Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The second Sunday in Lent, that’s where we are at the moment, and a new paradigm is taking shape. The mundane of yesterday is being imagined into a new creation of tomorrow; the old religion is beginning to crack and the light is getting in; the orthodox ways that upheld for the law are being questioned into submission. The reality of today is at last being called, for it is not the reality of divine promise. Today - or is this the paradigm a week or two after the baptism of Christ, a week or two of a spirit-drivenness into the wilderness? Or is it the worldview of today? The conversations around the parish of Lent are already becoming rich and full – ‘Living the Questions’ presents some exciting challenges, theological reflection is being tasted and now sort after, as something to delight in. Being, and being here is giving way to becoming, and to becoming in Christ.

In the readings today, Paul in verse 18 refers back to the Genesis reading that we also had this morning and we find that line, ‘hoping against hope he believed’ – a hundred year old man, Abraham, with a barren wife, Sarah, hoping against hope that they might give birth to a child. Hoping against hope, even more than what the story narrates - hoping against hope, believing, believing in the divine promise that we find in verse 7: ‘I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you’. Divinity and humanity are established together, Creator and creature are one. We hear in the gospel that Jesus rebukes Peter for that which he did not want to believe, that which he could not comprehend: ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. Then in verse 34, Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and he said to them: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. These are the readings that are given to us, as the word of God revealed to us, now on the second Sunday of Lent, so we should take a moment to correct or to clarify some of the ‘flat-earth’ interpretations that we might already be holding.

The reading from Genesis, for example - some commentaries point out that the divine covenant applies to Abraham and his descendants - ‘your offspring after you’ - and therefore not to the whole of humanity. And it’s from there, from that paradigm, that we end up with a theology of ‘God’s chosen’, the elect, and so to that very common worldly separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But if we go to the two verses before that, the ones that precede the divine promise of covenant, Abraham is given a new name. He is actually re-created and he is re-created as the ancestor of a multitude of nations. And it’s in that process that we can begin to see: this really is not the story of a hundred year old man and a barren woman having a child. That devise, that story, is used just as the devise of Christ being born in a manger in Bethlehem is used, to impart to us an important truth about birth in the present moment - Abraham is given a new name and is re-created. The important thing that we can get from that is that the Divine promise, the covenant, is inclusive: it is given to all – ‘a multitude of nations’ - and it is given for all.

It’s worth though, just holding the thought that the ‘your offspring after you’ parallels the idea of following and so the call of Christ to ‘follow me’, to be the offspring after Christ, to become ‘my followers’. ‘Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ It’s another inclusive reading and the clue there is that the narrative takes place with the crowd and the disciples - everyone is there, everyone is invited. Sadly though, we have a flat-earth interpretation of what the invitation is actually all about and we get hooked into this notion of self-denial. ‘Deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’, it’s an invitation to victimhood; it’s an invitation to beat yourself up. It’s an invitation make real your smallness, to go round bleeding, to tell everyone how hard it is to be a Christian in the modern world. However, it’s really worth looking at that one in context, because the denying themselves, denying yourself, parallels the renaming of Abraham.

If you take Mark’s gospel as a context, as a whole, it’s actually a witness to the new order that is established when the Divine is enfleshed in Christ, when the Divine is enfleshed in us. Then we too will need to discover our name, our new name. It’s interesting - baptism is used to name children, we carry on this very ancient tradition of recognising that when something is newly born and created, it changes the whole of self to the point that you need to rename what that self is. The original context for denying self was about denying or letting go of tribe, kin, race and belonging, and we’ll get this later on with that wonderful scene where Jesus’ mum comes in and says he’s not the Messiah he’s just a naughty boy and the disciples tell him this and he says, ‘No, that’s not my mother, they’re not my brothers and sisters - these are’. There's a movement in Christ that says we must not belong here, not hold on to these that we call family, there is another - that’s a glimpse of another order. The other order is the fullness of life in the Divine, which doesn’t mean that we reject or ignore our family, our community, those around us. But it means that we might, we might actually do so much more if we look beyond that world. Because if we stay within our world of family and community it will be a path toward our own self-ish-ness, our staying with self. We must move beyond that to another self, to another name. ‘To follow me’ is not be bounded in our own small world and its systems of inheritance - the dead passing on to the living. What we find in Christ is the living giving life to the dead.

Today’s readings give us a hope against hope and a reorientation on the second Sunday of Lent. Those two little distinctions though - you and your offspring, and the distinction between crowds and disciples - both being named. I think it’s also good to ponder that, for clearly, when we look at the readings as a whole they are inclusive, all are included, so what’s the distinction? The distinction, I think, is about the leaven in the lump, as we heard in ‘Living the Questions’ the week before last, or the salt in the soup. The divine promise is a gift to all; the promise to be fully alive is a promise to all. The realisation of that promise does not require all to take it up: the good news is that if one of you doesn’t make it here next Sunday because the beach is too attractive, that can still be OK, so long as the salt does make it to the soup, the leaven does make it in the lump. A few can change the whole, but they change the whole not by being over against the whole but by being and recognising the part they play in the birthing and the creation of the whole.

The call of Lent is a call to follow. Self-denial - leave it alone if you’re in that traditional framework of denying self and trying to make life hard. Look for Life, look for the part you can play in bringing life to others, because in the world in which we live, we might, this Lent, have the opportunity to realise ourselves as the salt in the soup. It could be that this little community here brings about world peace.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris

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