Second Sunday in Lent, rcl yr b, 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
If any want to become my followers
The final time Dorothy Day spent time in jail was in the summer of 1973. She was in California, on a trip that had started with the intention to celebrate and speak on milestones in American pacifism.
Not long after she arrived, her plans changed significantly.
Farmworkers were on strike and protesting in the San Joaquin Valley under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, and once Day heard about the demonstrations she cancelled her speaking engagements to join them.
One of the most memorable photos of Day was taken on that trip: 75 years old, sitting on her chair-cane, surrounded by other demonstrators and confronted by the police. In typical Day fashion, she told the police that she would return the next day with her New Testament, and read to them the Sermon on the Mount. But she wouldn’t get the chance to do that. The same day the photograph was taken she would be arrested, and spend the next two weeks in jail.
All this was, for Day, simply what it meant for her to be a person of faith, and how she followed Jesus: it was to confront the powers that worked against the dignity of others with the Gospel, and for her to count the cost of that Gospel, and to pay it out.
The first time she spent time in jail was 57 years earlier when she was barely 20. The connection between her politics and her faith was far from fleshed out at that point though. She was a committed socialist, but her experience of faith in her life was of a self-satisfied Episcopalianism, comfortable with comfort, and it hadn’t held much appeal for her.
So she had gone to Washington DC with her friends as a suffragette, and after getting into a bit of a fracas with counter-protestors. she was sent before a judge who strongly suggested she should go home and act more like a lady. But she wouldn’t be sent to jail.
Indomitable and stubborn as she was, not sending her to jail only meant going back to protest the next day. And it was upon being arrested for the second time, that the judge sent her to jail for a month.
And as much as the connection between her politics and her faith was far from mature, it was around this time—in a way that wouldn’t have been understood by her more bohemian friends—that she had become taken in by what was happening in St. Joseph’s Church, New York, the oldest Catholic church in the city.
On her walk to work Day would peek in the doors of the church, taking furtive glances on the mass, and seeing faithful parishioners sitting in prayer. And Day, a professed atheist, found herself drawn not at first to the social teachings of the church, but by a growing desire for worship and prayer.
In the verses that come just before our gospel reading today Jesus asks his disciples a question: “who do people say that I am?” The disciples report that some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; and others yet that Jesus is one of the prophets. But then Jesus asks the disciples more directly, not about what other people are saying about him: “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” “Tell no one,” says Jesus.
There seems to be a couple of reasons for Jesus to ask the disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and it begins to get sorted out in our reading. The first is that the sort of Messiah that Jesus was to be was one that “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
It’s a repulsive notion, and Peter says as much, rebuking Jesus. Peter just couldn’t comprehend that the sort of Messiah that Jesus would be would include that sort of ignominious death.
What’s just as repulsive is what Jesus says next: that what Jesus would experience, and the pattern of Jesus’s own messiahship, was to be the pattern of the life of his disciples. “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
If Peter couldn’t get to grips with the fact that Jesus was going to be crucified, and by losing his life he would gain it, then Peter was most certainly not going to be all that sympathetic to the idea that his followers, himself included, were to do the same.
And so Jesus says, “tell no one. This one is going to have to be seen and experienced to be believed. Just as I will give everything, so will you—in this gospel there are no half-measures.”
And so as we as ourselves are asked, so are we implicated. “Who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is a little more than a teacher, then to follow Jesus would be as simple as following his teachings, and to teach others Jesus’s teachings. If we were to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, but not that kind of Messiah—that Jesus is the kind of Messiah who only knows victory, rather than defeat and death, then we would follow Jesus only into victory, too.
But there are no half-measures, not in this gospel, and just as Jesus gives all of himself, so we are asked to give all of ourselves, to follow Jesus as the sort of Messiah that Jesus says he would be. The sort of Messiah that would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” and that we, as we follow this sort of Messiah, would also deny ourselves, take up our crosses, losing our lives in order to save our lives, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
This is why figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Dorothy Day, are so compelling. There were no half-measures for either of them; they followed a Messiah who gave everything for the sake of others, and they followed suit. They are figures that help us to see that Jesus can be followed in all the complexities of the worst of human behaviour, and through the deadliest and cruellest of centuries. The uncompromising Gospel can be followed without compromise, even now.
As compelling as such figures are—in that they show us ways of faith in a world like ours, unimaginable by Mark—they do bring out the Peter in us too. “Yes Jesus, I can follow the Messiah I want you to be. But maybe not that Messiah though? You know, the uncompromising one? Could we do without the whole ‘pick up your cross’ vibe?”
This is much the way that Dorothy Day has been received. In the end, she satisfies almost no one entirely. The same Dorothy Day that is arrested for protesting the fact that women couldn’t vote (that kind of Day I can really support!), is the same Dorothy Day who never cast a ballot in her life. A vote for both Republicans and Democrats were each votes for the same oligarchy, in her mind. (I’m not so sure of that Dorothy Day).
The same Dorothy Day that was so deeply committed to the social teachings of the Gospel that she would lecture bishops on the necessity of performing acts of mercy, feeding the poor, and visiting the prisoner (Ok, this Day I really like!) is the same Dorothy Day that insisted that the pope is infallible and that traditional teachings about the family were to be obeyed (I’m really not so sure at all about this Dorothy Day).
My point is not that we should all be Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian, or the way Dorothy Day was a Christian. Because I’m certain that isn’t true. What I am certain about, though, is that they were followers of Jesus, and willing to follow Jesus where he led them: that theirs was not a self-satisfied or lukewarm Christianity. Theirs was no Gospel of half-measures. Theirs was the gospel of the Messiah Jesus said he would be: The Messiah that “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And the sort of Messiah that would say to us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons