyond charity. We’re called to give more than just our excess. We’re called to sacrifice (in the Prayer Book language): ourselves, our souls, and bodies. To carry our cross. Which, for Jesus and for Mark’s readers, meant more than just being willing to be inconvenienced once in a while. Like, attending a boring family reunion picnic, because it’s ‘your cross to bear.’

No, for Jesus the Cross wasn’t a proverbial one. As they entered and left towns, the road sides were full of them, as reminders of the Romans’ power, especially over the lives of slaves, and would-be rebels, who wanted to realize change. People who, in a system and condition where individual wills and rights that privilege a few take precedence over the well-being of the whole. (This strikes me as a theme of conversations that are taking place amongst our neighbours to the south, especially this past week.) Jesus’s willingness to suffer reflects his faith in how God — who thinks so differently than we seem to be able to — is able to bring victory out of defeat, and new life out of death. This is what Jesus exemplified, and what the Church believed. That in being willing to lose their lives for Jesus’s sake, a new community — of people truly open to one another — was being formed.

So as we sit with the difficult Gospel reading we have today, we might ask ourselves what observing Lent day-to-day looks like, when we’re mindful that our Christian calling, including our Lenten disciplines, shape us not just as isolated individuals, but as people in community with others.

We might ask ourselves what aspect of our lives we cling to out of fear, or force of habit, rather than let it die, and be reborn as something else.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter