Saturday, April 04, 2015

He Saved Others

He Saved Others
Mark 15:22-39[1]
  As we come to the conclusion of this season of introspection, not only must we confess that we can be strong-willed people. We must also confess that we can all be people driven by our self-interest. Or perhaps we should simply use the word we’d rather avoid: we can have a tendency to be selfish. Now, obviously, a certain amount of self-interest is healthy. Without it, we can simply become a doormat for anybody and everybody to walk all over. But the kind of self-interest I’m talking about doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s what compels us to “look out for number one,” even when that means we ignore the consequences our actions have on others.
  I think most of us would rather not have to admit that we can be selfish at times, but it is a part of our human condition. Often, I think we can be most selfish when we are least aware of it. Something triggers a deep-seated fear, or something makes us angry, and all we can see is our own concerns. We go into a kind of “tunnel vision” where we lose our ability to understand or even be aware of the needs and concerns of others. And the fact of the matter is, when we get into that mode, we can be incredibly unkind, thoughtless, and even downright mean. It’s a reality of human existence we’d rather not have to admit, but the truth is that we all have a selfish streak.
  I guess the real question is what to do about it. Of course, the proverb that being aware of a problem is the first step in the right direction certainly helps. But I think if we really want to learn to step out of our selfish tendency, we need an example of how to do life differently. I think that’s where our Gospel lesson for today can help us. In it, we find a particularly distasteful episode where those who were present at Jesus’ death were ridiculing him.  The soldiers mocked him by dressing him up like a king.  The crowd made fun of him for claiming to be able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.  And the religious leaders scoffed at the idea that he could save anyone: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Mk. 15:31). In their minds the very fact that he was hanging on that cross meant that he couldn’t save anyone.[2] 
  And yet, I think that there is some irony going on in the way Mark tells the story of Jesus’ passion. We may not be used to seeing irony in the Bible, but I think it’s fairly common, especially in the Gospels. For example, in John’s Gospel, when the Jewish authorities decide to have Jesus executed, the high priest says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn. 11:50). John is quick to point out that the High Priest wasn’t aware of the real truth of what he was saying. I think that there’s something like that going on in our lesson for today.[3] Think of it: of course Jesus couldn’t save himself. If he had saved himself, he wouldn’t have saved “others”, which includes the ones who were mocking him, and all the rest of us as well.[4]
  What the crowds at the foot of Jesus’ cross failed to recognize was that our God is one who saves us through suffering love. The God who never quits loving us is a God who suffers with and for us.[5]  Part of the mystery of our faith is that it was God who was suffering on that cross.  God suffers on behalf of people like you and me because that’s who God is—a God of suffering love.  The reason why God suffers for us is because the only real way to break the power of evil in this world is to absorb it.[6]  As one of our confessions puts it, in the cross, an “abyss” of sin and violence and anguish has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[7] 
  The challenge is that all this runs completely contrary to what we expect from our faith. The fact of the matter is that when we make the decision to follow Jesus, we are choosing to follow a man who was ridiculed, humiliated, and ultimately executed.[8] That’s not what we expect as the “reward” for our piety. Like others before us, we assume that if we practice our faith, we will benefit from it not only spiritually but also tangibly. Our lives will be “blessed by God,” which means we will be spared the suffering of those who go their own way and ignore God’s truth. But the plain truth is that we live in a world where following Christ—really following Christ and not just “playing” at discipleship—means that we must expect to face the “contradiction” of the world in which we live.[9] If we follow a Savior who was ridiculed and humiliated, opposed and executed, then we must recognize that we are exposing ourselves to ridicule and humiliation, opposition and even hostility.
  I think it also means that we are called to follow Jesus in his willingness to save others rather than saving himself. Jesus said it this way: “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” (Mk. 8:35). The suffering Savior who served the suffering God calls us all to be suffering servants, taking on the suffering of others in order to help them find the salvation Jesus offers.[10]  That’s how we “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him” (Mk. 8:34). That can be difficult. It can be painful. But giving up our self-interest on behalf of those around us is how we become part of our Savior’s work of saving others.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/29/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 505: “If Jesus can’t save himself, how can he build another temple? How can he restore Israel? The mere fact of the crucifixion appears flatly to contradict Jesus’ previous preaching and prophesying.” Cf. similarly Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16, 1052: “the chief priests and scribes imply that Jesus cannot be ‘the Christ, the King of Israel,’ because he cannot save himself.”
[3] Cf. also Adela Y. Collins & Harold W. Attridge, Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, 748, where they point out that “For the evangelist and his audiences, however, the inscription [“the king of the Jews”] is ironic, because it unwittingly expresses the truth that Jesus is a king.
[4] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 1052: “the mockery in 15:31-32a ironically expresses the deepest secret of Markan soteriology: the compassionate deliverer of his people, ‘the Christ, the King of Israel,’ must save others through his atoning death, and therefore he cannot save himself by descending from the cross.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:602: “His mission as Messiah and Son of Man is fulfilled along the lines of Is. 53. There is no question of His by-passing death and the grave. He has to tread this road to the bitter end. He is as helpless in face of death as any other man. Nor would he be the Son of God—of a God friendly to man—if he were not ‘obedient even unto death’ (Phil. 2:8).” Cf. similarly, M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:491.
[5] Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.
[7] Cf. “The Study Catechism, Full Version” Approved by the 210th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), (1998), question 45.
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:167: “His power is present to men in the form of weakness, His glory in that of lowliness, His victory in that of defeat. The final concealment is that of His suffering and death as a condemned criminal. He who alone is rich is present as the poorest of the poor. As the exalted Son of Man He did not deny the humiliation of the Son of God, but faithfully represented and reflected it even to the minutest details.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 109–110: “On the cross [Jesus] dies in forsakenness by God and man. Or is this the greatest of all the miracles, the all-embracing healing? ‘He bore our sicknesses and took upon himself our pains … and through his wounds we are healed’ (Isa. 53:4, 5). This was how the gospels saw it. So Jesus heals not only through ‘power’ and ‘authority’ but also through his suffering and helplessness.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.  It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”
[10] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 124, 134-35.

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