Sunday reflection

Today’s reading is from Mark 8: 31 – 38

If, like me, your teenage years coincided with the 1980’s you’ll not only have memories of wearing big t shirts with slogans printed across them, as well as legwarmers worn over jeans, but you might have looked forward every week towards the American programme Fame being on television. Based at the New York School of Performing Arts, it told the story of drama and music students learning about the ups and downs of being a teenager, as well as training for a life of performance. It was great – lots of catchy tunes and amazing dances, and the usual falling in and out of friendship and solving teenage problems. Being part of the music and drama crowd at school, my friendship group loved Fame and imagined our lives could be very similar if only the headteacher didn’t insist we learned maths and science and let us concentrate instead on our theatre work, although funnily enough our termly music concerts and annual theatrical performances weren’t quite of the same high standard at those depicted in Fame, despite the positive reviews we always got in our local paper – there was no spilling out into the streets of Renfrew in bright boiler suits, dancing on yellow taxis and bringing the streets to a good natured standstill. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized of course our amateur performances could never match the professional actors and actresses we saw on television, and those standards, as the dance teacher in the opening titles told us every week, involved hard work rather than just good fun - fame costs she said, and this is where you start paying.

Fame costs and this is where you start paying – words that have stuck with me long after I’ve forgotten the names of the characters and the songs they sang. The message was simple – if you want something enough it can be done, but be prepared to put in hard work and long hours and face disappointments and sorrow along the way – words that Peter might have heard as he spoke to Jesus in our reading this morning. Or rather, words that he should have heard as he listened to Jesus speak in our reading this morning. Only in our reading it wasn’t fame that cost, but discipleship. Jesus began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.  Not the easiest words to hear, especially when spoken by a friend and leader about his own death. As readers and listeners today we are in the fortunate position of knowing how things work out, what the eventual outcome is, but Peter, in his usual gruff fisherman style wants to sort everything out, wants to keep Jesus safe, and we read ‘Peter took Jesus and began to rebuke him’.

Rebuke can mean different things in different settings – was Peter rebuking Jesus because he thought Jesus was talking nonsense – of course he wasn’t going to be killed, even if he did rise after three days? Was he being a friend trying to reassure his pal? Was Peter saying ‘Cheer up and don’t be negative’? Or was he speaking from fear, a sudden realization that if Jesus foresaw this turning against him, and his own death, then did that mean the same would happen for Peter? And who would Peter follow if Jesus was gone – would this mean that he, Peter, would need to step up to the mark and be the leader of the disciples?

I suspect that all those sentiments and probably a few more as well were contained in Peter’s rebuke – a ‘don’t be silly’ chiding ranging all the way to a ‘how dare you’ or ‘how could you think about leaving us?’  And Jesus’ response, as it often was, was straight and uncompromising: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

The thing about the gospel, about being a disciple, about following Jesus, is that it asks for commitment, and to misquote the opening lines of Fame, commitment costs. The gospel asks us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves – not the nice neighbour with whom we have lots in common and whose company we enjoy, but the stranger, the enemy, the challenging person, the smelly person, the one who rubs us up the wrong way and does our head in. We’ve to love them – to take them into our care and seek the best for them, and give up our coat or swallow our pride and refuse to let hurts fester. Easier said than done, but that’s the point. The gospel asks us to share, to go the extra mile, to forgive our enemies, to serve one another  . . . and all of that will cost us in terms of our own pride and standing, our time and comfort, our credibility. Are we prepared to do that, to allow these things to happen to us, or are we happy to pooter around on the edges, to stay within safe places and not really let anything change us nor other people?

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had built up layers of self protection over the years – rules and laws and customs and teachings that kept people at bay, judging the sick and the poor and speaking about their condition in religious language, rather than trying to find ways of bringing wholeness and truth – because wholeness and truth for the poor and the outcast would have brought them inclusion and equality, but would have meant the religious leaders losing some of their power, their standing, their safety. And when Jesus healed the leper, or helped the blind man to see, or fed a gathered crowd, or spoke about finding the kingdom of God not in unattainable and unreachable places but in people’s homes or famer’s fields, the leaders felt their power challenged, their lifestyles under threat, a threat that would lead ultimately to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. I suspect the fear that led Peter to rebuke Jesus was the same fear that led the religious leaders in their condemnation of him – uncertainty, concern, confusion – except their rebuke was death rather than merely shouting.

A year ago none of us would have realized what we were about to face, to experience and come through. I wonder what we might have changed or altered had we been able to see into the future. We’ve lost human contact and work, schooling and education, cups of coffee and going on holiday, the lives of people we have loved, celebrations put on hold. We have lost so much – some more than others – and yet we have found and rediscovered much too. But it has been hard, and it seems that as we can see the lifting of restrictions on the horizon, lockdown has become harder rather than easier to cope with. There is a condition prisoners experience when they reach their release date that involves a fear of freedom, of a return to normal, and sometimes they reoffend in order to stay in prison rather than face the unknown outside.

I’ve used that word again – fear – and yet looking back on lockdown we might realize, not with fear but with a moment or two of congratulation, what we have enjoyed and valued, and I hope it is those things that take us forward, and inform our post lockdown lives, the things that bring us quiet joy and afford the same to others. We are nearly there, but we are cautious and fragile and unsure, and yet I hope what we’ve discovered opens us up to one another and to God and to ourselves.

Perhaps in his fear Peter didn’t hear the last part of what Jesus said: after three days the son of man will rise again. Perhaps that was too much for Peter to understand, to get his head around. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to see his friend hurt and in pain. But these are words we know to be true: life overcoming death, and light overcoming darkness. What a gift, what an invitation, what a joy.

Let us pray:

Loving God, you called all sorts of people to follow you –

The sure and the doubting, the worried and the well,

The certain and the cautious,

And on their journey in your company

They learned about love and laughter, about life and hope,

About themselves and their own worries,

About others and their fears.

And today you call us still,

Often uncertain, often too certain,

Yet heard and understood and encouraged as we walk with you and you with us.

Hear our fears and anxieties we pray, our frustrations and questions,

Bring us peace of heart and mind, not to dismiss all that brings concern,

But to offer us rest and refreshment in order to allow us to face the world once more.

Open our hearts we pray to the worries of others, that the hungry are fed and the stranger welcomed,

The poor brought good news and the prisoner visited, that we might change how we live in order to allow others to thrive and survive.

And guide and support our leaders in times of uncertainty and difficulty.           

Call us again to be your people, to walk in your company, to rejoice in healing and to share hope, and hear us as we pray together in the words your son taught us, saying:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

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Page last updated: 27th February 2021 9:36 PM
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