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  • Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson

Embracing the Good and the Bad

Second Sunday of Lent (Year B) 28 February 2021; 10 am Live-Streamed Said Ante-communion Homily Delivered at the Parish Church of Trinity Ashland (Oregon)

The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, homilist

Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Psa. 22:23-30; Rom. 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.

Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel tells the story of what happens just after Peter first says that he believes Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells him that what he has been taught about this hoped-for figure is wrong. Contrary to common expectations, the Messiah has to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious and social leaders of his people, and be killed. Peter can’t accept this, and tells Jesus off, and says he is out of line. Jesus replies by rebuking Peter, saying that he is his adversary and not his disciple, using the graphic Aramaic word Satana, or Satan. Then comes the saying that disciples must learn to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.

Those of you who are familiar with the Jesus Seminar’s work in reconstructing the sayings of the historical Jesus will recognize a problem in the passage: it has all the shape of being the product of the later faith of the Church. In fact, most careful biblical scholars note that it has typical signs of the editing and narrative style of the first Gospel writer, Mark. The Jesus Seminar fellows marked the sayings in the passage as almost certainly not coming from the historical Jesus. In the phrasing of Marcus Borg, these words come from the post-Easter Jesus, not the pre-Easter one.

But interestingly, there are some reasons for seeing the elements of the story as coming from the historical life of Jesus. More thorough-going scholars like John P. Meier admit that the story is Mark’s, but that at least some of the details behind the story probably go back to Jesus’ life. It is hard to conceive of post-Easter Christians making the story up of Jesus calling Peter a Satan, especially right after Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah. The problem of course is identifying what context these sayings would have had on the lips of the historical Jesus.

At the most, it would be that Jesus could see that he was probably headed to no good end, that his teaching was going to get him in deadly trouble with the Roman authorities, that he still embraced his calling, and that he believed that his followers similarly had to embrace such risk. Again, at the most, the historical Jesus might be alluding the "son of Man" as a reference to the Messiah, but this is unlikely.

“Son of man” is a phrase that has a long and complex history in scripture. But the most basic point is this: in Jesus’ native language, Aramaic, it simply meant a “human being,” and was a way of referring to oneself in a humble, self-deprecatory way. On the lips of the historical Jesus, “son of man” means something like “this humble person you see before you,” or “this average schmo, me.” Only later, after Good Friday and Easter, did the Church see this quirky way Jesus had of referring to himself as a claim to be the Messiah: they linked Jesus’ use of it to a passage in the Book of Daniel that refers to a coming future saving figure as looking “something like a human being,” literally, “a son of man.” It took Easter to make them see the phrase with new eyes, just as it made them see Jesus’ references to God as “Abba” or Papa not a teaching of the intimacy of each and every person with God, but rather a claim to Jesus’ unique divine sonship.

At the least, the saying would mean something like “this humble human being before you is going to get himself killed.” And the following saying about disciples taking up their cross would be “and you too must embrace such a lot.”

If indeed these sayings go back to the historical Jesus, then, they must mean something like, “Human beings, if they live how they’re supposed to, are bound to suffer. And you must embrace this fact or you’re not really understanding my teaching, not really following me.”

Embracing the bad that goes along with the good God gives us, then, would be the point of this teaching by Jesus.

The idea is very close to what we find in the Book of Job. When Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die because God has been so unfair to him, Job replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman. If we are willing to accept good things from God and bless him, shouldn’t we be willing to accept hard times from him as well?” The narrator adds, “ In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:0).

Accept the good and bad that God gives you. Do not struggle against God’s way of bestowing good things. The idea is implicit in sayings almost universally attributed to the historical Jesus: “Love both your neighbor and enemies alike. Act as the children of your father in heaven, who gives his blessing of rain and sunshine equally to the righteous and the wicked” (Matt 5:45). “Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. God cares for the sparrows and wildflowers. God will care for you” (Matt 6:25-34). “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”

This isn’t to say we need to reject feelings of hurt and pain when we suffer. Feelings will come, and that’s O.K. That’s one of the great lessons from the Book of Psalms, that has about every emotion under the sun. Accept feelings; but make sure you act on them rightly.

But trusting in a gracious and good God, a loving Abba or Papa, means trusting. That means we need to have equanimity and patience. It means acceptance.

Acceptance is not gritting your teeth, holding your nose, and putting up with the intolerable. Acceptance is embracing what is, good and bad, and letting that embrace be part of our love for God and God’s love for us. Acceptance is not judging, but watching and being present.

There is a traditional Chinese story that tells of accepting the way things are, the Tao: A farmer had only one horse. One day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to commiserate over what they saw as his terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?" Later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer's good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?" The farmer's son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?" A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer.

When Jesus says he will suffer terrible things and we must be willing to suffer terribly too, I think he is calling us to acceptance. And this is because our Father in heaven is ultimately good and kind, despite what may appear before our eyes. Trusting God, having faith, means acceptance.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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