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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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.