Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 – Abraham’s covenant (age 99).
Psalm 22:23-31 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Romans 4:13-25 – Abraham wasn’t saved by the law. His trusting God’s promises is reckoned to him as righteousness.
Mark 8:31-38 – Peter’s confession and rebuke. Crucifixion prediction. Take up your cross and follow me.
Genesis: The Abrahamic Covenant. Last week we read the Noahic covenant. This week we hear God’s covenant with Abram now Abraham, age 99: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. Sarai/Sarah also receives a promise, that she will bear a son and give rise to nations. Kings shall come from her. Like the rainbow in the story of the covenant with Noah last week, this covenant also has a sign: Circumcision. Throughout all generations, on the eighth day, all children shall be circumcised, even your slaves, both those born in the house and those purchased. The covenant is good for the offspring as well. It is an “everlasting” covenant.
Romans: Righteousness by faith has been God’s plan all along. Paul puts forth his classic argument that God’s promises (salvation) came to Abraham and his offspring, because he believed and trusted God, not because he kept the law. The Mosaic Law would not come around for another half a millennium. Hoping against hope, Abram trusted God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Paul wants the church in Rome to understand that justification by grace through faith has been God’s modus operandi all along. The law, Paul says in Galatians, was our babysitter until Christ came.
Mark: Passion Prediction. This text, Peter’s confession and rebuke, has parallels in Matthew 16 and Luke 9, though Luke does not report Peter’s rebuke. Some early writers suggest that it was precisely because of Peter’s confession (which takes place prior to this in all three synoptics) that Jesus can now reveal the mystery of the cross. The Son of Man must undergo “great suffering,” then be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and after three days, rise. Peter is shocked, and begins to rebuke Jesus (ἐπιτιμaν, epiteeman, to chide severely). Bede says Peter speaks with the voice of a man who loves… We can understand his reluctance to accept this jarring new information, that his beloved leader must suffer and die.
Jesus rebukes back. “Get behind me Satan.” He senses that his life and calling are hurling inexorably in this direction. He would probably love to hear a word absolving him of this destiny. “Remove this cup from me,” will be his prayer in Mark 14. He is, however, staying focused on divine things, not human things.
What Jesus says next must be of great importance, because it’s the same, word-for-word, in all three synoptic gospels, with just a couple of unimportant variants:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves [Luke adds “daily”] 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.’
Matthew and Luke omit “and for the sake of the gospel” which Mark has in some early copies, like Papyrus 45. Matthew prefers “will find it” over “will save it.” Matthew likes the concept of “finding,” as in “seek and you shall find” and stories such as finding a coin or a treasure in a field. For Mark, nothing less than salvation is at stake.
Faith is not assent to an intellectual proposition. It is trusting God, in life and in death. For Abraham, faith means trusting in God’s promises enough that he is willing to leave home and family and kindred and go wandering about to a place he does not know. It means trusting that his descendants will number as many as the stars, even when all hope of any descendants seems lost. Faith is not theoretical, it calls us to act. It calls us to put our lives on the line. Paul understands that faith gives life, and brings us into relationship with the living God in a way that the law can never do. For Paul, Abraham is the model for faith.
Faith may even call us to put our lives on the line. If the highest good is saving my skin, then my life is self-centered rather than God-centered, other-centered. If saving his own skin was the highest good, Bonhoeffer could have stayed in New York at the behest of his American colleagues, and not risked his neck returning to Nazi Germany to witness to the light. It is to have our minds set on divine things, and not just human things. It means trusting God enough that we choose to do the hard thing, and not always the easy thing.
This text drives us to ask the question of the congregation: Upon what are our minds set? Truth be told we have to admit that our minds are often set on acquisition of wealth. We want money, comfort, and privilege. In short, we must confess in this season of Lent our minds are set on the earthly things. What would it look like to set our minds on the things of God? What are the things of the Spirit of God?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
For Paul, the things of the Spirit are spiritual fruits: “… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…” (Galatians 5:22)
The good news sounds like bad news. In order to find our lives we must lose them. In order to save them, we must give them away. It’s a counterintuitive gospel. God saves us, from our self-consuming gluttony. Life is found in self-denial that can only come through trusting God’s promises.
Those delving into prayer during the Lenten season probably read chapters 7-14 of Learning to Pray Again. Having set aside a time to pray, and a place, many find that just going to that place begins to calm them down after a week of this practice. Their prayer zone represents a place to quiet the “shoulds” and listen. Like Pavlov’s dog, just going to that same place automatically starts to put us in an attitude of prayer.
If you’re like me, the first thing that happens when you quiet the soul is you begin to think of all the things to have to do. Write them down and let them go. They’ll be waiting for you after your prayer time.
Chapters 7-14 focus on some traditional patterns of Christian prayer: oratio, lectio divina, meditatio, contemplatio. To these I have included Luther’s addition of tentatio. Luther mentions this as a way of doing theology, not prayer, but his point is important. Chapters 13 and 14 focus on fasting and almsgiving. The goal of prayer is communion with God. Silence is our best tool, but many of us have trouble being silent. We are so hyperactive, we find it difficult to sit and pray without help. Our minds are abuzz. “Even at night their minds do not rest.” (Ecclesiastes 2:23)
Tools like lectio divina, prayerful reading of Scripture, help to focus the mind and allow the frenetic nature of our thoughts and activities to settle. We need to empty ourselves. At its core, prayer is a process of kenosis, emptying, so that we might be filled. As you and your folks pray, I believe you will experience a deepening of the spiritual life of your congregation. I’m convinced that individuals will experience powerful things as they make time for prayer. When this happens I would love to hear the stories.