Tuesday, February 20, 2018

LENT II 2018

The Apostle Peter -- van Dyke (1617)
The passage from Mark that is the principal Gospel for this Sunday gives us a glimpse of someone quite different from the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ of Victorian pictures. The simple, impulsive, faithful Peter is fiercely rebuked as a voice of satanic temptation. The severity of the tone, though, serves to show that in the proclamation of the Gospel there is something of the greatest importance at stake. Faithful Peter, we might say, needs to learn the full meaning of faithfulness.

A human life, if we believe in God, is not a lucky chance, a happy bi-product of evolution. It is a gracious gift, and as with any gift, it can meet with differing responses. The recipient can hoard it possessively, or squander it carelessly, or use in a spirit that mirrors the grace that gave it. At times, this fundamental choice about how to respond to the gift of life -- how to live -- becomes critical. Perhaps it is obvious that wasting my gifts is lamentable. On the other hand, though clinging possessively to the life I have been given, including its talents and accomplishments is a powerful temptation, it too rests on the false supposition -- the conviction that what matters most it what we get out of life. Yet, how could it profit me to gain the whole world, the Gospel asks, if to do so I have to forfeit the spirit of life itself? There is a paradox here; "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the Gospel, will save it".

We might put the paradox another way. The human soul finds fulfillment only when it abandons its deepest inclinations. Humanity's perfection, strangely, requires us to leave much of our humanity behind. That is the truth beneath Jesus' stern rebuke to Peter: "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things".

Abraham, Servant of God - Nesterov (1914)
The Old Testament passage about Abraham, and Paul’s reflection on it in the Epistle, both embody the same message. God declares Abraham’s life righteous (which is to say, a life lived rightly) not because of the moral laws and prudent calculations by which it was governed (though for the most part it was), but because it sprang from a trusting faith in God's promise. Paul repeats the message. Abraham's relationship with God is two sided. It 'depends on faith' --Abraham's faith -- 'in order that the promise' -- God's promise -- 'may rest on grace'. The appointed Psalm captures the thought with brilliant succinctness. The life of faith is one that first accepts ‘dominion belongs to the LORD, and . . . before him shall bow all who go down to the dust’. And then it declares, ‘and I shall live for him’.

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