The Alpha Course and Amazing Grace
Mark 10 35 to 45
So our Gospel reading this morning is another one of those boundary and gateway texts. Jesus has been teaching the Good news and he has been demonstrating this by releasing people who are captives to possession, by the liberation of the sick through healing and by demonstrating kindness and mercy to those in need.
But by the end of Chapter 10 Jesus turns firmly to Jerusalem ….to all that is to come….his arrest….his crucifixion….his resurrection and ultimately his ascension.
But before all of this Jesus is going to try again to explain to the disciples - for at least the 3rd time in Mark's Gospel - who he is, what is going to happen and critically why.
Despite repeated efforts the disciples either don’t want to hear or simply cannot understand what Jesus is saying.
They are at the threshold of the gateway …the question is can they pass through into understanding and the full revelation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We have all been there haven’t we….not understanding….baffled….or even not wanting to understand…not wanting to give up those things we are familiar with….or perhaps we are simply paralyzed by fear of all that is to come before things get better. I don’t know about you but I’ve been there and have the t shirt.
Today, as disciples, Jesus is asking us - do you know who I am?
Who do you think Jesus is? Teacher? Prophet?
Messiah and Son of God? ...and what exactly does that mean? And why if Jesus is the Son of God does he have to die - what is he trying to achieve?
These are huge questions we all probably grapple with at sometime in our lives. Maybe on a daily basis...and I think that's fine. A strong faith comes in many forms - for some it is clear and absolute and for others it's always a quest or perhaps a hopeful fumbling in the dark….
I mentioned last week that I am helping out and attending the Alpha Course at St Peters and it has so far been an enormously enriching experience. If it carries on like this I really do what to bring this course or some version of it to St Wulfrans.
I was inspired and learnt so much this week...yes by the beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace….yes by the delicious food….and warm hospitality ...and yes by the great teaching video….but especially by the sharing of personal faith stories in the small group I am in.
This week we were asked who is Jesus….and in the video we heard some amazing facts and listened to some amazing teaching.
We heard from Bono, the lead singer of a band called U2 who when asked who Jesus was said…
"Jesus went around saying he was the Messiah. That's why he was crucified. He was crucified because he said he was the Son of God. So, he either, in my view, was the Son of God or he was nuts. And I find it hard to accept that whole millions and millions of lives, half the Earth, for 2,000 years have been touched, have felt their lives touched and inspired by some nutter. I just... I don't believe it."
We also heard that amazing and well know quote from CS Lewis:
‘I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic….You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse….but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God’.
These are such compelling quotes aren't they...the group I was in found all of this and the other teaching useful…..but actually I think we all just knew who Jesus was without the facts.
We just knew the reality of Jesus Christ, Son of God in our hearts.
Many of us had experienced profound moments of grace, of compassion, of love and of healing. We had been liberated from the chains of those things that were holding us back, the things that were limiting our lives, keeping us from goodness, well being and God. We just knew Jesus had done that for us.
We had started the evening singing Amazing Grace and really that in the end was what we had come to know about Jesus - at a very deep level many of us had been blessed with a fresh start. Through extraordinary and amazing grace.
The disciples in our passage today are still unclear though about who Jesus is ...they seem to be grasping some elements ...there is to be glory….yes they have got this and they want some of this glory for themselves. Jesus knows though that this glory will come at a necessary cost and he asked them are you prepared for this?
He reminds them that the path is one of service and sacrifice...putting others first…...Jesus even uses the word slave to make the point. They say yes but we know from the Easter story they really didn’t expect Jesus to be crucified and killed.
Jesus, if you notice, tries to explain why he has to die - he says he has come to give his life - ‘as a ransom for many’.
And we come again to that hymn Amazing Grace and that powerful verse...
My chains are gone, I've been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
What Jesus means by ransom is open to debate. But it is central to understanding who Jesus is.
Jesus is saying that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. He’s no mere prophet or martyr.
Ransom in Greek is lytron and indicates that his death does something; it secures a release.
For many the idea of “ransom” has come to mean a specific type of payment. In those readings, Jesus’ death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God.
We have been given the reading by the Church from Isaiah to support this understanding - linking the two verses - affirming that Jesus bears humanity’s sins on the cross as a kind of vicarious atonement, a payment for sin.
This for many of us is a deeply embedded understanding.
Many theologians are starting to question this understanding and are saying Mark’s theology of Jesus is different for three main reasons
Firstly there are no textural links between this part of Mark's Gospel and that part of Isaiah - they use unrelated language and references...
Also ransom or Lytron in the bible frequently refers to God’s acting to deliver people. Throughout the bible lytron is a liberation - for example from sin or enslavement - wrought by divine strength and will …. and not by payment (see Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14).
And I think most importantly - in this passage Jesus hasn't been talking about paying for sin or forgiveness….he has been talking about power and servitude.
In this understanding for Mark then - Jesus saves us from our sins through love and grace… through sheer divine power and will.
Whatever Jesus meant by ransom is, as I have said, open to debate - and we will come back to this topic - but what is clear - Jesus is not just a wise teacher, no simple prophet...he is going to give his life on the cross to change the universe...to bring us back to God in new and amazing ways...he is going to liberate us, he is going to deliver us….I don't understand everything...I have questions….but I will continue to spend my life trying to better understand and follow Jesus Christ.
My experience this past week has reminded me that in the end it's not so much what I think and understand - it is like my fellow Alpha course pilgrims explained - it is something known and something we can feel and experience in our hearts, in our spirit and through the journey of our lives, no matter their path.
Who do you think Jesus is? And how do you know? Amen