Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus begins to talk about his forthcoming death. As he made clear to his followers, their allegiance to him would be no easy option: it could cost them dearly. For Jesus himself, it wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead: he intended to walk straight into it. The inevitable clash with political, social and religious authorities made his death a certainty. Paradoxically, though, for Jesus, this was to be the way that led to a new kind of life, the influence of which would come to be of permanent significance for the world.
The death of Jesus has, of course, been central to Christianity from the very beginning. St Paul, writing earlier even than the Gospels, proclaimed the heart of the Christian message to be ‘Christ crucified’. All four Gospels climax with several chapters about the final week of Jesus’s life, and then the details of his death. This death is central not only to the whole of the New Testament, but is also highlighted in church liturgy, not least in this service of the Eucharist: ‘Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death…’ But scholars, mystics, spiritual writers and poets have, over the many centuries of the Christian era, reflected on what it all might mean.
When I first began studying theology, one of the areas that really fascinated me was the distinction between Jesus before Easter and Jesus after Easter – often referred to as the historical Jesus on the one hand, and the Christ of faith on the other. Both are to be affirmed, but it is important to see how they differ significantly from each other. The pre-Easter Jesus refers to the historical figure of the past – a Galilean Jew, a flesh and blood human being, whose life had a beginning and an end, like all of us. This Jesus doesn’t exist any more: he is dead and gone. To say this is not to deny Easter, but it recognises that what Easter means is not that a flesh and blood Jesus still lives somewhere. The post-Easter Christ refers to what Jesus became after his death, in Christian experience, reflection and tradition. Now, whether it be your patron saint, Mary Magdalene, in the garden on that first Easter morning, Paul on the road to Damascus, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the apostles on the Galilean lakeside, it is beyond question that followers of Jesus experienced his presence after his death, albeit in a radically new way. Most of them had been alongside Jesus as a human being, and a remarkable human being, but nonetheless as somebody who could only be in one place at a time. After his death, they experienced him very differently. The post-Easter Jesus is no longer a physical figure constrained by time and space; as we read in Scripture, he can appear anywhere, pass through walls, be unrecognised, and suddenly vanish. Experiences like these led to convictions that Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, dead and gone, but a living reality in the present. More than that, experiences of the post-Easter Jesus led to a second conviction that Jesus is not only somehow still with us, but is a divine reality.
That divine reality is encountered in Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God, which refers not to a physical location, nor to an afterlife, but to a way of living life in the present. This kingdom is the very embodiment of justice, truth, righteousness and peace, but establishing it meant – for Jesus – challenging the prevailing powers-that-be, eating with outcasts, associating with the ritually impure and those of dubious repute. At Passover, Jesus took this message to Jerusalem, the traditional centre of the Jewish people, but in his time it was ruled by a high priest and an aristocratic class who owed their positions of power to Rome. There he engaged in subversive and provocative actions, such as entering the city on a donkey; criticising the Temple leaders for having made God’s house a den of thieves, collaborators with Rome and exploiters of ordinary people; squaring up to the authorities in a series of verbal conflicts, prophesying – scandalously – that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed because they did not understand the things that make for peace, and so on. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested and crucified, a Roman form of capital punishment meted out to those who dared to challenge the authority of the Empire.
If Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and passion of God, as his followers have affirmed from the beginning, what does his life tell us about God? In Jesus’s compassion for the marginalised, we see God’s compassionate and embracing character. In his passion for the kingdom of God, we see God’s passion for a transformed world in which justice, righteousness and truth reign, and in which no one is an outcast. God’s character and passion as we see them in Jesus also have a confrontational dimension, because they include a critique of all that would get in the way of the welfare and flourishing of people – and of all creation.
I know, through conversations and pastoral encounters, that some people struggle with the traditional understanding of Jesus’s death as a payment for sin, or as satisfying some requirement for blood on the part of what could be conceived of as a God of dubious moral judgement. But there are many theological theories as to the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. One of them that makes a lot sense to me to speak of Jesus giving his life out love for others, and his passion for justice and a different and better kind of world – a world transformed. And isn’t that transformation what the followers of Jesus are also called to, in every age? Here is where the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ come together.
Poor old Peter! In Mark’s Gospel account, he had only just told Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’. Now, in the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus turns on Peter with some aggression. But I wonder whether that might be because Jesus thought Peter risked losing sight of his vision of the kingdom? Perhaps Jesus was telling him, and perhaps Jesus continues to tell us, that a world transformed and, crucially, our own lives transformed, may cost us a great deal, possibly even everything. Paradoxically, however, it is in that sort of letting go, that sort of offering, that a new kind of life can emerge. It has even been called resurrection.
It’s quite a comfort to know that even the beloved Peter – Jesus’s right-hand man – was capable of missing the point, because I think I often miss it, too, not least when it challenges my own interests, security or comfort. So maybe the question to take away today is: what things do we need to confront, critique or do battle with today, in our own lives, in our society, in our world, so that peace, justice, truth and righteousness stand a chance, and the outsiders can become insiders? As one writer put it, the sorting out you are called to in Lent is analogous to inviting Jesus as a guest into your house. You might not mind him merely puffing up a few cushions, but what do you do when you realise he is intent on restructuring the whole house? You can’t throw him out – it’s Jesus! – so you look around the house, find a suitable cupboard, clear it out, decorate it (sparing no expense), get a good strong lock on it – and put Jesus inside. Outside, if you want, you can light some candles and arrange some flowers, and each time you pass, bow reverently. Now have Jesus under control and he cannot interfere any more. Just one problem: we all know what happened the last time they tried to contain Jesus by rolling a stone across the entrance to the tomb…