Following the plain-spoken Jesus
Mark 8: 31-38
Catherine Thiel Lee
March 4, 2012
Apparently, there is a logic to the lectionary. The bits of Scripture we read to each other each week in Lent do two things. It’s all about anticipation. First, we get to go back over the stories of Israel and remember how she has been walking through history anticipating the salvation of God. Second, we have this season where Christian converts are preparing for baptism. Together we, the church, are anticipating Christ’s redeeming of the world and reminding each other what we’ve gotten ourselves into in deciding to follow Jesus in the first place.
Mark chapter eight fits right in with all this. Jesus’ disciples, the descendents of Israel, are here and Jesus is teaching them what it means to follow him. So far in Mark Jesus has been healing and feeding people and casting out demons. He’s been defying the Jewish religious establishment. He’s been teaching about the kingdom of God. And his disciples have just found out who he is—who he really is. Peter calls Jesus the Messiah. In the plot of our story, this is a great revelation. The disciples know who Jesus is! We know who he is! And now that we all know, Jesus begins to teach us what that means.
That’s how Mark phrases it, “and then [Jesus] began to teach them” (8:31). When Mark tells a story, he doesn’t waste time; he uses one breathless phrase after another; he moves fast.
Jesus: Who do you say I am?
Peter: You are the Messiah.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this…
But wait…wait Mark, what did he say? What did Jesus begin to teach them?
Well, you know…that the Messiah must suffer and be rejected and be killed. And then rise again!
I think that’s how we usually read it. “Well, you know…” Maybe especially this time of year, when we are thinking about Lent and fasting and giving things up and Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus: he dies. I mean, he is resurrected and that’s really important and what we celebrate on Easter…But all of this is no big plot twist for us. We know what is going to happen. Jesus dies.
The disciples, they didn’t know that. This story in Mark, this is the first time Jesus tells them he is going to die. And to say that this is not what the disciples were expecting to hear is, well, an understatement. You see, Peter just called Jesus the “Messiah.” He’s the first person in the story to say that word. And everyone in the story has a pretty clear idea of what the Messiah does. The Messiah brings about God’s salvation. The Messiah restores Israel to glory. The Messiah delivers the Jews from the oppression of Roman rule and makes her great and brings all the other nations to her feet. The Messiah does a lot of great things for Israel. The Messiah doesn’t suffer, he’s not rejected. The Messiah doesn’t die.
So it’s understandable, really, that Peter pulls Jesus aside. Rebukes him. Peter tells him what they all know: the Messiah doesn’t die.
And Jesus, with all the authority and strength he has been unleashing on sickness and demons, Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. It’s the language of exorcism. “You do not have in mind the things of God,” Jesus says, “but the things of humans” (8:33). That’s what exorcism is: it is casting out everything that isn’t “of God.” Demons, yes, but also all the “things of humans.” It is a much broader definition of what is worthy of exorcism than what we see dramatized in the movies.
Then, swiftly, because Mark rarely allows anything to linger, Jesus calls the crowd to join the disciples. That’s Mark’s scene: Jesus gives his disciples news that is devastating, unthinkable. While they are still standing there in shock he performs an exorcism on Peter, his right hand man. And then he calls a bunch of other people to join them. There’s no further explanation, no pause to let all this sink in. Peter’s stock still with his mouth hanging open. The disciples are staring at each other in disbelief. Their world is upended…and Jesus turns to gather a crowd.
And to the crowd, along with his disciples, Jesus continues the lesson. He continues to teach them what it means, literally, to “follow after” him (8:34). To be a disciple is “to follow after.” The word “after” is the same word Jesus just spoke to Peter: “after” is the same word as “behind.” This makes me wonder: perhaps Jesus’ word to Peter wasn’t just a scolding. That’s how I always thought of it before, that Peter said the wrong thing and Jesus was setting him straight. “Bad Peter.” But if Peter’s exorcism is more than the tossing of a demon, if it has to do with putting off “the things of humans,” so that he can have the mind of God, maybe exorcism is part of discipleship, part of following “behind” Jesus. Maybe exorcism and discipleship are deeply connected. Maybe following Jesus, having the mind of God, is so tricky, so upside down and unexpected and shocking that we aren’t going to “get it” any other way.
And Jesus isn’t done. He still has another word up his sleeve.
“Whoever wants to follow after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34).
“Cross.” It’s another shocking moment that I think we, today, usually miss. We wear crosses around our necks. We place them on the fronts of our pulpits and erect them tall and imposing on the side of the road. With colored lights shining on them.
Our crosses are different. For one thing, at least for Protestants, our crosses are usually empty; there’s no one hanging on them, dying. We like to emphasize that they symbolize Christ’s death and resurrection and his victory over sin and the power of death.
Crosses in Jesus’ time, though, were dreaded implements of torture. The cross was a tool of state sponsored terrorism; crucifixion was not just a means of execution, but was specifically designed to maintain order and security by breaking down the will of conquered people and rebels. To terrorize. Crosses publically showcased the suffering, dying bodies of enemies of the state as a warning to everyone else of what happens if you step too far out of line. In Palestine crucifixion was a public reminder of Jewish servitude to a foreign power. It was an incredibly cruel and painful death, but it was also grotesquely shameful. Cicero said that “the very word…the very mention” of crucifixion was “unworthy of a free man.”
That didn’t stop Jesus. He not only spoke the word, but announced that it was the way of following him, “to deny yourself and take up your cross.” We’ve largely domesticated this word, this passage of Scripture. In modern parlance, “taking up your cross” often means “putting up with life’s hardships” or inconveniences. But is Jesus’ mouth, in the ears of his followers, the word “cross” is extreme, startling, and repulsive.
This is Jesus’ announcement and teaching after he is recognized as the Messiah: I am going to suffer, be rejected, and be killed. And the way of following me is to deny yourself and take up your cross. Extreme. Startling. Repulsive.
When I read the lectionary passages for today, it struck me as an ironic pairing. We read in Genesis 17 about God establishing a covenant with Abraham. Listen again to God’s promises to Abraham:
You will greatly increase your numbers and be the father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful and make nations of you. Kings will come from you. Kings will come from Sarah, your wife. I will bless Sarah and give you a son by her and she will be the mother of nations. I will give you the whole land of Canaan—the land where you now reside as a foreigner—and it will be your everlasting possession. I will be the God of your descendants and this covenant we make today will be everlasting (Gen 17:1-7, 15-16).
Thirteen distinct promises. Big promises. More big promises here than verses to contain them. One after another after another.
These are what the disciples had in mind in their expectation of a Messiah. These are the promises their ancestors whispered to each other and to their children as they wandered in the desert, cowered in exile, scraped out an existence under the thumb of Roman rule. It’s understandable that a beleaguered little nation like Israel would hope for and expect a Messiah who would come in power and glory and, finally, decisively, set things in her favor. “Finally,” the disciples are thinking with the announcement that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, “finally these promises to Abraham are going to be fulfilled!”
But what does Jesus do? Right at that moment of swelling hope and longing, at that height of revelation, Jesus announces that the Messiah is going to die. And that following him means taking up your cross.
John Calvin wrote about this passage, “It was necessary to inform [the disciples] that Christ must commence his reign, not with gaudy display…but with an ignominious death…for they imagined that he, [Jesus], would procure for them earthly happiness…[And] as the bare mention of the cross must…have occasioned heavy distress…he presently heals their wound.” For all the harshness of Jesus’ teaching, for all the swift-punch-in-the-stomach, take-their-breath-away, shocking horror of Jesus’ revelation to his disciples, there is also a real gentleness. Calvin is right—he does heal their wound. The healing comes not just from mentioning the resurrection. (He does tell them he will be raised, but Mark makes it clear later on that they don’t understand that either (cf. 9:32)). The healing comes through Jesus’ teaching and his presence. He “begins to teach them” because he knows they need to know. Doctors are taught when they deliver bad news—a terminal diagnosis, someone has died—to tell friends and family quickly, simply. To speak in a way that is straightforward, free from jargon. It is difficult, but ultimately kind, to tell people truth that is spoken plainly in love. That’s what Jesus does. No theological jargon, no beating around the bush. Mark says so: Jesus speaks plainly (8:32).
He knows his disciples have in mind human things, not the things of God. He knows they are only human. He knows the road of death and crosses sounds upside down, it sounds wrong. But he doesn’t let them off the hook. He begins to teach them, and he sticks by them and keeps teaching them, keeps walking the road with them.
The thing this week that has struck me as I’ve gone over this passage, over and over again, the thing I can’t get away from is all this plain spoken, terrible death. Jesus’, his disciples’, ours. This passage calls me to die to myself. To deny myself and take up my cross. This isn’t news to me; I’ve read these verses before. I believe and embrace a theology which places the death and cross of Jesus at its center. I believe the kingdom of God has come and is being inaugurated and will come in its fullness, and that it looks backwards and upside down—and beautiful. I get it.
But do I? If I’m honest, it is very difficult for me to really “have in mind the things of God” (8:33). Most days, I’m actually not particularly keen on denying myself. I don’t fault the disciples for not understanding. Lots of the time I don’t really understand either. I need Jesus to teach me. Often just to begin to teach me.
I think there’s something here in these verses that we, if we are to be Christ’s followers, need to be able to confront. I haven’t been banging on and on about death and crosses just to be dark and melodramatic. Lord knows, the season of Lent conjures enough of that on its own. But I’m not convinced that we “get” our theology of the cross and redemption as much as we sometimes say we do. I’m not convinced that we understand exactly how upside down the kingdom of God is. It’s hard to understand this stuff. It’s hard to even hear it without glossing over it or explaining it away. If we are to begin to understand the meaning of the cross—Christ’s, ours—we first have to come to terms with the plain words that Jesus speaks here in Mark to his disciples.
Our Messiah dies. And tells us that to follow after him we must deny ourselves and take up our own cross. I’m not going to explain that tonight. Before we can explain it, we have to confront it. That is its own task. This passage, it’s about confrontation.
And it is precisely in that confrontation that we find—life. There’s a great, mysterious kindness buried in Jesus’ harsh, terrible words. Four times Jesus says it. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your life? Or what can you give in exchange for your life?” (8:35-36) Life. The same word four times. Jesus’ disciples, they weren’t reading his words. They weren’t engaging in careful theological analysis as he spoke. They were just hearing words come out of his mouth. They were probably hearing his words through a fog of shock. They heard “Messiah” followed by “suffer-reject-kill” followed by “cross.” But then comes another word: “life.”
“Life” in Greek is this big, dicey, monster of a word. It means temporal life and body and soul and beating heart and breath and spirit and all that rolled into us by the hand of God in creation. Life. Jesus says “cross” only once here, and that word is a shocker. “Cross” rings in the disciples’ ears, they don’t know what to do with it. But kind, gentle, loving Jesus sounds an echo right on its heels. He follows that terrible word with “life.” Life. Life. Life.
When we, the church, talk about redemption, most of the time I prefer to gaze on an empty cross. I’m only human. But maybe, maybe this year for Lent I can try the discipline of gazing on a crucifix. Of contemplating the death of Christ. Of allowing the exorcism necessary for discipleship. Of listening to the plain words of Jesus when he tells me that to follow him, I’m going to have to deny myself and take up my cross.
But even and especially then, I know that I can approach the cross of Christ relaxing, falling into the mercy of Jesus, who, even as he tells me this seemingly terrible news, assures me: it is all that I might have Life.
Rab. Perd. 16, cited in “Crucifixion,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 1, 1208.
 Mark Wegener, Cruciformed: The Literary Impact of Mark’s Story of Jesus and Hid Disciple, University Press of America, Inc., 1995, 147.
 Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1, Baker Book House, 1981.