A Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12/09/21): History vs God’s Action

Mark 8:27-34

The question of Jesus’ identity is central to Mark’s Gospel. It is the reason why he writes. He wants to tell us who Jesus is. And here, literally in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus raises the question the himself: “Who do people say that I am?” And moments afterwards, he asks again: “But who do you say that I am?” What impression does he give? What makes him unique? The question of who Jesus is makes a difference.The answer that anyone gives to that question is decisive.

Jesus is of course an historical figure. He has a particular time and a particular place. His life played out among other lives and in a geographical setting. It is a time and a place that makes him part of the sequence of human events that are human history. And that makes him like every other human being who has ever lived. We are all part of that sequence of events. And of course Jesus is one of that small minority of human beings that what we call history chooses to remember for the rest of us. That is all a bit like the first way Jesus poses the question of his identity: who do people say that I am? “Who does history say that I am?” To which history might give an answer: Jesus was an itinerant preacher from Nazareth in Galilee. He was someone who generated a following, who was followed everywhere by large crowds, And who ultimately was killed, unjustly, by the Romans at the prompting of the ruling class in Jerusalem. That is how history might tell the story to explain who Jesus is.

Peter however recognises that there is a different way to view the story of Jesus:
Who do you say that I am?
In answer, Peter makes the distinctive Christian confession about Jesus:
You are the Messiah
He says, ”You are the Holy One of God. You are the one whom God has sent to effect reconciliation between him and creation. You are the one in whom and through who God acts.” There is so much more to Jesus than just the sequence of history. History is and remains the sequence of events, the one thing after another, that leads to the present moment. And, we presume, it will continue into the future. It is a sequence of events that follows what we might call the “rules” of cause and effect. How things got to be the way the are, and how things might play out in the future. Knowledge of this sequence may be available to us or not. History remembers some things but forgets others. And using our knowledge of history we might be able to foresee some future events, but be surprised by others. To a greater or lesser extent it may be accessible to or concealed from us. We may understand or it may seem mysterious

The unique actions of God are not separate from that sequence of events. But they are concealed in them. What God does, God does in the sequence of history, but God’s role in them remains hidden. It is quite possible to look at what God does and not see that it is God doing. God’s activity is hidden inside the one thing after another Wrapped up inside what we perceive as laws of cause and effect. God’s actions are concealed except to the extent that they are revealed by God in Christ They are unknown and unknowable except for the experience which Peter has. The experience that leads him to make his confession. “You are the Messiah!” Which is to say: “You are the one in whom God is acting.” This distinction between history as a sequence events and God’s activity hidden inside them is part of the distinction between the human things we might set our minds on the divine things which Jesus would want us to understand.
Peter in one moment appears to grasp Jesus as the decisive action being taken by God. But in the very next moment, in his rebuke to Jesus, places what Jesus is doing firmly back into the sequence of history, just another of those things that come one after another.

Jesus announces that:
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected . . . and be killed.
Jesus’ death is readily explicable just in terms of history. His death can be seen as merely the natural reaction of the elite to a potential threat to their power. And in historical terms Jesus death would normally be regarded as a failure for him. The climax of his story is not the defeat of his opponents. He does not replace the chief priests at the head of the community of faith. The emperor in Rome is not overthrown. These are outcomes his followers seem to have believed he was promising. So in historical terms he is a failure. His movement is defeated. That is certainly the outcome which those who killed Jesus intended and expected.
Though, actually, even in historical terms martyrdom may not necessarily be a failure. The death of a figure like Jesus, whilst at a personal level might be regarded as a failure, but such a death might galvanise or outrage in such a way that their death results in the achievement of their goal. And it remains possible to judge Jesus, and his death in this purely historic way After Jesus’ death, regardless of your view of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers gradually became a world transforming movement. History, large chunks of world history, that sequence of all the events that leads up to now is inexplicable without the presence and activity of Jesus’ followers, for good or ill. And this is so regardless of your view of the claims which Christianity makes. So from even a historical point of view, even setting his mind only on human things Peter’s rejection of Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death, Peter’s rejection of that even in human terms might be misplaced.
But as divine action, what God is doing, Jesus’ life and death stand beyond history. Looking into those things we are not just seeing more of one thing after another. There is something else going on: Here is God. This is how God acts. This is what God does. Not just in that time and place, but in every time and place, This is what God is like now! The world does not have to remain as the sequence of events have made it. God is present. God is at work.

There is a collision between history (human things) and God’s action (divine things):
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected. . . and be killed.
Jesus must die. It is a mistake to read the “must” in that sentence as a divine imperative. As if God demanded Jesus’ death That is not God’s action. There is an inevitability in Jesus’ death. It is an inevitability that Jesus recognises which enables him to make his prediction of his own suffering and death. The inevitability is a historical one. The product of the sequence of human events. But God’s action is embedded in it. So the actions which human beings take here are also a rejection of God. Jesus also predicts:
The Son of Man must be. . . killed and after three days rise again.
There is something irreconcilable between who he is and the sequence of events that is history. Those committed to, with a vested interest in the world as it is, as the product of the sequence of events, the material beneficiaries of that sequence of events, the privileged, the powerful, the rich,
those with a vested interest in the sequence of events as the have occurred and appear to be continuing, will do all in their power to prevent the intrusion of God to disrupt that sequence of events. Because it is a disruption that threatens their wealth and their power and their privilege. The elders and the chief priests and anyone like them must reject Jesus because as God’s action Jesus threatens the status quo which they want to maintain. And any way in which the reality of God becomes present in the world threatens that status quo. A couple of simple examples of the things that are true to say about God: “God made us all, and hates nothing that he has made” Such a statement undercuts all claims to privilege, it challenges inequality, and rejects hostilities that separates humanity into rival camps. Or “Nothing will be impossible for God” Someone called that the creed that lies behind al creeds. But to declare that is to reject the idea that there is no alternative. Things do not have to be as they are. Indeed any truthful statement about God tends to undermine the power and advantage which the privileged hold over everyone else. That is where the inevitability in Jesus’ suffering lies.

Peter rejects Jesus’ prediction because at this point he can’t see and so he doesn’t believe in the reality of God’s action. He is stuck in history as the sequence of human events. And he wants a different sequence of events from the one which Jesus has just predicted. Peter wants a sequence of events that doesn’t lead to Jesus’ rejection and death. But such a sequence of events which, whether Peter sees it or not, leads only to the replacement of one elite: Romans/Elders with another elite, presumably Peter and the disciples. His vision of the world transformation which Jesus’ followers might effect is one that is limited to transformation that place them on the top! The tragedy of history is how often and how much the church has, and continues to try to do just that!

Get behind me Satan!
says Jesus.
You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
Jesus rejects “human things” and the privilege that goes with them. To be followers of Jesus is to accept that he is Messiah. He is the one in whom God is acting. He is the one who shows how God always acts. If you accept that it brings you into the same collision between history and God’s action which led to Jesus’ rejection and death. Which means that the way to follow Jesus is to embrace what the world would see as failure. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me This is what makes Christianity such a hard sell to anyone still committed to history as a sequence of human events, a hard sell to anyone unaware of, or wilfully ignoring, the actions of God embedded in those events. “Take up your cross,” says Jesus. “Live and act in a way that acknowledges that God made us all and hates nothing that he made. Live and act in the confidence that nothing is impossible with God.” To live like that is to enter the inevitability of rejection by the elders and the chief priests. To live like that is to invite the rejection of the privileged who have a vested interest in things being and continuing as they are. But that is the challenge which Jesus in and out of history, in every place and time presents.
Who do you say that I am?”

History vs God’s Action by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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