Called to Deep Commitment

Lent 2B

February 28, 2021

Trinity Mennonite Church

Norma Duerksen

 

 

Called to Deep Commitment

Mark 8:31-38

 

 

            When you walk through an unfamiliar forest, it is easy to get disoriented. The landscape looks the same and you lose the ability to see landmarks that help you know where you are. Spiritually and theologically, we may prefer to stay out in the open, where the familiar stories we tell ourselves serve as reliable landmarks, and we know what we believe. But life takes us into the depths of the forest sometimes. Lent leads us into spiritual depths that can help us when we find ourselves cut off from familiar landmarks.

Jesus’ words led Peter right into the forest. Peter imagined victory, dominance, a kingly reign. Talk of suffering and death and rejection was not the story Peter told himself about the Messiah. But going there with Jesus was part of Peter’s journey—learning a different story.

Going into the woods of confusion and new understandings can lead to transformation of our faith. This transformation is not earned, but called into existence by God, not pieced together one act at a time, but birthed within as we lose ourselves in the leading of God. Losing ourselves is not what most of us seek. But God brings opportunities to embrace doing so. If we never go in the forest, we miss the great beauty and mystery that reside there, the truth in which we find ourselves again and again.

Going deep into the woods is uncomfortable.  Denying yourself. Losing yourself. Taking up your cross is not comfortable.

            When this passage is taken out of context, it seems to suggest that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to suffer and die. However, when we read it within its narrative context, we come to see that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to give life—knowing that earthly powers will violently oppose them.

            The passage picks up in the middle of a private conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has just acknowledged that he is the Messiah, the anointed king through whom God will deliver God’s people.  We can imagine that the disciples associate this title with earthly glory. After all, they will soon argue about which one of them is the greatest, and some will request from Jesus the most honorable seats in his kingdom. In the disciples’ defense, they have witnessed a great deal of local fanfare, with crowds of mostly peasant villagers swarming to Jesus in order to witness and receive his healing powers. When local leaders oppose Jesus, he always bests them in debate, so we cannot really blame the disciples for seeing their future, as Jesus’ closest followers, through rose-colored glasses. 

            But now, in the middle of Mark’s narrative, Jesus lays it out plainly. To this point, he has spoken only mysteriously about persecution. Now he says clearly that he, the Son of Man, must undergo rejection, suffering, and death (verse 31). It is precisely for this reason that his followers will take up crosses and lose their lives (verses 34-35). Yes, Jesus will rise again, and yes, persecuted and martyred disciples will receive new life. But the hard truth is that the road to messianic glory runs through Golgotha. The disciples are following Jesus to a cross. 

            Much depends on how we interpret the “must” as “it is necessary” in verse 31.   “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…”  it is necessary to suffer.  Too often the word is taken to mean that Jesus’ mission is principally to suffer and die, with interpreters inferring a latent theology of atonement. In this reading, Jesus “must” go to the cross in order to affect a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. But while Mark may hint at some mysterious efficacy to Jesus’ death, he is far from so specific an atonement theology.  More to the point, when we pan out beyond one or two isolated verses, we find that the overarching narrative offers a simpler, but no less profound, explanation of Jesus’ death: Jesus dies because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order. Unbeknownst to Jesus’ opponents, they are opposing the in-breaking reign (“kingdom”) of God.

            This pattern of disruption plays out in Mark’s early conflict scenes. Jesus is unflinching in his insistence that the divine mission to welcome and reconcile sinners overrides the stigma of associating with them. He is also unflinching in his insistence that the divine mission to alleviate human suffering overrides any application of religious tradition that might impede it   To be clear, this is not a “Christian” correction to supposedly “legalistic” Judaism as much as it is a radical channeling of longstanding Jewish belief in God’s compassion for the marginalized. As the messianic emissary of this divine mission, Jesus inevitably elicits antagonism—eventually violent antagonism—from those invested in maintaining the status quo. 

            So the real epiphany of Mark 8:31 is not that Jesus’ mission is to die, but that his faithfulness to God’s healing mission will inevitably result in his death. In Mark, Jesus “must” die because his commitment to human healing will not falter. With two millennia of Holy Weeks under our belts, we can easily underestimate the power of this epiphany. Essentially, Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits. And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.

            It is not hard to see why Peter so quickly “rebukes” Jesus’ prediction (verse 31). As noted above, Mark gives a rather straight-forward presentation of disciples captivated by hopes of earthly glory and therefore preoccupied more with Jesus’ messianic title than his life-giving mission. Of course, the title “Messiah” is helpful for establishing Jesus’ God-given authority. But that same title is dangerously false when detached from Jesus’ own counter-cultural mission on behalf of the broken and outcast. Peter thinks that Jesus is insane, possessed by a demon, in need of exorcism. According to Mark, he took Jesus aside “and began to rebuke him” — the verb for “rebuke,” is strong language, often used in reference to silencing demons. So Peter is hitting Jesus with some serious flak.  Peter so violently protested because all his life they had thought of the Messiah in terms of irresistible conquest, and they were now being presented with an idea which staggered them.  To Peter the whole thing was impossible.  He was deep in the woods.

            Mark would rather see people following Jesus unpretentiously in this mission, and actually participating in this holy work, than waving signs or posting memes in Jesus’ name. So consequential is this point that Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his self-serving confusion (verse 33)!

            Why did Jesus so sternly rebuke Peter?  Because he was putting into words the very temptations which were assailing Jesus.  Jesus did not want to die.  He knew that he had powers which he could use for conquest.  At this moment he was refighting the battle of temptations in the wilderness. This was the devil tempting him again to fall down and worship him, to take his way instead of God’s way.

            Jesus responds by rebuking Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv. 32-33). He wastes no time in undermining Peter, because he is convinced that Peter is charging in the completely wrong direction, toward the earthly instead of the heavenly.
           These are fighting words — the language of silencing demons and scolding colleagues.
           So here In the eighth chapter of Mark, we learn what it means to be a disciple. The vocabulary of discipleship is not always peaceful, since it includes calls for self-sacrifice, predictions of suffering and violent outbursts such as “Get behind me, Satan!” To be a follower of Jesus is a life-and-death battle — challenging, stressful and painful.
           Before we fall into formation behind Jesus, we need to count the cost. We don’t want to be like the original disciples and skedaddle when it gets risky.
           With these words, Jesus is making his position clear. He is not the United States Secretary of Defense making decisions about military matters from a position of safety many miles from the fighting. Instead, he is down in the trenches with his comrades, on the front lines of the spiritual battleground. When he says that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” he is speaking in a very matter-of-fact way about what lies ahead for him. Rejection by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes — that’s inevitable for someone who is willing to buck the religious establishment and show people a new way to God.

            Jesus is willing to put his life on the line as he moves toward his destiny in Jerusalem. He is not a basket case, but a person determined to devote body, mind and spirit to the work that God has called him to do. He’s not interested in satisfying the expectations of others, not even the dreams of his closest friends. All that concerns him is doing the will of God.
           There’s a message for us here, especially as we struggle to find our focus as Christians. In our multi-tasking world, we have a hard time sorting out the competing demands of family, work, community, friends and church, and our endless activity can leave us feeling scattered and even shattered. With remarkable clarity, Jesus gives us a new vocabulary for discipleship.
           Set your mind on divine things, he says. Not on human things. And be willing to suffer.
           “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” says Jesus. And so must those who follow him.
           Now this is not to say that suffering is pleasant or desirable in any way. We shouldn’t seek it for ourselves, or overlook it in others. But Jesus knows that there are some things worth suffering for — and so do we, if we think about it.  There are some kinds of suffering that produce great good.
           Unfortunately, we live in a society that avoids suffering at almost any cost. We want more social services without higher taxes. We want to lose weight without cutting our calories or increasing our exercise.
           We don’t want to suffer.
           But the vocabulary of discipleship includes suffering, and Jesus sees it as an important part of marching on the pathway to God. “There can be no love without suffering,” insists Pope Benedict, “because it always involves an element of self-sacrifice.” We simply cannot mature into the loving and sacrificial people God wants us to be, if we skedaddle away from suffering.
           Jesus illustrates this life of loving sacrifice by lifting up the image of the cross. Calling to both the crowd and his disciples, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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” (vv. 34-35).

           This is not a call to skedaddle; it’s a call to suffer. Our struggle will involve both love and suffering, and it will certainly include self-sacrifice. But if we set our minds on the things of God, we will receive the riches of everlasting life, and we will know how to answer the question of Jesus, “What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?” (v. 36, CEV).
           Jesus doesn’t want anything to undermine our life with God.
           Notice, in verse 34, that this is no longer a private conversation between Jesus and his inner circle. In verse 34, Jesus summons the surrounding crowd, eyeing the possibility of still more disciples. His repeated use of relative pronouns “anyone,” verse 34; “whoever,” verse 35;, makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is not limited to an apostolic few. Anyone who purports to follow Jesus must understand the sacrifice involved. For Mark, discipleship is not some comfortable affiliation with Jesus but a life-changing—and potentially life-threatening—commitment to him. 

            It is a difficult message for today. So much of North American Christianity has been reduced to a comfortable affiliation with Jesus. Of course, some Christians are persecuted in certain parts of the world. Still, we do well to bear in mind that, for Mark at least, discipleship amounts to participation in Jesus’ ministry. What makes the ministry of the Jesus counter-cultural, and therefore the object of earthly hostility, is that it will not stomach any obstacle to the immediate restoration of the broken and outcast.

 

RESOURCES

Homiletics.  Feb 28, 2021 and Mar 8, 2009

Working Preacher.  Feb 28, 2021

The Daily Study Bible Series:  The Gospel of Mark.  William Barclay

Believers Church bible Commentary:  Mark.  Timothy J. Geddert

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