Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2021
Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
The question that Jesus puts to the disciples as they walk along to Caesarea Philippi lies at the heart of the Christian faith. He gives them a chance to report on what some other people think, but then invites them to answer for themselves – who do you say that I am? And his invitation rings down through the ages to us. Is he a teacher or a healer, a political inspiration or a Zen master, a friend or a God? Over the years, and through the seasons of life, you may find that you answer the question differently. And all our answers are incomplete.
When Peter hears the question, he has a lightbulb moment. Aha! You are the Messiah! He gets it! Seems like a problem solved. Jesus doesn’t disagree, but then immediately turns the idea of a saviour upside down. All optimism drains away as he outlines the grim truth of what is to come. He is quite severe with Peter, reproaches him for putting the hope of triumph before the reality of suffering and a cross.
As we read the story today, it may not be obvious to us, because the lectionary jumps around a bit in Lent, but this is the first time the disciples have heard this. So far, all they have seen is miracles and compassion. Crowds fed, demons cast out, brilliant parables. So Jesus’ words come as a terrible shock. It’s very bad news. And then it gets worse – not only will Jesus have to suffer, but so will everyone who follows him. They’ll have to take up their cross too. Of course they don’t want to hear it – and as the gospel unfolds we see that he tells them a second and a third time, and they still cannot take it in.
It’s a human foible to be unwilling to hear bad news – we always expect our leaders and politicians to help us see the positive. We want reassurance that all will be well. We rely on our friends to buoy us up. And our religion is supposed to be a source of hope. The word gospel actually means Good News.
But sometimes good news doesn’t do justice to the reality. We see this in Black history month for example – it’s wonderful to sing and to be reminded of the variety and beauty of music and literature and textile and dance and food that people whose origins are in Africa have shared with the world. In February, you learn new histories, meet new authors, hear new music – but if you don’t also listen and engage the issues of ongoing racism, both personal and systemic, if you don’t look at the price of camouflaged white supremacy, then you’re missing the point. Questions about schools and employment, about policing, and about health care need to be pressed. In this, as in other parts of life, celebration by itself will be hollow. As Jesus tries to tell the disciples, sometimes the good news is that you don’t have to lie about the bad news.
The invitation that we receive as Christians is to bring the full spectrum of our human experience into the light of God’s love. Our whole life, as Jesus says. Whatever pain there may be, or fear, or regret, is not wiped out by love, but instead given new significance. Jesus calls us to proceed without flinching from the difficulties we encounter in the world. Indeed, just as the challenges of life look different in the light of Christ, so too the gospel itself shines differently in the shadow of the cross. The good news and the bad news are to be held together and transformed by one another.
A congregation makes a similar invitation when a new member joins. The welcome that we offer includes a promise not only to share the pleasures of the journey of faith – the companionship and the prayer and the music and the interesting activities. This welcome also invites members old and new to share the complications – to be ready to work with others on the hard things, to disagree sometimes, and forgive when necessary. Taking up a cross, as Jesus invites us to do, is a community task really. But we are not alone, and for this we give God thanks. Amen.