[Ed. So this might have been ready for a (late) Evensong, but certainly not Eucharist!]
September 16 – Trinity XV
“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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ “
The Last Temptation of Christ is not a film I have ever seen. It’s not one I particularly want to see – not for any reason of considering it blasphemous or anything like that, it’s just not on my list to watch! It’s more famous for the furore it caused than its plot: depictions of Christ having sex were never going to go down well with some people. But the plot is quite interesting. The film depicts a very human Christ who struggles with everyday temptations – fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust.
Along with many other departures from the version of Christ’s life depicted in the gospels, the film concludes with Christ on the cross from which he is rescued by a guardian angel. He marries Mary Magdalen and settles down to a comfortable family life. After Mary Magdalen’s death He marries Mary and Martha (both?! Lord, have mercy…). There is even a bewildering encounter with the Apostle Paul along the way. Finally on his death bed as an old man, and in the midst of a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, Jesus is visited by the twelve. His last visitor is Judas who reveals that the “guardian angel” who rescued Him was in fact satan . Jesus ends up begging God to let him fulfil his purpose and to let Him be God’s Son.
At that point, Jesus finds himself back on the cross, crying out “It is accomplished” with His dying breath. Fade to white.
Had it all been a dream? It had all been a temptation.
It might sound faintly ridiculous to us – of course Jesus would never have been tempted in this way! But this passage from Mark’s gospel could well be called “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Or possibly “The ongoing woes of Peter”!
At the beginning of this passage Jesus takes the time to ask his disciples for the lowdown on what people are saying about him. He has performed powerful miracles – healing, resuscitations, miraculous feedings, walking on water; he has taught with an arresting authority; he has defied the most powerful religious authorities of his day. But who does this make Him? John the baptist…Elijah…another of the prophets? No, he lets them go on…
Peter chimes in… “You are…the Messiah”. Got it. The Messiah, the chosen one of God, the long awaited one, the one the prophets were talking about, the one who would finally redeem Israel, who would finally end the exile. Physically the Israelites had returned from the exile in Babylon, but they were still under the heel of a foreign oppressor. The Romans occupied their promised land. The Herods were puppet Kings at the mercy of the imperial overlords – a far cry from the high days of King David. The temple, once destroyed, had been rebuilt but the shekinah glory – the sign of the presence of God – had not returned. The ark of the covenant had been lost. The temple was empty. Where was God? Had he abandoned Israel for good?
The Messiah, the Messiah, finally the Messiah had arrived. They had got who He was. Well, almost.
But only now would he tell them who He really was and what he must do. Only now would they really understand his mission. When they thought they knew who he was he would take their breath away once again.
Jesus explained that he must suffer and die. Perhaps he told the twelve about those passages of the Hebrew Scriptures that foretold this; today’s Isaiah passage maybe. Yes, he was the one they had waited for, the Messiah, the Christ. But it was that that meant he had to suffer and die. A different sort of Messiah: a different sort of God.
Peter again. Peter said “no”. No, you can’t die. The Messiah can’t die. Why had Peter and the other disciples given up everything they had – their jobs, their possessions, their families – to follow someone whose mission was to suffer and die?! The Messiah was supposed to have been the great saviour who would rescue Israel…but how could that be if he was going to die, to leave them? The Messiah should be slaughtering Israel’s enemies, not being killed by them!
No gentle word to Peter. No private put-down to this most outspoken member of the twelve. No enigmatic silence. No parable. No disarming question. No – public, violent, awful to say and hear.
The cold in the room where they were gathered. The rising adrenalin in each disciple’s throat “Get…behind…me…satan”.
The last temptation…resisted. The way ahead now clear – Jerusalem, the mockery, the beating, a cross, cruel nails, the pain, the agony, and only then death. The Messiah’s way. God’s way.
To hear a loved one tell you they must die must be an awful thing to hear. To hear a loved one tell you they must die, and then to hear them tell you that you must suffer the same fate…what do you do with that? If Jesus had not appalled his disciples already, then surely that must have happened now. Jesus told them that he would die, and horribly, and that they too must walk the way of the cross, walk Christ’s way. It is a wonder the disciples did not up sticks and run that very moment. That was only to come later, only in the very shadow of the cross itself.
But really, haven’t we been running from Jesus’s invitation to walk his way ever since it was made? Take up thy cross, live to die, die to live, deny yourself. There have certainly been examples of those in our christian history who have taken this on board. But now? In what we call the church? As a whole, an institution?
One of the greatest sermons ever preached (I think!) is Fred Cradock’s sermon on this passage from Mark. Look it up on youtube. In it he poses the question that we all need to face: “Why do we act as if the death of Christ was the saving of the world, but as if the death of the Church was the end of the world?” In Cradock’s sermon – delivered to a chapel full of ministry students about to be released into the wider world – he warns them of the constant challenges they will face in churches. Times will always be hard, he says, and you will be told that by cutting back on this church programme here, by reducing your outreach to the poor, vulnerable and needy there, yes the church can go on, it can be maintained, it can survive. At any cost it can be made to survive! No, no, no, he says: get behind me satan. Take up thy cross. For the sake of the gospel, for Christ’s sake, take up the cross. It applied to the disciples then; it applies to us now; it applies to the church now.
What would a church look like, what would a world look like where we did just that? We can only begin to imagine. It is so far from our comprehension, and yet it is what Jesus – that most unlikely suffering and dying Messiah – seems to be calling us to do here.
I’ll finish with a poem by Charles Sandburg that Craddock shares in his sermon:
“Take up your cross and go the thorn way.
If a sponge of vinegar is passed you on the end of a spear,
Take that too.
Souls are woven of endurance – – God knows“