Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-end; Romans 4.13-end; Mark 8.31-end
AS THE post-communion prayer reminds us, “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” In Jesus, we find both the shape of the Christian journey and the grace to undertake it. He is our journey’s end.
This Sunday’s Gospel shows us the shape of our life in Christ. The passage begins with Jesus teaching on his Passion, and St Peter’s attempt to rebuke him. The apostle does not yet understand the nature of God’s sacrificial love.
In the verses immediately before our passage, it is Peter who confesses Jesus as the Christ. Although he recognises Jesus’s identity, he refuses to accept that he must suffer the humiliation of death on a cross. Peter will understand the nature of God’s love — and, therefore, the mission of his Christ — only in the light of Holy Week and Easter.
When Peter seeks to rebuke him, Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s resistance to the way of the cross has an echo of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. On each occasion, Jesus is clear that his glory as God’s anointed one is to be manifest through the suffering and humiliation of Calvary.
Jesus’s words to Peter posit a “sharp opposition between divine and human authority”. There is an echo of his earlier conflicts with the Pharisees. As Ched Myers observes, there is “no middle ground” here: the disciples must choose where their loyalty lies (Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).
Jesus immediately goes on to tell the wider crowd that they, too, have to make a choice. To follow him involves imitating his Passion. Followers of Christ do not simply benefit from his work on the cross: they are to be drawn into his struggle with evil, and his self-offering of love.
To take up our cross and be united with Christ in his self-sacrifice is not to earn our salvation. We are justified by what Christ has done. This is the central message of our epistle, in which St Paul expounds the doctrine of justification by faith by way of God’s covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 15-17).
The call of Abraham provides a foretaste of “the startling incongruity that believers have experienced in the gift of Christ” (John Barclay, Paul and the Gift). The law can only bring God’s wrath on fallen humanity. It is God’s gracious offer of a covenant with Abraham — an offer based on mercy, not earned by the patriarch — that provides the pattern of salvation.
While the gift of grace is unearned, it requires a fitting response. It is Abraham’s response of faith that is “reckoned to him as righteousness”. That faith, if it is a living faith, will be manifest in practical acts of obedience. That is as true for each Christian as it was for Abraham. To “believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” is not purely a matter of intellectual assent.
The “faith” into which Paul is inviting his readers involves their being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection. Their life is joined to his. In St Augustine’s words, “Christ is formed within the believer who accepts the form of Christ.”
The mistake that we sometimes make is to imagine that we can accept Christ’s grace without our lives’ taking the shape of his cross. Since we are to be united with our Lord, our bodies are “members of Christ himself” (1 Corinthians 6.15). To receive Christ’s gift of grace is to be united with him, and therefore to show forth his life in ours. Christ does not only justify us: he also sanctifies us, drawing us by the Spirit into his self-offering of love. His cross becomes ours.
In the eucharist, we are shown what it means to be drawn into his life. As St Augustine says, “If you are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table; it is your own mystery that you are receiving.”
As we are fed by Christ’s self-offering, we also drink his cup of suffering. We are united in a single sacramental act to his death and resurrection. The eucharist proclaims the shape of the Christian life, fills us with the grace to follow in Christ’s footsteps, and offers a foretaste of our journey’s end.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.