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Follow Me: The Cross and the New Covenant
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PART 4 OF THE SERIES “THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS”

MARK 8:27-9:1

lent series titleDuring this series, we’ve been dealing with the question, “Why did Jesus die?” That’s certainly a vital question, but it often causes us to fail to ask an equally important question: “Why did Jesus live?”

 

If we paid attention only to the atonement theories that the church has bandied about over the centuries, we might get the impression that Jesus’ death was the sole purpose of his mission. In fact, many atonement theories don’t deal with any of the things that come before Jesus’ death in the Gospels. Even the creeds that we say skip over the bulk of Jesus’ life. Take the Apostle’s Creed, for example: “He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Nothing in there at all about the rest of Jesus’ life!

 

But in order to understand Jesus’ death, we have to understand that life. Like our survey of the Old Testament last week, we have to see the cross in line with the larger story the Scriptures are telling, and the Gospel writers want us to see that story in the context of all that Jesus does and says leading up to the events of Good Friday. It is here, in the Gospel narratives, that the story of the Old Testament finds its climax and centers on the one who is Israel’s Messiah, God’s Son, and the crucified Lord.

 

First, however, we need to briefly review where we’ve been. We’ve been talking about the death of Jesus as the answer to the basic problem of humanity—idolatry, which leads us to slavery to sin and death. Since the first archetypical humans wanted to become like God (and, perhaps, become gods themselves), we have been giving our worship to non-divine forces that enslave us and seek our destruction The image of God in which were created has been distorted—we have become less than human and we have not lived the vocation that God created us for: to be stewards and priests for his creation.

 

But we also learned that God launched a rescue plan by forming a representative people from a new Adam and Eve—Abram and Sarai. God cuts a covenant with Abram, and his family became a nation, enslaved but then set free, but constantly turning back to slavery to sin. God keeps the covenant, however, and even when God’s people are in exile because of their sin, God promises a new liberator, a Messiah who will bring them back and give them hope. The goal of the covenant was to create a restored people, restored in the image of God, who once again lived their vocation as a “priestly nation” through whom God would draw the whole world to himself—a people who obey and embody God’s priestly mission of loving God and others.

 

The end of the Old Testament, however, leaves us wondering who this Messiah might be. The people of God are still enslaved by foreign powers, still needing release from exile, still needing the ultimate forgiveness and freedom from their sins. As N.T. Wright puts it, “The Old Testament is a story in search of an ending.” How will God’s rescue plan work out? Who is this Messiah? What is the shape of this new, restored humanity that God wants to create?

 

The Gospel writers reveal that this Messiah is actually God come in person in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus will embody God’s covenant mission and it is in him—his life, his death, and his resurrection—that all the narratives of the Old Testament come together.

 

Indeed, each of the Gospels links us back to the Old Testament in their own way. Each of them begins with John the Baptist proclaiming the Messiah’s coming—a link to the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Matthew sees the birth of Jesus in light of the birth of Moses—one who will come out of Egypt to lead his people to freedom. Mark reveals Jesus as the Son of God. Luke’s birth narrative reveals that Jesus is the king from David’s line whom God promised would rule forever, while John begins with an image of Jesus as the logos, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us.

 

All of the Gospels climax in Jesus’ death on a cross and in his resurrection from the dead, but before they get there they are all trying to tell us that Jesus’ life was a reflection of the image of God and vocation of God that God gave to humans from the beginning. They seem to be saying that this man, from a humble origin, actually embodies the perfect image of God—fully human and fully divine—and embodies the covenant faithfulness of God in everything he does and says.

 

When he is baptized, for example, he identifies himself with humans in need of liberation from sin and death, even though he himself is sinless. He goes into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, where he is tempted by Satan—but unlike Adam and Eve and unlike Israel, Jesus resists the temptation to give his worship to anyone or anything other than God. He teaches in a way that seems to have the same authority as the law God gave to Moses, but he actually intensifies the nature of the law. Remember that the law was designed to mark out who was in God’s family. Jesus will reveal that the real members of God’s family are marked as those whose hearts are aimed at the covenant faithfulness of loving God and loving neighbor, rather those who are marked by external practices like food laws, circumcision, and strict Sabbath keeping. He will heal people from their diseases—a sign of God’s promise to make all things new and restore his people.

 

And he will proclaim forgiveness of sins. Of course, his people knew that forgiveness could only take place through sacrifices in the temple. But in his actions, Jesus begins acting in place of the temple. In fact, he will go into the temple and disrupt its activity as an acted parable of judgment, proclaiming that this temple will be destroyed and a new one will rise in its place. If the temple was where heaven and earth met and where sins were forgiven, Jesus was now claiming that role was embodied in his own person.

 

And in the midst of all this, Jesus also forms a new covenant community. It’s no coincidence that he calls twelve disciples—representing the twelve original tribes of Israel. They will be a microcosm, a representative sign that God’s restorative mission would be embodied in a new people, renewed in the image of God and given a renewed vocation as God’s priests, God’s representatives. It is this community that will represent him, embody his own identity, and live his example as people restored in the image of God.

 

But what is the shape of this new covenant community, and what does the death of Jesus have to do with it? For the answer, we turn to the Gospel and, in particular, to our reading this morning from Mark 8.

 

Many scholars believe that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written. It is shorter than the others, and it looks like Matthew and Luke may have used Mark as a source when they wrote their longer and more descriptive Gospels. We thus call these the “synoptic” gospels (which means “seen together”). One of the key points of connection in the synoptics is found in the fact that each contains three predictions Jesus makes about his own death, followed by the response of his disciples. When we look at these closely, we see Jesus interpreting not only the meaning of his own death, but also how that death is to become a model for the community of disciples he is forming.

 

THE FIRST PREDICTION

In Mark 8:27, Jesus takes his disciples to the reign of Caesarea Philippi, a region known for its pagan influences and as the home of the Cave of Pan or, as the Gentiles understood it, the entrance to the underworld. It’s in this setting that Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” This is, indeed, the most critical question the Gospels are trying to answer. The disciples say that the crowds see Jesus’ ministry in line with the prophets, like Elijah and John the Baptist. They see him as part of the Old Testament tradition.

 

But then Jesus personalizes the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is quick and decisive—“You are the Christ (the Messiah).” In other words, “You are the one to whom the prophets pointed.” Good answer, we think. But Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone because that word “Messiah” brings with it a lot of expectations and a lot of potential for misunderstanding and confusion. As if to prove the point, Jesus reveals what his definition of “Messiah” looks like and it’s one that neither Peter nor the other disciples understand.

 

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. That seemed crazy. Whoever heard of a crucified Messiah? Remember, to a Jew, crucifixion was a sign that one was cursed. How can you be dead and be the Messiah? How can a dead man lead his people to freedom? Peter immediately took Jesus aside and “rebuked” him (I love that word, we don’t use it enough). “Clearly, Jesus, you must be wrong about this.”

 

But Jesus will “rebuke” Peter in return. “Get behind me, Satan!” he exclaims. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Do you notice the power of that statement? It’s a concise statement of the core human problem! “Satan” would have us focus on “human things”—the idols of power, prestige, money, and a host of others. Jesus recognized Peter’s rebuke as the same stuff he had heard from Satan in the wilderness; and the same stuff that Adam and Eve heard in the Garden—the temptation to give worship to that which is not God. It’s the path backward, the path back to slavery.

 

But Jesus is moving forward, into God’s covenant mission. Thus he says to Peter, “Get behind me.” Follow me into the real mission of the Messiah, God’s plan for the redemption of the world from slavery to sin and death.

 

And what is that plan? It is the way of the cross! Jesus calls the crowd and the disciples together and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Notice how that statement is framed—we call this an inclusio in biblical study—words that act like a frame for emphasis. When Jesus talks about followers, he is talking about the new community he is forming—the new covenant community, the community of the cross.

 

How does one become part of that community? They must: 1)Deny themselves – give up their slavery to things, 2)Take up the cross – be like Jesus and enter into his sacrificial mission—becoming slaves for the sake of others in order to set them free. In other words, the shape of this community is the shape of the cross—embodying the love of God and love of neighbor; a community that is willing to give up their own lives in order to save them; a community that is willing to embody Jesus’ suffering on behalf of the world; a community in which real freedom is found in giving oneself away.

 

Jesus says those who are ashamed of him and his cross will be ashamed when he comes in glory, but those who given their lives for his sake and the sake of this gospel will find real life in the end. They will see God’s kingdom, God’s reign and rule, come with power.

 

This is a key point for us to embrace: The message of the cross isn’t just about something Jesus does for us; it’s not just about forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It’s also the message about what Jesus expects us to do and to be as a result of the cross. The cross creates the new covenant community—the new covenant in his blood—and that community has a mission. To embrace the cross is to embrace not only its benefits but its call—the call to follow Jesus, the one who became like us so that we might become like him.

 

THE SECOND PREDICTION

What are the marks of that community? In the second prediction of his death, found in Mark 9:30-37 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke, Jesus reveals one of the key aspects of the cross-shaped community. Having told the disciples he would die at the hands of the authorities and be raised again, the disciples respond by having an argument among themselves about which of them was the greatest. It’s really an absurd scene. Jesus confronts them: “What are you all arguing about?” But like children caught doing something bad, they are silent.

 

It’s then that Jesus uses a child to challenge their childishness. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says to them. Picking up a child, who in the ancient world would have been a vulnerable non-person, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” The cross-shaped community is one that extends radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, the poor, the vulnerable and serving them. Servanthood, taking the posture of a slave on behalf of God and others, is the mark of a cross-bearing Jesus follower. In John’s Gospel, Jesus will demonstrate this in another way by wrapping a towel around himself and washing the feet of his disciples, the job of the lowest slave in the house. If you’re going to follow me, Jesus seems to be saying, you’re going to be spending a lot of time on your knees. You must be willing to be regarded as nothing in order to be something in God’s eyes.

 

THE THIRD PREDICTION

In the third prediction, found in Mark 10:32-45, Jesus’ reminder that he is on the way to the cross prompts James and John to come to him with a request—let us sit at your left and right hand in your kingdom. They still don’t get it—they think Jesus is going to be president in Jerusalem and they want cabinet positions. Jesus asks them a cryptic question: Are you able to drink the cup I’m about to drink? Be baptized with the baptism I’m about to undergo? In other words, are you willing to take on the suffering that is involved in being associated with me? They boldly say they will, but they don’t know yet where this is going despite Jesus’ repeated call.

 

The other disciples are angry at this request of their friends (probably because they didn’t think of it first). They all want to be rulers, but Jesus goes on to say that its the Gentiles who have rulers who lord it over others. No, he says, if you want to be really great, you have to become a slave. This is the way of Jesus, who came as a slave to give his life as a ransom for many—he became a slave in order to redeem slaves.

 

SELF-DENIAL, HOSPITALITY, AND SACRIFICIAL SERVICE = THE WAY OF THE CROSS

Self-denial. Hospitality. Sacrificial service. These are the marks of the people of the cross. Jesus lives out these marks in his life and in his death, and he calls his community of followers to do the same. It is his death and resurrection that make such a community possible—a people forgiven from sin and set free to live the way of Jesus, the only way that leads to life.

 

It is a costly way, a narrow way, and that is why few will follow it. We rob the gospel of its power when we make it all about a ticket to heavenly bliss on the one hand or merely a program of social progress on the other. I am convinced that one of the reasons that the church of Jesus Christ has lost its power and voice in this world of darkness is that we’ve traded the mission of the cross for the idolatry of “human things;” we’ve traded self-denial for self-gratification; hospitality for hubris; and the pursuit of power for sacrificial servanthood.

 

We can no longer pull our punches or make the gospel easier to swallow so that we can fill our pews and our coffers. The blood and water that poured out of Jesus’ side when it was pierced on the cross is not only an image of death but one of birth—the birth of the cross-shaped community to which Jesus calls us and for which God made us. That kind of community will never be popular in a world seeking after human things. Like the rich young ruler and so many who wanted to sign up to follow Jesus during the heady days of his popularity, the way of the cross is too hard of a road to walk. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

 

But to those who will receive it, it is the power of God for salvation—not only for them, but for the world. It is salvation lived now, in the community of the cross. A people who want nothing from the world are the most dangerous and effective kind of community because they only want what God wants. It is time for the church of Jesus Christ to turn to the cross and become that kind of people again.

 

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “Go and make coverts,” or “Go and make church members,” or “God and make people comfortable.” They are to go and be the community of the cross, inviting people to the hard road of obedience. Many will be called, but few will be chosen. The question Jesus asked his disciples then is the question he still asks today. It’s the question that, like Jesus, will define our life and our death:

 

Will you pick up the cross?

 

Source:

Gorman, Michael J. The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement. Cascade Books, 2014.



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