Part of the Solution
A sermon on Mark 8:27-38 by Nathan Nettleton, 17 September 2006
Jesus leads the way in exposing and opposing violence, no matter what the cost, and life is found in following his lead.
One of the things I find hardest to do is resist the urge to hit back when I cop an unfair attack. I don't think I'm on my own there. The hunger for retaliation or vengeance is pretty much universal. If we are the innocent victims of an attack, we want to see the assailant pay, and pay heavily. I don't mean only in the case of physical violence. Personally, and for no reason I can explain, I've always found it easier to resist throwing a retaliatory punch, but denounce me or criticise me unfairly, and I find it extremely difficult to just wear it and let you get away with it, and not use my verbal arsenal to strike back. Actually, even if the criticism is fair, more often than I'd like to admit the outcome is the same. I know this is a very common phenomena because the same thing happens on a bigger scale and the newspapers are full of it all the time. Pretty much every armed conflict around the world has been ignited when one side has felt unfairly attacked by the other, and has hit back in retaliatory anger. And of course the hit back incites further attacks, and the further attacks incite further retaliation, and things have quickly escalated into major conflict. And as much as I might criticise the futility of the initial strikes that lead to lead to a conflict like the recent Israel-Lebanon war, the truth is that on my little stage, when I am made to feel like either of them, I react much the same way. Under pressure in the heat of the moment, I am more prone to contributing to the problem than denying myself and living the possibility of a solution. And "ditto" for pretty much everyone I've ever met.
In tonight's reading from Mark's account of the gospel, Jesus begins to teach his followers that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed. It is interesting how it is put: he "must" undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed. Not he probably will. Not he expects to. Not he intends to. But "he must" . It says it the same in various other places in the gospel accounts too. Jesus "must" undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed. And there are two different, though compatible, approaches taken in the gospels to explaining this "must" . One says that it must happen to fulfil the prophesies of scripture. Usually it is the narrators who offer that explanation. The other explains it more in terms of an inevitable human reaction to who Jesus is and what he does. It suggest that if you so vigourously pursue forgiveness and reconciliation and a generosity that respects no tribal boundaries, then it is simply inevitable that the powers that be will rise up and destroy you. Such rejection and suffering "must" come if you don't back down. And it is this second explanation that Jesus seems to most often express himself. If I am to continue this campaign, then I "must" be ready to cop these consequences. The only alternative is to change tack.
Of course, changing tack is just what the disciples are wanting him to do. Suffering and dying doesn't fit into their picture of what is to happen here. They are looking for the big breakthrough, the sudden ride to victory, the demolition of the oppressive power-mongers, the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and, most hated of all, the Roman occupation forces. Peter is their spokesman. No, Lord, you can't allow this to happen to you. But Jesus quickly puts him in his place: Get behind me, you satan! You've got no idea what God is on about. You're just pursuing the same things as everyone else. Maybe Jesus wasn't finding it that easy himself, without his own followers urging him to change tack.
Changing tack would have probably meant one of two things. The zealot approach was one option. Stage an armed rebellion. Overthrow the oppressors by force. Destroy those who stood in the way and usher in the kingdom by force. The other option was the one the elders and the chief priest would have probably seen themselves as taking. Don't attack the system, but get inside of it and seek to reform it from within. Sure you will have to compromise on a few things along the way, but you'll be able to work for good and, if you play your cards right, you'll have a few more gains than losses. You can do your bit for the cause of life and justice from within the system. Jesus could have probably won the support of his followers for either of those approaches, but just going full steam ahead and exposing the violence of the system while leaving himself absolutely defenceless before it was never going to be readily understood. After all, they were just like us. You don't allow yourself to be attacked without scoring a few hits yourself, and if the odds are against you, you bide your time, maintain your rage, and live to fight another day.
But Jesus is pretty scathing in his critique of any approach that goes for self-preservation first. Those who set out to save their own life will lose everything, he says. Even if it appears that they have gained the whole world, they will have sold out and forfeited their life. And what's the point of that? The alternative, he says, is to deny yourself. To follow Jesus in his denying of himself, and deny yourself.
Now these words about denying yourself have had a sorry history of misuse. They have far too often been used to ensure cowering compliance with oppression. Abused people have been told that denying yourself means putting up with the abuse and saying nothing. Just endure and pray. Be subservient and trust God to sort it out in the end. But if you think about it, Jesus is neither saying nor modelling any such thing. Those who are compliant and subservient do not need to be killed. It is those who are a threat to the status quo that must be killed. What Jesus is doing is constantly and openly exposing the violence and corruption of the system. It is the same sort of move that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers made in opposing the oppression by the British Raj in India. In the most dramatic symbol of the resistance movement, in Peshawar in 1930, a crowd of unarmed protesters stood their ground when British troops opened fire on them. Had the protesters returned the violence, the shooting would have been explained away as self defence and the maintenance of law and order, but instead their extraordinarily courageous self-denial unmasked the violence of the Raj for all the world to see and it was the beginning of the end for the British domination. Compliance and subservience would have meant doing as they were told and walking away. But by denying themselves both retaliation and compliant self-preservation, they found the courage to confront the system, forcing it to either surrender or defeat itself by exposing its brutality for what it was.
Those who lose their life for the sake of the good news that there is a new world coming, free of violence and oppression, will have life without limit. But those who seek to preserve their own lives, either by becoming violent themselves or by accepting a compromise with the oppressors, they will lose everything, and what can they give in return for their life?
But Jesus didn't only point out that he must suffer and be rejected and killed. He also said that after three days he would rise again. And this is where the story becomes even more extraordinary, for the resurrected Jesus reveals that his prayer for the forgiveness of those who killed him was no mere token rhetoric. In his resurrection Jesus reveals that the commitment to self-denial, to offering mercy instead of retaliation holds good even when he is the slain victim of a violent lynching. Even as the one who is at one and the same time the dying victim and the ever-living Lord, still he confronts his enemies with an unflinching determination to offer mercy in the face of their evil violence, and to endure and absorb their bitterness and hostility until it burns itself out, and then still he will be offering mercy and the invitation to new life. Those who look for a God of vengeance who will one day meet violence with violence and decimate our enemies will be disappointed and offended by the God whom Jesus makes known. For Jesus reveals to us a God made known at the cross, a God who destroys enemies only by walking into the face of their violence and absorbing it in his own body until they fall to their knees exhausted and defeated and accept his invitation to become friends.
If God were willing, either in this present time or at the final end of time, to engage in retaliation, then God would no longer be the holy God. God would, like me much of the time, and like Israel and Hezbollah, and like Australia and America and Iraq and Al Qaeda, have become part of the problem instead of the basis of the solution.
In our congregational covenant we commit ourselves to resisting conversations which disparage others, and to sorting out any conflicts directly with those involved. These are not just little bits of advice for making congregational life more manageable. They are grounded in the very nature of the God made known to us in the crucified but still forgiving messiah. They call us together to be the body of Christ, living out his radical self-denial - the relinquishing of our rights to justifiable retaliation and festering resentments. Lived to the full they actually participate in his ongoing offering of his own body for the life of the world. They participate in the work of salvation. They resist the ever-present urge to become part of the problem, and call us instead to be the body of Christ, taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and taking our place as part of the solution.