In Mark’s Gospel, just before the passage we have heard Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ After he hears the answers Jesus asks, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Peter answers that He is the Messiah, and Jesus told them sternly not to tell anyone about this.
He asks the same question of each and every one of us this morning, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is worth taking a few moments to consider just what our answer would be. A very nice man? An inspiring teacher? Yes, all those things, and more; as Christians we can only echo the words of St Thomas after the Resurrection and simply say, ‘My Lord and My God!’
That’s who and what He is, and nothing less. True God, and True Man, who comes among us to proclaim that God’s Kingdom is near, and that we need to repent. We need to turn away from sin, and turn back to God, a God who loves us, and who sent His Only-Begotten Son to show us just who much He loves us.
Jesus teaches that the He must undergo great suffering, like the servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, be rejected by the Jewish religious authorities, be killed and after three days rise again. It is quite a lot to take in. Peter, who only a few moments earlier has acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, just can’t take this. It isn’t part of the plan. It isn’t supposed to happen. Peter cannot bear the thought of Jesus suffering and dying, he loves Him. Peter just cannot understand that it needs to happen, that it is Who and What Jesus is.
Fundamentally, ours is a God who makes promises, and keeps them. He makes a promise to Abraham, and keeps it. God makes promises because He loves us. We don’t deserve to be loved because we sin, we alienate ourselves from God, and each other. But because God loves each and every one of us, then Jesus goes to die upon the Cross to demonstrate this love to the world.
Jesus says to us, that we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it! But like many things Jesus says it is fine in theory, but in practice it is a lot harder. For two thousand years we’ve been struggling with it, and that’s the point. It isn’t easy, I wish I could say that it was, but quite frankly it isn’t. I know that I struggle, that I’m not a good Christian, that I need to trust God more, but also I know that I am not alone in this, there are several billion Christians alive today, and countless billions through the last hundred thousand successive Sundays who have felt just like this. Rather like Peter, I don’t want Jesus to die for me, I don’t deserve to be saved, such are my many sins, that I should be cast away from God’s presence for all eternity. And yet, Jesus died for me, to save me, and for each and every one of you.
God loves us: frail, weak, sinful humanity. He gives us this time of Lent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. He gives us a chance to enter the desert of repentance, and, with renewed vigour, to follow Him. It really is good news. And we need to lose our lives for Christ’s sake: living out our faith in all that we say, or think or do — to follow Him, whose service is perfect freedom. We live, not for ourselves, but for the God who loves us, who died for us.
So now the Cross is our only hope — the sacrifice of God for humanity, not something we can give God, but something he gives us — a free gift of infinite value. God gives it to us and to all the world for one simple reason — love, for love of us — weak, poor, sinful humanity, so that we might be more lovely, more like Him. God sends His Son into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through Him — an unselfish act of generosity, of grace, so that we might be saved from sin and death, from ourselves, so that we can share new life in Him.
It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning at the altar, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed more and more into God’s likeness. It is something which we treat with the uttermost reverence because it is God, given for us, because it can transform us to live as children of the Holy Spirit, freed from the shackles of this world, free to live for Him, to live as He wants us to, His new creation, of water and the Spirit. This is what the Church has done on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in memory of Him, to make the holy people of God. To make us holy: so that everything which we say, or think, or do, may be for His praise and glory, living out the faith which we believe in our hearts, as a sign to the world that the ways of selfishness and sin are as nothing compared with the generous love of God.
So great is this gift, that we prepare to celebrate it with this solemn season of prayer, and fasting, and abstinence, to focus our minds and our lives on the God who loves us and who saves us. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives to celebrate the mystery of our redemption, so that our lives may reflect His glory, so that we may live for Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, with our lives and souls transformed by Him. We are transformed so that we can transform the world so that it may live for Him, living life in all its fullness: living for others, living as God wants us to live. Living the selfless love which saves us and all the world, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do, can and will conform us to Christ, so that we may be like Him, and become ever more like Him, prepared for eternal life with Him, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.