Sermons That Work

In Yann Martel’s Wonderful Novel…, Lent 2 (B) – 2006

March 12, 2006

In Yann Martel’s wonderful novel Life of Pi, twelve-year-old Pi decides to explore a number of different religions in his native India. He has a rather remarkable reflection on a conversation he had with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin, about the crucifixion. Pi thinks to himself:

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers …. . But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified — and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar (His Son) die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”

Pi sounds a little bit like Peter here. We might wonder what Jesus would have said to Pi if Pi had been having this conversation with Jesus in today’s Gospel instead of with Father Martin. We might wonder if Jesus would have responded the same way to Pi as he did to Peter, because actually neither Pi nor Peter can quite believe that suffering, rejection, and death could possibly be a part of Jesus’ life story. Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter actually said — only that Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” But Jesus’ response is startling. “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s a little rough, don’t you think? We might actually feel for Peter. It can’t have been easy to hear your leader say he was going to suffer and die. “Surely not!” Peter might say. “What kind of god would suffer and die for humans?” we hear Pi say. Love was Father Martin’s answer.

What Peter’s response was after Jesus rebuked him, Mark doesn’t tell us. But we do know that Peter had already acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah in the beginning of this very same chapter. Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the absolutely correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Now, just a few verses later, Jesus tells his followers again, and more openly, that he will suffer and die, but for the first time he explains why.

Here Jesus uses the image of the cross. Of course, the people in Jesus’ time would understand the reference to the “cross” that was used by the Romans for executions. We often refer to the “cross” as something we personally carry in life — sickness, for instance, or a difficulty of some kind, or a personal problem. While these understandings are valid enough, this isn’t what Jesus is talking about here.

What he’s talking about is discipleship. Jesus lays out the cost of discipleship here. This “cross” Jesus talks about is what sets apart those who want to be his followers from that part of the world that focuses only on vainglory, selfishness, oppression, and greed.

Jesus reminds us that “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 we’re serious, really serious about being Jesus’ disciples, then we will lose our lives. Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying here that those who want to save their life might lose it, might have to give up something rather–crucial. He’s saying lose it! He’s saying that if we’re serious, life will be different. We won’t fit into the world in the same way.

But isn’t that odd? We look around and see people we consider to be very good people, very godly people, looking very normal. They work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. They seem to fit. For the most part, we do the same. We work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. We seem to fit. There certainly are still those who physically lose, or are in danger of losing, their lives for the sake of the gospel: people like Oscar Romero, missionaries in the Middle East, people who work with the poor in Latin America or Africa or even the United States. Many of us, however, can’t imagine that ever happening to us. Are we in danger of having the son of man be ashamed of us when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy Spirit? Does Jesus have nothing to say to us in this part of Mark’s Gospel?

Of course he does. This image of losing our lives isn’t only physical. When Scripture speaks about “the world” in this way, it means the world’s way of operating — the system, not the planet. It’s not speaking of the created stuff of the world, that wonderful gift of earthly beauty, but the way we deal with it and with each other — kosmos meaning “orderly arrangement” or “system.” Jesus challenges us to consider where that kosmos came from. God didn’t set up our political or economic or social systems; we did. God didn’t tell us to look at other people as markets or competitors or enemies; we did that ourselves. What Jesus challenges us to do is to lose that way of thinking — die to it — and take on God’s order, God’s way, God’s kingdom. This is what the kingdom of God means: the operating system of heaven, not of this world. Then the planet becomes our trust from God, other people become our brothers and sisters, and our goal becomes fostering God’s way of operating rather than this world’s, rather than business as usual.

Jesus was crucified because the religious and political and social establishments — Jewish and Roman alike — found him to be a threat. Jesus’ disciples can’t expect anything different, can they, if they are real disciples and not just disciples in name only? Few of us, I hope, will get hung on crosses to die. But many of us may find ourselves looked at strangely sometimes, or shut out of “the best” company, or made to feel disrespected and unwelcome, simply because our values are not the ones “everybody” — the world — accepts. Our business as disciples of Jesus is to follow him, not what “everybody” does, or even “the best” or “the leaders.”

Peter eventually understood discipleship and as we know, paid the ultimate cost of that discipleship. Most of us, I hope, will at least come to understand a disciple’s connection to Jesus as the young boy Pi did. He said, “I couldn’t get Jesus out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

If we are his disciples, our goal is not to get ahead but to get closer to God, not to be successful but to be faithful, not to gain this world’s approval but God’s. This eucharistic celebration of ours today claims that we are thankful for the opportunity to do just that.

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Christopher Sikkema


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