Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- There is a famous story about a conversation between two toys. The old grey donkey is scruffy and moth-eaten; battered round the ears; by contrast the grey rabbit is sparkling new and keen to preserve his appearance. The old grey donkey explains that being loved, really loved, entails loosing one’s gloss and becoming battered; loss is gain, not the other way round.
In our gospel, (Mark 8:27-35), this is the flavour of the story. Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and is horrified when Jesus spells out the meaning of his Messiahship. In Mark, Jesus makes three almost identical predictions of his passion and death, this is the second. The point must be that his followers did not want to accept the message. They had their own ideas about the Messiah and the pattern of his life, which centred on a warrior king who would be successful and drive the conquering Romans from Palestine, and nobody wanted a weed who would be viciously rejected by the Jewish hierarchy and savagely put to death. Jesus rejected Peter’s idea of being the Christ in powerful terms, comparing him and his ideas to the demonic, much to his shock, and ours. We all have our notions of what successful people are like, and a violent and ignominious death is certainly not on the agenda. Jesus knew that there were things more important than self preservation at the very heart of his message and that to be true to the Father and himself he had to follow that way.
How then are we to judge successfulness; that focus on self which is right and proper, from that which is selfish and self-centred and actually leads to self destruction? I wonder if the example of the two Olympics can give us some pointers here, for what we have seen there is the dedication and absolute commitment of athletes over months and years of training. What we also see there, is the riskiness of competition. Quite clearly it is possible that even the worlds finest can be pipped at the post by others of superior fitness, or find that all one’s efforts are upset by an injury at the last moment. What marks the true athlete is commitment to the riskiness of the enterprise – being ready to fail as well as win. Sure, it can be a disappointment when one fails, but they are not deterred by that possibility but rather spurred on by it.
The other thing that has come out of the Olympics is the acknowledgment of the vital support of the back-up team each athlete relies upon and puts total trust in, and in this we witness the trust and reliance on others in which each winner recognises that his success is not his own work alone but is the achievement equally of his team and supporters. In committing oneself to winning, one gives oneself over into the hands of others. Jesus in our gospels is continually doing precisely this – handing the Good News of salvation, over to others, just as he hands himself over. He takes the risk – with the disciples, that unruly and unpromising bunch, just as he does with the Jewish people. Some respond well and carry on the risky discipleship and are killed for it; others reject him and remain safely in power. The Church is born out of the deaths of Christians who sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the world.
Our first reading, (Isaiah 50:5-9), coming from the 6th century BC Babylonian exile speaks of Israel, the entire nation, willingly chastised and beaten in the person of the Suffering Servant of God. In this series of magnificent Servant poems we see the nation at its weakest; suffering, but transformed; redeemed and turned back to the true God precisely by their being handed over into the power of conquerors. Israel’s finest literary outpouring came from this period and not from times of strength in which they frequently forgot God.
In the same way James (2:14-18), speaks of our being able to discern the quality of someone’s faith by the manner of his life. Our lives then have to resound with our belief; it cannot be something tacked onto the edge as it were of our existence. This is why our faith is a growing thing, rather like the athletes body, and; subject to change; it has to develop in relation to our needs. This can be why many of us experience periods of dryness or aridity in our faith. Such a time is not a call to give up; but rather, as any athlete knows, to be worked through, often by hard physical slog, like recovering from an injury. To give up is to surrender completely and to walk away. The challenge is that of hanging on and allowing the difficult growth periods to take place, searching for God in different ways, accepting the painful periods of transition and using them positively. St Augustine remarked that the Christian community is not a group of the perfect but rather is a hospital for the infirm, and that most of us are in a rather rocky state most of the time. In recovery, convalescent in Christ as we are, we must submit ourselves to the healing mechanisms of the Church and be given-over to it and learn to trust it to nurture us even when we may feel it has not entirely recognised our needs. It is in losing our lives that we find them.