Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he references the covenant God makes with Abraham in our lesson from Genesis. Paul notes that God makes this covenant not because Abraham has followed God’s law, but because of Abraham’s faith. Paul’s point – obedience to the law is not as important as our faith in God. Whereas fear is often what drives obedience, trust in God is what drives our faith – and our faithfulness.
Paul does not talk about God changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. But this is significant. We are known by our names. How others address us; however, often varies and speaks to the level of intimacy in the relationship. When I was born, my parents named me James, but they called Jimmy as a child (or James Daniel if I was in trouble). When I got older, I announced I wanted to be called Jim. I renamed myself as a sign of maturity and my ability to make my own decisions. I took on a new name when we had children; I became Daddy, then DaddyMac by some of my children’s friends. At far too young an age, I some people began to call me Mr. McDonald. Now, I’m Fr. Jim, or Pastor, or Preacher – depending on whether the person addressing me is Episcopalian or not.
Our names are suggestive of many things – and in today’s lesson God changing their names represents the level of intimacy and commitment that a parent has with a child. It is a relationship which cannot be easily broken. God’s covenant will be fulfilled and Abraham trust God will, indeed, make him “the ancestor of multiple nations.”
One of the twelve Jesus calls to be his disciple is named Simon Peter. Jesus addresses him as Peter. Again, this suggests a relationship that is deeply personal. Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls him Satan. First, Jesus tells his disciples what will happen to him – he will “undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Clearly Peter believes he has a better plan for Jesus. This is when Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
A lot can be said about this exchange; but it does not alter their faith in one another. Jesus calls Peter Satan because what Peter wants is what Jesus would prefer. Doing what needs to be done is often frightening and unsettling. Jesus knows that taking his message of God’s love to Jerusalem will result in his suffering and death. Still, he knows that it is what he needs to do in order for us to begin to understand the difference between living for ourselves and living for the kingdom of God.
“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” he tells Peter. It is what we need to hear too. What does it mean to set our minds on the divine things? After speaking to Peter in private, Jesus calls the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Here’s our answer, though it might be difficult to grasp.
The “take up your cross and follow me” part of this verse is not the answer we are seeking. None of want to be followers of Jesus, if it requires us to be a human sacrifice. Fortunately, this is not intended to be taken literally – not even fundamentalist take this verse literally! The beginning of this verse helps clarify the meaning of what Jesus is saying. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” To deny ourselves means simply to put God’s will before our own. The sacrifice we are asked to make is to give of ourselves to help others. Our focus on what is divine begins when we recognize our role in bringing about God’s kingdom – sharing God’s love with those in need.
Jesus says, “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.” We cannot experience the kingdom if we are self-centered. Our focus needs to be outward on divine things rather than inward on human things. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus continues, “to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Shifting our focus outward enables us to truly experience life.
I’ve been talking here about shifting our focus from ourselves to God, In Romans Paul talks about shifting our focus from the law to our faith. Before today’s passage, Paul challenges his audience by suggesting we are justified by faith, not works. Justification by faith is another way of saying we receive salvation through faith, not by earning it. Doing good, following the commandments are of little value to us if we are only doing these things to obtain salvation. God’s grace is freely given to us, if we belief and trust in God.
Put another way, what motivates us is what matters. Paul is not suggesting that what we do is unimportant. Paul is trying to help us understand that our faith needs to drive the way we live. If we give all of ourselves to God, we will do good works and we will follow God’s commandments because we want to – not in an attempt to earn God’s favor. It is our faith or trust in God that enables us to experience the divine and to experience the healing power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray,
O God, creator of all living things, open our eyes that we might see beyond our own wants and needs and seek to care for others as you care for us. Strengthen our faith that we might trust in you, experience your presence, and follow Christ – loving others as he loves us. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.