The Episcopal daily readings which I use every day, offer today a couple of passages that express the heart of Christianity
Daily Headline: The Obama enigma: seeker for justice, user of drones
51For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
The Nature of Christian Freedom
2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.3Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.4You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.5For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working* through love.
7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?8Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.9A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.10I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.11But my friends,* why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed.12I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;* only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,* but through love become slaves to one another.14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
This angry passage is about the identity of Christian believers: are they another band of religious people, with a set of customs and practices to keep, or are they men and women who trust God’s love and are set free to love their neighbours? For Paul, all the energy spent by religious people in pleasing God is a distraction from living as members of the one family of God. Of course the mere act of circumcision does not disqualify a man from the benefits of Christian faith (Paul admits as much in verse 6) but putting one’s faith in religious ceremony does mean that he loses trust in God. Paul wants to emphasise that Christianity is not a new way of being religious; it’s a new way of being human. By listening to “Judaising” Christian teachers who advocate Torah obedience, the Galatians risk losing their identity as new men and women in Christ. Paul is driven to make a coarse joke in Greek: he wishes the people who stand for circumcision (peritome, snipping, in Greek) would go the whole hog and cut it off altogether (apokopto, chop off, in Greek). The freedom that Christian people enjoy he says, is not without stringency: it takes place under the mark of the cross of Jesus Messiah, that is, it involves throwing away all self-assertion and self-protection in favour of the generous vulnerability of God. In this sense circumcision is trivial compared with the “offence of the cross.” At the end of this letter, as we shall see Paul says to the circumcisers, “Don’t give me grief; for I bear on my body the MARKS OF JESUS MESSIAH,” that is, the scars from beatings by civic authorities round the world. They are true marks of his identity.
The modern reader is probably not tempted by circumcision but the human desire for “religious identity” has not disappeared. Many desire the security of being numbered amongst the “saved” in a particular fellowship; some the arduous practice daily devotion; others the Latin Mass; others again total identification with a religious cause, like Pro-Life or Pro-Gay activism. To all such Paul says, “Grow up! That’s not your true identity in Christ.”
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’*30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.35For 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.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’91And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with* power.’
This passage is also about identity, “Who do you say I am?”. It’s about the identity of Jesus and his disciples. Peter answers Jesus’ question by using the Hebrew word “mashiach,” which means “anointed one” and had come to mean the One whom God would anoint as the King ,through whom he would restore Israel and establish justice on earth. According to Mark Jesus neither accepted nor rejected this identity but told his disciples not to speak of it to others. He then defines the identity of God’s anointed as he knows it: suffering, rejection, death-and resurrection. This is so far from what any faithful Jew expected, that Peter tries to rebuke him. For his pains he is called Satan and told to get back in line. He has not learned how to think like God, Jesus says, which is a pretty steep demand.
Jesus then picks up the issue of identity using the word “soul”, which here indicates the real life of a person. Anyone who wants the identity of a follower of Jesus, must put their own identity at risk but “taking up their cross” (daring to oppose the religious and secular establishment) and go the Way of Jesus. Those who want to protect their identity may lose it; while those who risk their identity for the Way of Jesus, will find their true life has been rescued. Gaining the world at the cost of losing your true identity is a poor bargain, Jesus says. Mark means his readers to understand this declaration against the background of his first seven chapters which have depicted Jesus as a tornado of life blowing through Galilee, healing, teaching, restoring humanity. He wants his readers to understand that the readiness to pour out life is an identity not a tactic; it does not change when faced with abuse and violence.
My readers will see that Jesus is talking about what Paul (above) calls “the offence of the cross.” For both Jesus and Paul it identifies God’s children, it is a mark of authenticity. Neither of them means some kind of masochism. Christians are not asked to look for suffering, but rather for opportunities to pour out their lives generously. If this brings suffering, that will express their true identity.
In their different ways, today’s readings express the heart of Christianity.