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Readings: Second Sunday of Lent

25 February 2015

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38

Anglican poet: Christina Rossetti

Anglican poet: Christina Rossetti

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

THREE covenants feature in the Old Testament readings set for the first three Sundays of Lent. Last week it was Noah's turn, this Sunday focuses on Abraham, and next week will bring Moses.

Each has a basic pattern of promise and sign. To Noah, God promises that the earth will never again be destroyed by flood, and, as a reminder, sets the rainbow in the sky. Old and childless, Abraham is promised that he will become the father of nations with whom God will "establish" a covenant relationship (Genesis 17.6-7). The outward sign that this covenant is being kept will be the circumcision of all the males of Abraham's household, and of the generations succeeding him (Genesis 17.9-14). God promises Moses, in their conversation on Mount Sinai, that the people he leads will be his "treasured possession" if they keep the covenant that exists already (Exodus 19.5-6). The sign of this will be the written Law (Exodus 20.1-17).

The Lectionary has omitted the instructions about circumcision from the story of Abraham, and has given us Paul's explanation of the Abrahamic covenant to the Christians in Rome without its reflection on the part circumcision plays in it. If this is a device to protect the readers' sensibilities, it also succeeds in obscuring something important. Abraham, as the great New Testament scholar C. K. Barrett* pointed out, was not circumcised until God had recognised his faith and counted it as righteousness. This makes him technically a Gentile at the time he received the promise that he would be the father of innumerable descendants (Genesis 15), so that Paul can argue confidently that he is the father of all, not just the Jews (Romans 4.11). The faith that was "reckoned to him as righteousness" will be reckoned to all his children; but for Paul's audience it has a new dimension; for they believe in the God "who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Romans 4.25).

It was much harder for Jesus to teach this lesson to his disciples. Certainly, there was no shortage of signs: they had twice seen thousands of hungry people fed from absurdly meagre provisions, and been able to gather ample leftovers (Mark 6.30-44; Mark 8.1-10); they had seen the child of a Gentile woman healed (Mark 7.24-30); they had seen a blind man recover his sight (Mark 8.22-26); and they had heard Jesus's response to the Pharisees' strictures on observing the laws of cleanliness (Mark 7.1-13).

At one level, they had discerned the approach of the Kingdom of God in generosity to Jews and Gentiles. Peter responds to Jesus's question "Who do you say I am?" with the acclamation "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8.29). Yet the Messiah with whom they thought they were keeping faith was going to be a victor; and they were not prepared to hear what Jesus was undertaking, in living out the Messiah's vocation.

In one way, this is entirely understandable. Jesus inspired great numbers to seek him out as a teacher and healer. Peter's rebuke is full of panic. How could Jesus think of talking about suffering and death in front of people who depended on him? Suddenly the world was turning upside down, at least from the human point of view. Jesus wants to alter this perspective, and to make Peter see things from God's point of view. His answering rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mark 8.33), flags up the dangers of worldly temptation, but it also puts Peter in his place, as a follower and not even a privileged one. That is confirmed in the repetition of "behind" in Mark's Greek, when Jesus calls the crowd - together with the disciples - warning that any who wish to "come along behind me" must deny themselves, and take up their cross (Mark 8.34).

Writers on this passage often note that, for most members of the crowd, "the cross" would instantly have called up images of condemned prisoners carrying the instrument of execution to the site of their death. Jesus's promise of life reached by such a dangerous route was even more implausible than the idea that a few people and some animals in a boat could survive a catastrophic flood; or that an old man and woman could become parents of the nations; or that a stammering man could lead God's people out of slavery.

It is a promise that will be written on his wounded body, to be fulfilled in the resurrection.

The Epistle to the Romans (A.& C. Black, 1957)

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