Based on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
I was writing the first draft of this sermon on Wednesday the 21st of February. So much has happened since the Wednesday prior – just in this one little week. Think back to Wednesday, February 14 – the conjunction of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday (first time in 73 years that had occurred); then the horrible school shooting in Florida – the 8th so far this year; our new confirmands began their journey and six Mentors are joining them; Billy Graham at 99 years old finished his earthly ministry and joined the “Great Cloud of Witnesses”; my dad celebrated his 79th birthday, though through his dementia he noted his birthday wasn’t until February. As I pondered the juxtaposition of all of these seemingly random events, I couldn’t help but see that all were transformational journeys in one way or another.
Our scriptures this week are depicting moments in transformational journeys as well. Significant journeys which lead to transformation never can happen without the faith and trust to keep going through to the end, and the knowledge that the transformation will lead to something greater than just the completion of a hike. As Christians, we know that transformational journeys do not happen in isolation because we are always accompanied by God. Let us take a moment to thank God for our journeys and God’s presence…
Abram and El Shaddai (God Almighty) are conversing. Abram is 99 years old and is in the middle of a truly epic journey. Called out from his home in Chaldea, near the ancient city of Ur, he travels the path that God shows him and today’s scriptures find he and his family in Canaan. El Shaddai asks Abram to before the LORD and be blameless. God gives Abram a new name based on the promise that Abram will indeed (at his advanced age) be the father of many nations and that kings would come from his lineage. Likewise, God re-names Sarai because she will bear her portion of the multitudes – even though she is much older than usual to have a baby. Nothing is impossible to the Almighty God – bringing the gospel to earth or re-naming two people who will continue to carry out God’s grand plan.
In the early part of Paul’s letter to the Roman believers, he is setting out an argument that likely was the result of a question asked to him in correspondence that didn’t survive from antiquity. Paul (from the first chapter) is putting forth arguments that show that no matter how law abiding a Jew, many (if not most) still broke the law. Think about my sermon on losing our hypocrisy from last week as Paul states quite pointedly that laws are not what saves, but faith in God and God’s promises are what saves. Right before we pick up our scripture for today, Paul points out to those that will hear his letter that Abram received God’s covenant before he and his family were circumcised. Thus, even that physical distinction was naught without faith in God’s promises. Even in the face of Abram and Sarai’s advanced ages – they chose to believe in the promises of God the Almighty and continued to walk blamelessly with their God into that unknown future.
Jesus is fresh off feeding four thousand people, curing a blind man and battling rhetorically with the Scribes and Pharisees. The group has traveled to the far northern part of Israel – to a particularly detestable region known as Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has just asked the Disciples who people say He is – and Peter has answered correctly – the “Messiah”. Yet just a few verses later, Peter takes Jesus aside as rebukes Him for telling the Disciples that He must suffer, be rejected by the Jewish leadership, be killed and be resurrected. Peter doesn’t want to hear any of that – He wants Jesus to fulfill the popular Jewish messianic mandate. This mandate was that the Messiah would overthrow human oppressors and return Israel to her independent ways and lordship of her ancient and promised lands.
This is not Jesus’ mandate from God, which is what He was attempting to get across to His disciples. Peter, as Jesus rightly notes, has his “mind” (read here his “faith”) set on human things rather than on the divine. Jesus’ faith is focused on what His Father wishes Him to do – that the messianic mandate from God is all about self-sacrificial love overcoming the evil and cruelty of this world. Note what He says from verse 34 onward…”If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me….” In order to allow ourselves to be transformed we have to let go of our over-inflated ego’s and our love of earthly treasures. We cannot truly follow Jesus in the transformative manner of the resurrection unless we let go of our need to control the outcome of the journey. Jesus tells everyone, crowd member and disciple, that in order to get the divine reward, they have to give up their vision for their lives – and live into the divine vision for their life instead.
This is what the transformative journey through the cross is all about…this is what our annual Lenten pilgrimage is all about! Jesus is not talking about individual salvation here – he’s talking about communal salvation; about all of God’s creation. Peter wanted it to be all about him and his Jewish nation…but that was his self-centered humanity talking. It is where the Eastern and Western Christian viewpoints have diverged with the Western being much more about individual salvation and the Eastern mindset being about communal resurrection and salvation. You can see this in the iconography of the resurrection in Eastern Orthodox churches. Here, Jesus is in Hades and is pulling Adam and Eve through the broken gates and redeeming them. This is the complete story from Genesis to Revelation, from the first Adam to the second Adam, from the Fall to the anastasis (up-rising).
Jesus comes to redeem us all from all of our sin from Adam and Eve onward. It is not just our little selves or that of a specific nation or time. It is and has always been much larger than that – it has always been a God-sized vision that humankind has tried to shrink down and make in our own image and to our own liking. El Shaddai asked Abram to “walk before me and be blameless” and then told him that God would “…establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you….”
Jesus says pointedly that it makes no difference if a single person owns the whole world, because they would have to lose their soul in order to gain it. Indeed, He says, there is nothing that they can give to God that is anywhere near as valuable as their life; no matter how much worldly wealth they amass, they cannot repay God for the life they were given through God’s love and grace. Here he hearkens back to the temptations of Satan to Him in the wilderness before He began His ministry. If Jesus would just bow down and worship Satan then Jesus could have all the worldly kingdoms at His disposal. Jesus said, “Away from me Satan! For it is written, worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.” (Mt 4:10, NRSV) The “adulterous generation” that Jesus is dealing with is one that will jump from god to god and forget the One true God that gave them life in the first place.
This is our transformational journey this Lenten season. To understand that Jesus died for all of us communally – that He was raised for all of us together. In order to get to be a part of this up-rising, this resurrection however, we need to have no other gods but God. To speak no other truth but the truth of the gospel according to Jesus so that the world can come to know the truth that will set it free from competition, strife, famine, injustice, violence, hatred, fear, war, hubris, hypocrisy, and all the other human mindset issues that currently keep it down and distracted. Transformation comes when we set our minds collectively on divine things and walk blamelessly before God Almighty. May we live to see the day that this happens…AMEN!!