Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16, Romans 4:13–25 & Mark 8:31–38
When I studied American History in secondary school, one of the most notable figures was Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the ‘Founding Fathers of the United States’, and a revered person in the history of America. However, I recently found out that he was also well known for his sexual immorality. He was rumoured to have extensive knowledge of the brothels in London and Paris, as well as his home town of Philadelphia, and was also believed to have fathered as many as 15 illegitimate children. He is just one, of many examples, of distinguished and reputable people throughout history who were also flawed individuals. Two other such individuals, who are featured prominently in our readings this morning, are Abraham and Peter.
Today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is often used by preachers when they are delivering a sermon on the importance of having faith. This is because Paul uses the person of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, as the perfect model of a faithful person. But there is also another reason why Paul specifically uses the figure of Abraham in this section of the Letter to the Romans.
In the context of this chapter from the letter, Paul is trying to convince the Jewish members of the church in Rome, that all people in the world, both Jew and Gentile alike, are recipients of God’s grace through their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. This is because Jewish Christians in the church believed that Gentile Christians needed to observe the Jewish law if they were to be members of the church, and if they were to be reconciled in a relationship with God. However Paul points out the fact that Abraham was chosen by God long before the law even existed, and that God made a covenant with Abraham that all the nations of the world would be reconciled to God through Abraham, or more specifically through his offspring, that is, Jesus. And Paul argues that God’s promise was not made to Abraham on account of any work or deeds that he did, but rather it was because of his unwavering faith.
While Abraham might be a perfect model of faithfulness, he is certainly not without his flaws. The Book of Genesis records two separate instances when Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife, because he feared for his own life. Sarah was apparently an extremely beautiful woman who was desired by many men, and Abraham believed that if people knew she was his wife they would kill him in order take her for themselves. So instead, he told people that Sarah was his sister. The first time he lied was to the Pharaoh of Egypt, and the second was to King Abimelech of Gerar, and in both instances God intervened to clean up the mess that Abraham’s lie had created.
And we need look no further than today’s gospel reading, and the person of Peter, for another example of a flawed individual. Peter is depicted more than once in the gospels as failing to understand who Jesus really is. He also has a litany of other failures: such as cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest when they came to arrest Jesus; denying knowing Jesus in three separate instances; and of course, together with the other apostles, fleeing and deserting Jesus, for fear of his own life, when Jesus was crucified.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus shares with his disciples the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem, where he will be handed over by the Jewish religious leaders to the Romans and be tortured and killed. Now in the verses which immediately precede this passage, Peter, in response to the question Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am”, has just correctly identified that Jesus is the Messiah. So what has he done that is so wrong that Jesus now rebukes him so strongly?
Like most Jewish people of his day, Peter expected the Jewish Messiah would be someone who would be served and honoured, like all world rulers, and not be someone who would “serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Understandably, he gets it wrong, and perhaps rather harshly, Jesus corrects his understanding, telling Peter, along with the crowd and the other disciples, that if people want to follow him, then they need to be prepared for the consequences that come with that. Being a disciple of Jesus does not mean they will be treated with respect or given special privileges, as perhaps would the close aides of a king or other ruler, but instead they should be prepared to deny themselves such things, and even be prepared to sacrifice their own life for both Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the good news that he has proclaimed.
So what does any of this have to do with us? What do the figures of Abraham and Peter have in common with us? Well, like us, they were flawed human beings, but despite that, they were still called by God. God does not call the perfect, nor does God call us to be perfect. Many of us may not consider ourselves to be worthy of God’s grace, and by that, I mean that we may not think we don’t deserve to be in relationship with God. We may think we have too many flaws. But God calls each of us to “come as we are”, with all of our flaws, weaknesses and failings.
God doesn’t call us because we are perfect, and He doesn’t call us to be perfect. He calls us as we are, to be in relationship with Him, and he calls us to follow the example that Jesus gave us with his own life. This won’t necessarily be easy, as Jesus himself told us when he said, “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.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV) Peter is perhaps the best example of this when, after Jesus died and was raised from the dead, Peter returned to Jerusalem, having deserted Jesus on the cross, and began to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, and calling people to be baptised in Jesus’ name. Having suffered on account of his preaching and teaching about Jesus, Peter ultimately died for his faith, but the legacy he left the Christian Church is beyond measure.
We are not necessarily called to sacrifice our lives in the same way that Peter was. We are called to be however, what I describe as ‘Christ like’. We are not called to be ‘like Christ’, because of course Jesus was divine as well as human, but we are called to be ‘Christ like’, that is, to model our lives on the teachings of Jesus, and especially the Two Great Commandments: to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The Season of Lent is a time to reflect on God’s call. The call to come as we are, and to be faithful witnesses to Him in the world today.