Faith and sacrifice

Preached by Alan Jenkins LLM on 28 February 2021: Second Sunday of Lent

Romans 4:13-end/Mark 8:31-end

Lent is a time when we can reflect on our faith, and consider the obligation of sacrifice. And these are both key messages from this morning’s readings that sit together for they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, as we will explore, the one may depend upon the other. So, let’s look at faith, from as far back as Abraham, and sacrifice from Jesus’s teaching to his disciples.

Lent is an especially relevant time to consider these words, as we traditionally look on this period as a time of self-sacrifice for ourselves. But Jesus isn’t talking about giving up chocolate for Lent, rather he is starting to school the disciples into a much more fundamental and sharp-edged understanding of sacrifice – nothing less than life itself. Just hear again Christ’s words: “For those who want save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

These words were spoken just after Jesus had forewarned his disciples about the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter to come, when he would be making the ultimate self-sacrifice, only to rise again for our salvation. Peter, typically Peter, immediately wanted to deny what Jesus was saying, he did not want to hear the plain truth that his teacher, his leader, his mentor, could come to face death, and Jesus had to turn on him, sharply, to get the record straight.

But let’s go back a few thousand years to the time of Abraham, when he, too, couldn’t really believe at first hearing what he was being told. If we had used the Old Testament reading set for this morning we should have heard how God wanted to make a covenant with Abraham; Paul, conveniently for us, raises this episode in his letter to the Romans which we did hear just now, as he illustrates that Abraham, like Peter, could not really understand what he was being told.

In particular Abraham had to swallow the idea that he, a broken old man of many, many years, and his barren wife of similar age, were to have a son who would be the forerunner of a royal family, the grandfather to the twelve tribes of Israel. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and both Paul and we know that God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled, but Abraham had no benefit of such hindsight, and had to accept or reject God’s plan on the basis of what he believed.

He had already made life-changing sacrifices in obedience to God, having left his own country, family and kinsmen, travelling thousands of miles into Egypt, and experiencing many examples of God’s generosity and salvation. So his decision to believe God was not a once for all, ‘flash in the pan’ affair but, on the basis of his journey both spiritual and material so far, he was able to establish and develop his undying faith in God.

The stories of Abraham, and the spiritual growth of Peter, serve to remind us that our faith is rooted in initiatives which God takes first to establish a relationship with humanity. The next actions are always up to us.

So – Peter. He was ‘Action Man’ amongst the twelve, but was also quite sensitive, so that if heard news that he didn’t understand, or didn’t agree with, he would often seem to open his mouth before engaging his brain. This could be frustrating for Jesus, as we heard this morning; it could also illustrate Peter’s vulnerability, as at the time of Transfiguration when he didn’t really know what to do or say. But behind Peter’s impetuosity was a search for the truth, laying bare the reality of what Jesus was saying or doing. So we, who come much later, should be grateful to Peter for clearing the air, as it were, maybe asking the questions that we would like to ask.

Peter’s outburst enabled Jesus to categorically underline what his own sacrifice would be for. Peter was guided to think of the divine rather than human purpose of our lives, and we should do the same, to understand the spiritual rather than the material meaning of our existence. Jesus’s message about sacrifice is simply written, – lose the earthly life you might try to save, gain the eternal life you would give to God.

Simply written, certainly, but that message can only truly be understood through faith, and so these two themes go hand in hand for us, as we journey through Lent. Our Holy Habits reflections during Lent and Easter will include aspects of sacrifice through giving, serving, and sharing, and we will be encouraged to be glad that we are given opportunities to live out our faith in that sacrificial way.

For beyond Holy Week lies the joy of Easter Day, the true outcome of Christ’s message to his disciples, then and now. Amen