Turning points

Year B Proper 19, St James, 12 September 2021

Isaiah 50: 4-9; Mark 8: 27-38

It was interesting to see that this summer marked a turning point for several well-known athletes. People like Naomi Osaka, a top tennis player, and Simone Biles, the medal-winning Olympic gymnast spoke up and then acted on their words in a way that we haven’t heard before. In doing so, what they have brought into general discussion is that, while the life of a high performing athlete may look like enviable success in the eyes of the world, it’s not what life is all about.

With great courage, both of them withdrew from some of their events, even though they knew they would disappoint supporters and likely attract condemnation from some quarters. The accepted reason given for these moves was to focus on their mental health, and to me that speaks of the importance of coming face to face with the realisation that life is about more than the sum of one’s talents and achievements; that the person we truly are is not defined by these things.

To turn aside from satisfying the demands of the public and the glow of recognition that it brings, in order to focus on what life is most fundamentally about, demonstrates how in losing one life, we gain another - as we read in those somewhat enigmatic words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel.

We have come to a turning point in St. Mark’s gospel. Commentators say that Mark’s gospel is primarily an account of Jesus’ passion with a long introduction and in that introduction we have seen Jesus healing, teaching and performing miracles. His close disciples and other followers have been walking alongside him, growing in awe and wonder at his authority and power. People are talking: who could this be?
So, Jesus says
– ‘what are people saying? Who do they say that I am?’
– ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets’, come the replies.
But what about you – ‘Who do you say that I am?’
And Peter, always the first to jump into the breach, says – ‘you are the Messiah.’

Around that time there were varying expectations of a Messiah for Israel – broadly speaking people were hoping for some sort of idealised ruler who would bring about judgement for the wicked and restore Israel’s righteousness. Fairly certainly, that was what Peter and the others were hoping for. But Jesus is about to turn that notion upside down. This messiah will be rejected, will suffer, die and be raised again. And as for the leader, so for his followers.
‘Who is coming with me?’ Jesus asks

Those, who respond in obedience to God’s call to carry God’s word into the world, have always found the world to be an inhospitable place for that word, from Abraham up to the present day, through the prophets, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah today.
The prophet is called by God and responds in obedience:
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.

But what happens to this obedient servant? Speaking the truth of God’s word as always provokes opposition and suffering:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

Not only can Peter not accept a suffering messiah, but he is also forgetting the history of Israel and the prophets who have gone before. And missing completely, or so it seems, that Jesus says that he will suffer and be killed but after three days will rise again. All he hears is the bad news.

But keep listening for the good news: this is what the prophet says in that same Isaiah passage:
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me.

The prophet knows that he finds deliverance through the grace and mercy of God. Jesus knows that his death will not be the end. Peter will, one day, like us, know the whole story and discover the good news that God’s faithfulness is stronger than anything the world throws at us.

So as Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and his forthcoming passion and begins to teach his followers what this means, this turning point for him becomes a turning point for his followers. No one will be compelled to follow, and I suspect there were many who turned away at this point as Jesus spelt out the cost of following him. But for those who respond to the invitation to continue their journey with Jesus, it comes with a health- warning: the path of obedience in living God’s life and love in the world is likely to be paved with opposition and rejection and even, for some, suffering and death.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Who would want to follow Jesus then? Why would we?

Peter struggled to understand the implications of living life in this way. When it came to the crunch at Jesus’ arrest and trial, he denied Jesus and fled. But after Jesus was raised from the dead and he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, then he got it. Then he discovered the fullness of life which came from living in obedience to God, even though he faced opposition from the authorities and eventually, according to church tradition, was himself crucified under Emperor Nero.

When Jesus invites us to follow him, it is an invitation into the fullness of God’s eternal life in the here and now. It is an invitation to shed our attachments to the transient things of life – those things which we may be tempted to let define our identity in the world – and become the people we truly are in God as we give ourselves, our time, our energy, our gifts, our resources in his service, in the service of others to make the world a better place.

As we know and as Jesus tries to make plain, that invitation is not to a life which is a bed of roses. But it’s an invitation which comes with a promise: that whatever hardships we may have to endure, the love and faithfulness of God is stronger.

Even though we may, like Peter, want to resist, flee or fail, - in the all embracing forgiving love of God the invitation is renewed day by day so that we might turn and turn again into the life to which God has called us. Let us pray to find the courage that so many have before us and walk with Christ the way of the cross into fullness of life.