Lent & Easter 3. Christ must suffer and be rejected

We are on our way through Lent to Easter, looking at the Sunday readings and learning something about the public contribution of Christian witness. Though we are going through Lent, we already enjoy Easter. For only the power of Easter can take us through the long Lent we have to undergo.

In the first two talks we said that the Gospel brings the reconciliation that allows a national communion to develop. Without Christianity, there is no covenant between rich and poor, or between one tribe and another, and so there is no nation, and no basis for an international community of nations. The law makes us secular: secularity is the achievement of Christianity, not an escape from it.  The Ten Commandments are our call to liberty and to communion. They call out of the savage all-against-all isolation of pagan society, and into civil life together. They give us such confidence that we are able to live with those who we do not know or do not like, so this confidence gives us this civility and this civilisation. Only Christian discipleship enables us to grow up towards the vast definition of humanity set out by the Gospel, towards maturity and holiness, made fit by God for life with him and with each other. 

The Gospel for the second Sunday of Lent is from Mark 8:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 

And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

Who do you say that I am? The Lord puts this question to Peter. We might as well ask Peter or any of Jesus’ companions the same question. If we say ‘Who are you Peter?’ Peter might say, ‘I am a follower of this lord, a servant of this master, disciple of this teacher. And we would then say ‘Yes, but there are so many masters and leaders and busy-bodies. Why do you follow this one? Why not some other?’

Through Jesus’ ministry and passion we watch Peter and the others learning, and realising with horror, how difficult their master is to know. For the source of his authority is deeper and more hidden than of any other contemporary leader, and his ambition for broken Israel, its overlords and the world just seems to grow vaster. Too vast, Judas thought, for Jesus does not act as leader of a national revival, throwing off foreign domination. For the God of Israel is the God of all nations and of all creation, the God of gods. Nothing is foreign to him, and no horror created by our viciousness can push us outside his covenant. It is right for Israel to put up with its own discipleship of foreign domination, just so those bully nations can learn from Israel whose God is really God, and therefore so how to be free of idolatry and fear.

But of course Peter could ask you the same question, as could any one of your own neighbours or family. Who are you? And you might say, ‘I am a Christian,’ and admit that your ambition for the world is shaped by Christ’s ambition for it.  All week long, and when you go to Church, and even more on Palm Sunday when the whole Church processes out into the open air, you are Christ making himself visible to whoever watches. You are a little Christ. The identity of Christ is the answer to our identity.

But this identity is not easily graspable. Many people make their money and build their little empires by offering us some service and trying to convince us that they are indispensible to us. They don’t want to see us doing too much for ourselves, for they make a living by deepening our dependence on them. Corporations and governments like clients and dependents. They don’t want to be met by independent citizens, with their own private and communal relationships, who are able to shrug off central oversight and control. They don’t acknowledge that we may freely take on disciplines that will make us free. Like any discipline freely adopted by individuals, the cross is perplexing for the wielders of power.  

The way of pain and hard work is the way that we participate in this life of Christ; the victory is not only at the end of that hard work, but it is found in it and is so already there all the time. Given that victory, the work is delightful rather than hard. The way of the cross is the way of the resurrection. Nonetheless, it is baffling for our power-brokers. The Epistle for the Third Sunday of Lent is 1 Corinthians 1:

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Where is the wise man? Where are the scribes?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 

The message of the cross is foolishness. The gospel of the saviour on the cross is impenetrable to Israel’s leaders: Jews would expect any national saviour to throw this Gentile government out, by military power. So The Son of Man must …be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.

It is impenetrable Greeks who, as all other sophisticates, want to be given good reasons through well-presented, well-evidenced arguments. They expect that rationality to be recognisable, not to be a paradox about weakness being the new strength. Everyone agrees that a strong man must be recognisably strong, not weak, and so God’s’ action is impenetrable to common sense.

For Christ however, strength is not the opposite of weakness at all. His strength enables him to reach us and serve us with such a gentleness that no creature on earth is crushed by it. His reach is so long that the lowest, most miserable, most victimised of us, even the most evil of us, are well within it. This strength can reach us without crushing us, and so it alone can save us.

The Gospel for the third Sunday is the second chapter of John:

The Passover was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple … poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 

In the trial and examination of Jesus, his interrogators, the Pharisees and Scribes will repeatedly ask – How? For if anyone one of us were to try such a thing, knowing it will not happen simply because we command it to, we have to seek power by gathering together the resources of manpower and material.  We have to take from one place in order to use in another. So how will Jesus do this?

This is the question. By what authority does Jesus make things happen? Will he make a clean sweep of the multitude of tax farmers and their ideological supporters? Will he inaugurate the direct rule of God, by which Israel will triumph over the gentiles and ungodly, driving them out and then take up her task, long promised to her, of subduing and ruling over the Gentiles?

The version preferred by the temple authorities is that Jesus is the front man of some sinister power. The alternative is that Jesus is identical with the true Israel of the prophets, he is God’s front man and thus he is God himself, acting for Israel to free her from all other divinities, desperate and pernicious. They wriggle like eels on a line on the only answer that is possible. Things happen around Jesus by the authority of God. He is the power of God at work before us. It is in order that we are not confronted by a brute fact, but may be free, to follow or not, and so we may act only in faith, not forced to do so by any irrefutable manifestations of power.

By what authority does Jesus act? By what authority does he refuse to act as a king and take charge, but instead, to the distress of disciples, Peter and Judas, presents himself as the candidate for punishment and then on the cross makes himself the epitome of sin and guilt?  By what authority does he insist on going through this discipline and punishment, this passion which any other created being would avoid? How can this one, publicly raised as a vile object of national revulsion, be God’s representative and God’s message? Has the God of Israel set himself against Israel? Has God set himself against man?

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

How will he bring down this regime? Here in the temple he knots a whip and drives them out.  And in its place will appear the new regime of the rule of the Lord. By ‘this temple’ Jesus means that regime and that set of economic arrangements, which then in predatory fashion lived off the backs of the people of Israel. The people of Israel are preyed on by tax farmers, and left impoverished. In the Gospel of Mark this year we will see the Lord driving out many ambiguous forces, infirmities and forms of alienation. Here he drives out these parasites on the body politics.

Here in the Temple there is a public showdown. Christ is going to engage these vicious masters, defeat them and wrest us out of their power. How is he going to do this? Not by fighting them as the world understands fighting. He does not raise an army, and this is the only occasion in which he even seems to raise his fists.  But so we may understand what is doing on he acts out in miniature the battle waged on the cosmic level. He makes a whip and goes in and uses it, driving these predators out, in the same way he drives out all the various pests and contaminations, unidentified and unconfessed, that hold down the people of Israel.

Christ cleans the body politic. This cleansing purge of the temple is the rapid cleaning of the body. The crucifixion is the throwing out of the parasites and unclean spirits. Each of us is this temple, in which God dwells, and dwells with us. Yet each of us is filled with other needy, greedy spirits.  They are mediators who have interposed themselves between us, so that, as they insist and we believe, we can only deal with one another through their agency. Each of us is filled with these desperate and hostile spirits. And the Lord drives them out of us.

The life of Israel has become centralised on the temple, so all politics is a battle for control of the temple, to control the taxes and tithes brought to it, the tangible expressions of Israel’s worship. Having bought the loyalty of the political leadership, these money-changers insist that you have to pay taxes in the currency they issue, and which you are obliged to borrow from them. All economic business can only be done in the debased coinage, and this debasement has pushed Israel back into debt servitude, a new captivity. Israel’s future is hostage to their cult of centralisation and debt, the very opposite of grace. Since Israel’s leadership has been worshipping some golden Calf rather than their own God, the people of Israel are in the appalling condition in which we see them in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus doesn’t intend to throw out the puppet government or the occupation power behind it and doesn’t intend to set up a rival government. He believes that Israel must continue to submit itself to the hard school of foreign power. Having a master is not the worst thing. While the gentiles are in power Israel can be a good student and learn how to rule itself. Israel is not in a position to be master because Israel has not learned self-mastery. It has followed the law of the Lord which makes you free – regardless of whether or not you have a master over you, and regardless of how good or bad, or domestic or foreign that master is. Israel is in no position to rule the gentiles, for she cannot rule herself. Like Israel, we have to stick at our long and painful apprenticeship and there is no release for us before our schooling and our sanctification is complete.

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

The Lord says that he can, and will, knock this entire financial and fiscal regime down. This tower of Babel will come down, all at once, in a day. Then there will be silence for a day. Then, on the third day, he will build, a new national jurisdiction in which the people themselves are the true economic product, in which the whole people of Israel, and all the peoples of the world with them, are able to grow tall in the garden of God.

It is a representative battle. But it is played out in miniature here so we can see it. When troops are sent to the Mount of Olives to seize Jesus, Peter asks how many swords they will need. And Jesus answers that two are plenty, enough to represent the fight, so we may understand the truly cosmic battle that is going on here. The Lord fights Satan and Death, and all that we know as the world, the flesh and the devil. We can only see this as the fight that between all the nebulous powers-that-be, malign and desperate. The cross is a wrestling match. The Lord lets death seize him, and take hold and commit all his forces to his destruction. But when Christ has let Death commit all his forces, he snaps his chains, and Death is broken, and every other little god who has sourced and derived their power from Death and our Fear of Death, is broken too. The vicious grasp in which we held one another down is broken too, and our own captives spring free of us. Christ lets Death complete his pincer movement and so is surrounded, and swallowed and taken down, and so the destruction of Christ seems complete.  It looks as though Death has deathed Christ, but it turns out that Death has only deathed himself. Christ has shaken Death off and now Death’s hold over Christ and over any other creature of Christ is broken. Now we can live, without limit.

We see this battle with death in the cross. That’s why we sign ourselves with the cross, bless with the cross and have built our church in the shape of the cross. With this sign, the Lord lifts from us the snare in which we are held. The Lord extracts us from the Death with the same power by which he made and maintains us and all creation in the first place. On the cross, the Lord holds out his arms, and there is plenty of space for us there. The cleaned temple is a representation of the future Eden, the restored and completed creation in which we all inhabit the palace and gardens which God has set out for us, and live in God’s good company and so flourish in it.