Last Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, we saw Jesus going into the desert and staying there for forty days. It was the Spirit who “drove” him into the desert, where he was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). After knowing that John had been imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom to all, saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (v.15). What Jesus is proclaiming is the nearness of God, a new way of being in the world: total trust in the presence of the God of justice and compassion, of love and life. The time has arrived now! There is no need to wait until death! Jesus does not come up with plans to start a new religion. He was a Jew and he loved his religion and his culture. What he announces is a radical way of imaging God and, consequently, of living and celebrating God (religion).
This is what he learned and confirmed within himself while in the desert. Through his baptism, driven by the Spirit, Jesus became aware that he was loved by God from the inside out, that is, in the greatest depth of his being and that this love was unconditional.
In the first lesson for this Sunday, the second Sunday in Lent, taken from Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, we continue with God’s covenant of life for humanity and all of creation. In this Sunday’s text, we have the third covenant, the one made with Abraham and Sarah, promising them many descendants: “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (vv.4-7) The same is promised to Sarah: “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (vv.15-16). Their names are changed. Ab-ram, honored father, is now called Ab-raham, father of a multitude, and Sarai, contentious one, is now called Sarah (blessed one).
Here there are two points which we must consider: 1. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah is a covenant that demands trust, total trust, and this because what God is promising them both is just outright impossible. Abraham knows it: “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety” (v.17)? They are both called to trust God in a way that defies all understanding, especially biological understanding. Yet, especially in the face of the totally impossible, they must believe.
The second point is that Abraham and Sarah are being called to be the parents of many nations and peoples. And God will always be their God. “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (v.7). We sill have an image of God that is universal and not ethnocentric. God is still not identified with a single people and its culture and religion, at the exclusion of all other peoples. This is why we say that Abraham and Sarah are the parents of all monotheistic believers!
In the gospel lesson, taken from Mark 8:31-35, we have the central text of Mark’s gospel, which serves as the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and as the introduction of Jesus’ way of the cross, that is, the start of his journey into Jerusalem. This text can be divided into three parts: 1. The question about Jesus’ identity (vv.27b-30), which is not present in this Sunday’s text; 2. The announcement of his passion, death and resurrection (vv.31-33); and 3. The way of the disciples (vv.34-35), which actually continues until 9:1. I will comment only the last part.
Feeling misunderstood by people in general and after listening to Peter who proclaims him to be the Messiah (v.29), Jesus announces his passion, death and resurrection. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (v.31). Upon hearing this, Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him that this is not what they all have in mind. Peter and the others will have nothing to do with a Messiah who will suffer and die.
This is not what they want for their master and friend; this is not their image of the expected Messiah, which they believe Jesus to be. They were thinking of someone along the lines of the great prophet and king David! They want to remind Jesus that messiahship and suffering and death simply do not go together! Messiahship and conquest and empire and glory, yes! Suffering and death, most definitely not!
Upon hearing of this Jesus is swift with Peter and, through Peter, will all the other disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (v.33). And he continues: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (vv.34-35).
For Jesus, those who wish to be his disciples must take up their cross, they must be faithful to their mission. There are no two ways about it. Faithfulness will be their cross: faithfulness to the mission of justice and compassion, of love and life. Faithfulness, therefore, just as Jesus was faithful, is what being a disciple is about – faithfulness until the end, regardless of the consequences.
Once again, we see the contrast between the desert and the city. It is the city, with its political and religious institutions, which will judge and kill Jesus. His life will be sacrificed “on the altar” of the city and this will be done by the political and religious authorities. As for the people, they will simply be coerced, manipulated, bought, and, at the right moment, they will be given their cue and will cry: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (15:11-15) Even today, and especially around election time, how easy it is to manipulate people with the weapon of fear! How easy it is to buy the poor with a bag of beans! In the desert there is freedom and empowerment. In the city, conforming and consolidation of power, at the service of those who hold and exercise power. And they will not be challenged!
This is very important when we consider the institution of religion (or religious institutions). Who are the people they are called to be at the service of? And, how are they serving them? It is not enough to say that religion is at the service of God? What God? Whose God? And, how is this God served? The disciples of Jesus are being told today that they are to serve God through faithfulness to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, following the example of Jesus. How did Jesus practice his religion? How did he serve God? Surely, he did not seek out suffering for its own sake, nor did he seek institutional power (the city). He was faithful and the city rejected him. His passion and death were a consequence of his faithfulness. We must be careful and not think for a minute that God demands that we suffer for “the Kingdom of heaven.” There is a brand of Christian spirituality that is masochistic and life-denying, glorifying suffering and death. This is not at all what the life of Jesus was about. His life was about alleviating the suffering of the weak and the sick, accompanying the poor and the lonely, lifting the downtrodden and the broken-hearted, liberating the imprisoned and the forgotten and crying firm and strong against all injustice and indifference. This is how he practiced his religion and this is how he celebrated the unconditional presence and love of God in his life and in the life of the world. For him, religion was not a matter of fulfilling laws and regulations, not a matter of maintaining rites and rituals, but rather a matter of liberating life – all life – through justice and compassion. Laws and regulations, rites and rituals were (and are) important, but only to the extent that they were (and are) at the service of justice and compassion, at the service of love and life.
Like Abraham and Sarah, we must trust… we must trust in the loving and liberating presence of God. During this Lent we should take time to revisit the images of God that nourish our spirituality. We should take time to revisit the way we experience and celebrate the presence of God in our lives and in the life of the world, the way we “do” religion. Let us not forget that we live in Latin America, a supposedly Christian Continent. And, yes, an honest reading of our history will tell us that we have been unfaithful. Over the centuries, we have preferred the way of power and empire, the way of glory and prestige… not the way of the cross. What have we done to Jesus? What have we done to the Jesus’ movement, the Church? What has become of discipleship, our discipleship? We only have to look at the victims – at the multitude of sisters and brothers still crucified on the cross of utter poverty and misery, crying out for justice and compassion. Here, in Latin America and, I repeat, a supposedly Christian Continent. They are our judges! Their continued crucifixion reminds us of our unfaithfulness.
Lord, help us!
How are we being disciples of the Lord? How are we following him, here at Saint Luke’s?
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