Homily: 25 February 2018
Genesis: 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
“Satan” because he is here unwittingly an adversary or enemy of the salvation that Jesus is proc
Jews, Christians, and Moslems all claim Abraham as their founding patriarch. “In what thus is called the Abrahamic religious tradition, Abraham is the forefather of these peoples” (“Abraham,” Wikipedia). He is for each an example of belief in and fidelity to a monotheistic deity: Israel’s Yahweh, Christianity’s God, and Islam’s Allah. Christians and Jews connect with Abraham thorough Isaac, his son by his wife, Sarah; Muslims connect with Abraham through Ishmael, his son by Sarah’s servant, Hagar. There is a problem to be noted, nonetheless. Abraham supposedly lived some 2000 years before the Christian era began; so his story as we now have it dates from the eighth or seventh century before it found its way into the Sacred Writings of the Jews. And although the accuracy of events passed down by word of mouth for some twelve centuries is doubtful at best, scholars like Hans Küng do see Abraham as more than a “purely mythical” figure (Judaism 7). And Garry Wills’ new book What the Qur’an Meant And Why it Matters (2017) reaffirms this. Abraham exists in sagas as a model whose faith in one God brought him righteousness and reward; consequently, his story seems more important than Abraham himself.
Paul, who was immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, invokes Abraham as a model when he writes to the Romans. He tells them that “God promised Abraham that through his offspring all the nations of the world would come to be blessed.” That blessing in the Christian tradition is interpreted as “a reference to Christ.” This is what Paul emphasizes, although he knew from Genesis that God promised Abraham and Sarah a son seven times in twenty-five years, and his delay in fulfilling that promise became so laughable that Sarah named her son Isaac, which means “he will laugh.” But no matter how problematic the existence of Abraham himself may prove, Abraham’s story suggests that faith requires a sense of humor as well as an endless patience.
Paul emphasizes faith before works in his letter to the Romans. But because he does so he insists on the importance of acting virtuously elsewhere in his letter to the Romans; so we now agree that he is simply saying that it is not specific works that lead to righteousness as readily as faith does. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). Faith, therefore, more nearly and more easily brings us to better works and with them to eternal life. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (10:12-13).
The idea of not pushing too hard on works is likewise important in this specific letter because Paul is addressing both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Many Jews in Rome still observed the laws of their tradition; whereas the Gentiles, not having such laws, did not. So the former were engaged in works, so to speak; the latter not. What Paul asks the Gentile Christians to do is give their Jewish brothers and sisters the liberty of conscience to follow their laws; what he asks the Jewish Christians to do is to allow their Gentile brothers and sisters to live as Jesus’ disciples without such works: “where there is no law,” he says, “neither is there violation.” What is important for both is faith in Jesus as the son of God and the savior of Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus Paul goes on to say: “For as in one body we have many members . . . not all the members have the same function” (12:4). Indeed, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us. . .” (12:6). With such differences is mind, let us therefore “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (12:9). Or to put it to Jew and Gentile as simply as possible, Paul tells them both that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (8:12).
Now in the gospel of Mark today, Jesus proclaims himself the savior of both Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, the thrust of Mark’s gospel is to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, the word used in the Sacred Writings of the Jews for the promised descendant of David’s line who would fulfill the promise made to Abraham. So today’s gospel begins with Jesus proclaiming himself the “Son of Man,” which is an alternate title of the Messiah. This title appears 88 times in the scriptures beginning with the Book of Daniel (7:13-14) where we learn that the Son of Man “was given authority, glory and sovereign power, all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” The hitch, so to speak, is that the Scriptures also indicate that the “Son of Man” would have to undergo suffering, even crucifixion, before arising from the dead to save Jew and Gentile alike.
Now Peter, a fisherman, is less learned in these Sacred Writings than Jesus, and he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer in the way Scripture indicates the Messiah must suffer. Thus Peter is called “Satan” because his is here unwittingly an adversary or enemy of the salvation that Jesus is proclaiming. That puts Peter, if only momentarily, in what Jesus calls an “adulterous and sinful generation.” Thus does Jesus say that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now I don’t want to label anyone of us here, including myself, a member of an “adulterous and sinful generation”; therefore, the Son of Man suggests that our faith and our works, as Paul indicates, should lead us to “the glory of God with the holy angels.”
And one last word or two. When, elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answers him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Johan! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Mt. 16:17). This confession of Peter’s eventually led in our day to the formation of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we celebrated from the 18th to the 25th of January. So it seems appropriate that we think of ourselves, each in his and her own way, as having already celebrated Paul’s message to the Romans, which, if I may repeat it is: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”