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Lent 2, Year B, 8.3.2009, St Mark’s
Gen 17.1-7, 15-16: God’s covenant of promise with Abraham
Ps 22.22-30: Praise to Yahweh who remembers the poor.
Romans 4.13-25: The promise to Abraham was through the righteousness of faith
Mark 8.31-38: Take up cross, one to one (1567)

Faith, in NT times and today, includes both trusting obedience and acknowledging Jesus, as those who learn from Jesus.

          If you say “I have faith”, what do you mean?  I am not trying to catch you out, but I do propose that we think about “faith”.  First let us look at the struggle for faith that can seen in the NT, and then look at our own struggle today both as individuals and as members of the Anglican Communion.

          Our reading from Genesis is about God making the covenant of promise with Abraham, and then Paul has talked about this covenant in the passage from the letter to the Romans. Paul stresses that the promise God made to Abraham was through the righteousness of faith.  So what is ‘faith’?  When we say that we have faith, what do we mean?  We may think that the answer is obvious, but in the first century AD as the Christian community grew, it was in danger of becoming like a slippery bar of soap – with some people finding it very difficult to hang on to the whole of it.

          As Paul’s letters make plain, faith in its wholeness includes both believing that and believing in.  In other words it includes both what one believes about Jesus as witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, and believing in Jesus.  It includes both trusting obedience, that’s the believing in, and a creed, which is the believing that.  In this sense then faith has two parts.  It is like an ellipse, not a circle.  A circle has only one centre or focus, but an ellipse has two.

          In today’s gospel Jesus calls each disciple, that is, each learner, to take up his cross and follow Jesus in the way of the cross.  Mark calls those who follow Jesus mathétai, which means ‘learners’.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise when Mark often speaks of didaché,  ‘teaching’, and didaskein, ‘to teach’.  But it is surprising that the only thing that Jesus is ever actually said to teach in Mark is the necessity of going in the way of the cross, that is, it is a calling to a life-style, and a self-sacrificial one at that.  This is striking and perhaps even puzzling when you stop to think about it.  We have lots of what we might call moral teaching by Jesus in the other gospels such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  We might say that Mark is above all concerned with orthopraxy. That is, right practice or behaviour.  But it is a right practice based on a personal following of Jesus,  as we heard in today’s gospel, and in Mark it is this, and this alone, that will lead to knowing Jesus as Lord, Christ, and Son of God..

          The Christian community started out among Jews, who were  renowned in the Roman world for their morality and who were known as the People of the Book, with the Book being largely the scriptures of the Old Testament as we have it today.  This Jewish context gave a clear basis for what the Christians of the first generation believed about Jesus as witnessed to by the scriptures, and how to respond in trusting obedience.   As Gentile membership increased, so the attitudes and outlook that were widespread in Hellenistic society were felt more and more within the Christian community, and the Hellenistic outlook tended to be both syncretistic and dualistic.

          By syncretistic I mean that many people felt free to take a bit of this and a bit of that and mix them up together.  For example, one might take a bit of one of the many religious cults that were around and add it to a bit of another and, hey presto, you have a new religious cult, for very few of the so-called mystery religions demanded an exclusive following and made few if any ethical demands on one.

          There was also a lot of what is called dualism. In dualism there is a great divide between the material world and the spiritual world, with only the so-called spiritual world being of any real value.  This was a disparaging of the physical world, which, biblically of course, is God’s good creation and not to be shunned or devalued.

           In the NT we can see a reaction to the threat to the understanding of the Gospel posed by dualism and syncretism, namely, a concern to stress the right kind of belief, what we call orthodoxy.  A clear and simple example is to be found in the first letter of John.  John stresses that one must confess three things:  Jesus is the Christ (5.1), which links him to the Jewish scriptures, he is the Son of God (4.13), and he has come in the flesh (4.2), that is, he did not masquerade as a human being but he was real flesh and blood, born of woman.  At the same time John also stresses the need to love one another for love is of God.  Thus the letter balances a concern for both centres of the ellipse of faith.

          But there were those who appeared to lay such stress on the need to believe the right things and to claim that this was faith that there was a danger of losing sight of the need for trusting obedience. The writer of the letter of James counters this by saying, you claim to tell me your faith in words, well, I’ll show you my faith by a life lived.  He then spells this out in terms of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for orphans and widows.

          And the same point is made by St Matthew, although a bit more subtly.  In Mark the disciples can only come to know who Jesus is by going in the way of the cross, as we have just heard in today’s gospel.  But in Matthew the disciples confess that Jesus is the Son of God well before Peter’s confession at Caesarea Phillippi.  So they know very well who Jesus is.  What they are lacking is faith as trusting obedience, the other side of the ellipse.  Matthew does this by having Jesus say to them, “Oh you of little faith” when they fail to trust and obey, such as when Peter starts to walk on the water and then falters.

          So present day debates, such as those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion over doctrine and lifestyle are nothing new.

          What about us?  How secure are we in faith?  Do you feel that the goalposts have been moved during your lifetime? 

          Just as there was a sea change during the first century, so we have seen some very substantial changes during our lives, and it is very likely that at least some of these changes have affected our own outlooks and beliefs in many areas.

          Ask yourself.  Do you believe the same things now that you did years ago?  Are there some things of which you were once quite sure that now you have doubts about?  Why?  What do you hang on to for dear life, and why?

          Do you believe the right things?  How do you know?  How do you determine what are the right things to believe?  Who, or what, if anyone or anything, has the legitimacy and authority to prescribe what it is that you are to believe?

          What we believe and how sure we are of that depends in part on how easily we fit into the cultural context in which we find ourselves.  For example, the US has a high proportion of active churchgoers, so that the President can invoke God quite naturally, while Tony Blair’s advisor famously said, “We don’t do God.” 

          Therefore let us get back to basics.  Do not confuse the gospel with the cultural accretions that have been picked up along the way over the centuries.  If we are aware of how many of our Muslim newcomers have brought along cultural baggage from the old country that is not in the Koran or in accord with it, can we consider that we Christians may equally have done the same thing?

          So where should we start?  “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”  What does that mean for us?  Does it mean that we will escape eternal damnation and hellfire?  Does it mean that we shall get out of this vale of woe and tears into eternal bliss?  Does it mean that we shall ride into heaven on Jesus’ coattails?  All these views pervert the real faith to which we are called, which is to follow Jesus.  Quite simply we are called to be disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, we are learners, learning from Jesus as witnessed to by the gospels, how to go in the way of the cross.  He crossed the barriers and boundaries that were set in his society, so we too are to be open to others, being prepared to question the ready answers that conventional society throws up, ready, like Jesus, to know God as our loving Father and source of all our strength.

          In short, let us be content to rely upon the love of God and to be a disciple of Jesus, our elder brother, who has shown us the path of life, the path of love, the path to our neighbour, and let us be glad to be in fellowship at the Lord’s Table with all others who would do the same.