8 March, AD 2009
The addition of a weekly Lenten Study to my schedule makes it even more difficult to produce an adequate comment on the Sunday lectionary for you. Nonetheless, here are a few things that have come to mind.
The RCL provides a choice of Gospel readings for this Sunday. The second choice, Mark 9:2-9, is the Gospel of the Transfiguration. This follows the Roman lectionary, which reads the transfiguration on Lent II but not on the last after Epiphany. Adding to the possible confusion, the Collect seems to suit the theme of the Transfiguration. However, if the Transfiguration was read two weeks ago, Mark 8:31-38 will be read today.
This Gospel reading is an excerpt from a longer section (Mark 8:27-9:1) and should be read in context before it is heard on Sunday. Only in this way can we understand that the teaching that that the Son of man must suffer and the following exchange with Peter is given in the context of the decisive confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. The parallels to this passage are Matthew 16.13-23 and Luke 9.18-22; see also Matthew 10.38-39, Luke 17.33, and John 12.25. It is worth noting that it is a good idea to use a study Bible, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: some of the notes on the verses just cited are quite helpful.
The passage that is read has two closely related sections. In the first, verses 31 to 33, we hear Jesus first prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection and its sequel, in which Peter rebukes Jesus and is himself rebuked. Many things are worth noting in this passage. One is that Jesus is not said to have `told` them that the Son of man must suffer, but to have `taught` them.
The second section, verses 34-38, is addressed to crowd as well as the disciples, that is, not only to those who are committed to following him, but to all who hear him. This teaching, that whoever would follow Jesus is to deny self, take up the cross, and follow, is obviously a central thought for Lent. While the term self-denial as used of fasting and abstinence is a concept far more limited than what our Lord here means by denying yourself, it is a very important means for learning to turn to follow the Lord.
I do not have the time to do more than note the very important point that self-denial in either sense is not the same as self-hatred or even self-loathing. The difficulty is that in seeking to find ourselves in anything less than God, what we find is a false self; it is from that we must turn. I can’t say anything more about this just now, except that it would be a very good question for Bible study group.
The omission of seven verses from the first reading, Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, rather blurs the point of the passage. This is the second covenant in the series begun with Noah. Unlike that, which was a covenant with all human beings and all living creatures, this is a covenant with Abraham and his offspring forever. Compare with this another account of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis chapter 15. In the missing verses (17.8-14), circumcision is given as the sign of the covenant. One would not want to accuse the fine folk who frame our lectionaries of squeamishness, or a lack of confidence in the intelligence of Church people, so there must be some other reason for this omission; I can’t think of what it could be.
I am reminded of a schoolbook of church history written by an English clergyman, the father of a friend, in which circumcision is defined as “a circular cut made on a part of the body as a tribal mark.” Talk about squeamishness!
The other things to note in this passage are the importance of the change of Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah, and the fact that Sarah is not merely the means by which the covenant is fulfilled, but is herself a recipient of God’s blessings.
The Psalm is 22. 22-30. Note that the verse numbers differ in different translations: these are the verses in the liturgical psalter of the BAS. In the BCP the verses are 23-31. This is the final section of Deus, Deus meus, the first words of which our Lord cried out from the cross.
The passage from S. Paul's letter to the Romans (4.13-25) is a comment on God’s promise to Abraham, in the context of Paul’ treatise on Justification by Faith. An outline of chapter 4 might be beneficial for those who want to read this before Sunday.
4.1-8: Abraham was justified by faith, not works
4.9-12: Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. So circumcision, though a sign of the covenant, does not itself justify.
4.13-25: The true descendants of Abraham are those who have faith in Christ.
In Chapter 5 S. Paul moves on to the Consequences of Justification (1-11) and to the extremely important analogy and
contrast between Adam and Christ (12-21; see also 1 Corinthians 15.20-28).