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 PROPER OF THE SEASON

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT

VENERATION OF THE CROSS

(Heb. 4:14-5:6; Mk.8:34-9:1)

 Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther

 

It is sometimes said that this Sunday is meant to encourage us.  How anyone can be encouraged who faces crucifixion is a difficult question.  But if this Sunday at least reconciles us to the fact, it can bring us a peaceful outlook towards Great Week.  The epistle reading takes the Old Testament sacrifices of the Temple and gives them a Christian meaning. ‘Since in Jesus, the Son of God, we have the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven, we must never let go of the faith that we have professed.’  That is, we must keep the faith because Jesus is greater than the high priest of the Old Testament.  The high priest would go, once a year, into the holiest part of the Temple, sprinkling the blood of a sacrificed animal – giving its life up as the means of his entry to the holy place – and offering its life for the forgiveness of those sins which Jews had committed without really knowing what they were doing.  But the high priest could not secure even by this rite the forgiveness of any sins committed with a deliberate purpose.  So Jesus’ cross is a way to go beyond guilt.

The epistle continues, echoing this point. ‘For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weakness with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.’ The writer says that Jesus knows the temptations of deliberate sins; and yet he can forgive those as well as the unimportant, almost accidental ones, the breaches of formal conduct – like not fasting on a fast day.  ‘Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.’ The encouragement, then, is in the fact that Jesus as our high priest can act more completely than ever the priests of the Old Testament could act.

The argument continues that Jesus’ life had prepared him for this priesthood because he was in sympathy with man and in obedience toward God. ‘Every high priest has been taken out of mankind and is appointed to act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins; and so he can sympathise with those who are ignorant or uncertain because he too lives in the limitations of weakness.’  The writer refers to the sin offering, being made ‘for himself as well as for the people.’  The image of the priest is of a total representative doing the sacrifice of prayer for the community.  The writer says that like Aaron (Ex: 28: 1) a priest is called by God, but the writer distinguishes the priesthood of Jesus from that of Aaron by saying that Christ – the Messiah – was also called; but in his case, Jesus was called to a superior priesthood, that of the ancient Old Testament figure Melchizedek; who combined both priesthood and messiahship in his person, and did not come from a regular priestly family  - like Aaron’s descendants. (Heb 7) Above all, Christ accepted priesthood ‘from the one who said to him: You are my son, today I have become your father.’ (Ps 2: 7)

The gospel reading confronts us with the sacrifice of the New Covenant – the experience which makes the New Testament what it is: the death on the Cross of Jesus. ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’  The Romans made a condemned man carry part of his own cross – the cross-beam on which his arms would be fixed – to the place of execution.  This is a rough, direct image of the cost of discipleship. The taking up of the cross and the following are expressed not as a once-only act, but as a repeated act: a habit of crucifixion of ourselves is what we are asked to develop. ‘What gain, then, is it for a man to win the whole world and ruin his life? And indeed what can a man offer in exchange for his life?’ Life – the word here is psyche – means everything in a human life: the use of time, the waste of opportunity, the accumulation of experiences; and the point is to choose what is best.  Jesus is saying that if we accept him and the implications of his view, we have something more important than wealth, fame and property.  We have something better than all feelings. ‘And indeed what can a man offer in exchange for his life?’  The idea here is that life in Christ is the great treasure; and also the gospel suggests that the approaching death of Jesus is the only sacrifice which can bring us to the true fulfilment.

Then Jesus makes a separation of the sheep from the goats (cf Matt 25: 31-46), as he says ‘For if anyone in this adulterous and sinful generation is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ This is another of Jesus’ mysterious claims to be the Messiah – Son of Man – and the language shows that what is difficult now will be completely changed at the Second Coming: victory, not rejection, Christ in glory, not Christ suffering.  The reading ends with a strange assurance: ‘I tell you solemnly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.’

The coming of the Kingdom can be understood in several ways.  Jesus opens the door to this situation by being among the people of Israel and proclaiming that he fulfils the prophecies: the Son of Man is Messiah. The true destiny of the faithful people is about to be identified by proof that the kingdom of the heart – not an earthly kingdom – is where God reigns in triumph.  There is another sense, that this state of affairs will develop and as more disciples take up their cross, so the kingdom will spread.  And it can also mean that many of those who are looking at what Jesus is doing now in his earthly ministry before the crucifixion will not die until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.  In other words, they will find that the crucifixion will not end the course of events, for the resurrection will then take effect, and there can be no better way of receiving the gift of spiritual life than through participation in that world-changing, earth-shattering event.

So then, the priesthood of Jesus fulfils all previous forms of sacrifice for sin and failure. The priesthood comes out of the community of belief and gives to the community the power to live with true fulfilment, as God wants.  The kingdom is that state of affairs; and Jesus has begun that reign which is yet to be fulfilled.  Fulfilment there will certainly be. That is a question of faith.  Crucifixion there must be.  That is a decision of faith.   But hard as the choice is, ‘anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’  As St Maximos the Confessor said, ‘he who knows the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb, knows also the essential principles of all things.  Finally, he who penetrates yet further and finds himself initiated into the mystery of the Resurrection, apprehends the end for which God created all things from the beginning.’  So that is the encouragement of this day: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’  Choose, choose now; choose for all time and beyond time.                  

 

© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.

Sunday, 30 March 2003.

 

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