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Lent 2B Gospel

Mark 8:31-38

This is an apocalyptic moment in the gospel of Mark. Apocalypse means revelation. They may or may not come with cataclysmic events, but they do disrupt our assumptions about everything we thought was normal. A Norman Rockwell meets David Lynch kind of thing. David Dark says that one of the things an apocalypse does is to “show us what we’re not seeing.”[1] This news about the fate of the Son of Man was certainly not what they had expected. Everyone knows a crucified Messiah is a failed Messiah and to follow one means you’re a fool.

N.T. Wright helps us understand their first-century exceptions about the Messiah.

“…they had come to regard him [Jesus] as Israel’s Messiah, YHWH’s anointed, the king-in-waiting for whom the nation [of Israel] had longed … Not all Jews of this period believes in or wanted a coming Messiah. But those who did, and they were many, cherished a frequently repeated set of expectations as to what the anointed one would do when he arrive. He would fight the battle against Israel’s enemies—specifically, the Romans. He would rebuild, or at least cleanse and restore, the Temple … He would bring Israel’s long history to its climax, reestablishing the monarchy as in the days of David and Solomon. He would be God’s representative to Israel, and Israel’s representative to God.”[2]

Peter’s reluctance to agree with Jesus (that’s a nice way of putting it) reveals his own mentality about the Messiah. He had already invested so much, leaving everything to follow Jesus. Now, it seems he had woken up to, as Radiohead so eloquently put it, “sucking a lemon.”[3] A Messiah who suffers and dies? Talk about a lemon.

Our passage is the halfway point in Mark’s gospel, but it’s important to see it as a part of the larger section Mark 8:22-10:52. This larger section is bookended by two stories about Jesus healing blind men. In the first healing story beginning at 8:22, it takes Jesus two tries to get it right. After the first attempt the man says he sees people, but they look like trees. Things are still blurry, so Jesus tries again and it works. The significance of this scene is that there is something about Jesus that they can’t quite see yet, something they don’t understand about who he is. This develops with Peter’s subsequent conversation with Jesus. By the time we get to the end of chapter 10, the significance of Jesus healing Bartimaeus in one try and him getting up to follow Jesus “on the road”, a metaphor for discipleship, is clear. Now they see who Jesus is (and what it means to follow him) as the one who “gives his life a ransom for many” (10:45), who suffers and is rejected (8:31).

The assigned text for this week begins at 8:31, but we begin a little earlier at v27 because it’s Peter’s response to Jesus’ question that leads to his teaching in v31. There’s a connection between Jesus healing the sight of the first man and then asking his disciples the question, “who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Peter get the answer right. Jesus is the Messiah, but there seems to be something blurry about his answer, so Jesus tells Peter not to say anything about him. It’s only after Jesus begins to teach them that the “Son of Man” must suffer many things, that we find out why Peter should be quiet. Because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Often referred to as the “Messianic secret”, we often see Jesus, after he heals someone, tell them not to say anything. It’s worth exploring the possibility of speaking intelligibly about God when we see at the same time both Jesus, as well as only dimly in a mirror.[4] This perhaps explain why so many conversations (certainly on Facebook) end in mud slinging. While this passage culminates in the admonition to follow Jesus, one should refrain, difficult as it many be, from acting on the impulse to chide everyone when they start talking about God. If we’re going to chide anyone, it should be those who are afraid to admit their double vision. Old ways of seeing come with lots of baggage and still persist in blurring the new.

I always find it funny that although Jesus says all of these things about himself that Peter doesn’t like, about being rejected and suffering and dying, he also says that he will be raised. Did you catch that part? One would think that would be a clue that maybe there’s something different about what Jesus is saying, but Peter doesn’t seem to notice. It’s like the time when we were kids and my sister and I really wanted this really special, big, sparkly cookie that my parents bought. We threw tantrums when they said no because it was, like, before dinner, or something. But for some reason in the midst of our tantrums they had this genius idea to change their minds and give us the cookie. They said okay and held it out in front of us, but we were so caught up in our tantrum that we didn’t even notice. I’m not suggesting that God was going to withhold something and changed God’s mind. I am suggesting that we get so caught up in ourselves that we miss what’s actually going on.

This connects with this notion of Jesus as the “Son of Man”, which is a line from the book of Daniel. It’s partly what makes this an apocalyptic passage in Mark, as a part of this revelation about who Jesus is. N.T. Wright says that in Daniel, the Son of Man “represents God’s people as they are suffering at the hands of pagan enemies. He will eventually be vindicated, after his suffering, as God sets up the kingdom at last.” There is evidence in the Hebrew faith about the vindication of the Messiah, but, again, no one imagined that this vindication would come post-crucifixion.

Verses 34-38 mark the heart of Jesus’ teaching, not just about himself but about discipleship. There are three things he says here: (1) deny yourself, (2) take up your cross, and (3) follow. To deny yourself is a difficult phrase to consider in our modern western culture. The self is now the center of everything. The important thing is to parse out that denying your self does not mean ignoring or avoiding or shaming or demeaning you as a person. This is not a devaluing of our experience or neurological configurations as persons. It is, however, an unabashed call to be a person— (self maybe to confusing a word given its modern connotations of individualism, which would have been foreign in the first-century. Mark uses the reflexive pronoun ‘heautou’, which simply refers to humans as such, indicating that being human is a thing towards which one can refer, making no inferences towards the relationship between a person in relationship to society. In other words, the problem, as Charles Taylor says, is that over the last five hundred years, there arises a notion of the ‘self’ as a “buffered”, self-contained unit with clear and distinct boundaries between the individual and anything else including God.) —who rightly takes their place within the creation, as one of God’s creatures, contingent on things outside of themselves, especially God.

To deny yourself is a call to deny the self-centeredness, self-justification, and self-righteousness that are, in our culture, the virtues of consumerism. In an absolutely wonderful paragraph and maybe a little gratuitous for this commentary, Kathleen Norris writes about how acedia became respectable in the modern world, but not without severe consequences. Acedia means lack of care about anything (but mostly anything outside yourself), which gets twisted into a kind of futility, despair, and self-justification, which ends in consumerism (which is based on a deep dissatisfaction with life).

I observe acedia flourishing, however, undetected and unnamed, in the post-war triumphs of both weapons-making and consumer manufacturing. An unprecedented array of automobiles, dishwashers, frost-free refrigerators, and gas-powered lawn mowers were brought forth, lavishly promoted and soon regarded as necessities. The pharmaceutical industry grew exponentially to meet a need for medications that could help people cope with undercurrents of anxiety, the fear that this recent prosperity was hollow at the core. Modern conveniences might save people from tedious labor, but they could do nothing to assuaged the sense of being in a precarious position in a rapidly changing world. Instead of feeling carefree, many people felt burdened with more and more “necessities,” until they were less able to distinguish between needs and wants, between self-indulgences and self-respect. They became, in short, perfect consumers.[5]

Self-denial is about the true joy that comes through Christ whereby we are creatures in a creation who find our end in God rather than things, who enjoy things and even use them but without exploiting them because everything is a gift.

One last and certainly insufficient word on taking up your cross and following Jesus. This is about discipleship and witness and mission. This is the first reference to the cross or crucifixion in Mark. At the time the disciples would not have known what Jesus would have meant by this, but a post-resurrection easter church would. To take up your cross must be read through the lens of witness amidst the principalities and powers. William Stringfellow say the powers "include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols.”[6] The powers are created good, but are corrupt and in need of redemption. Perhaps the witness of the church, like Jesus, was suffering the powers unto death (or in deathly ways). We cannot forget that Jesus was crucified for a reason. At the heart of this passage is the idea that he will be rejected. He comes to his own by they do not receive him. But we suffer them so as to expose them for what they are. We do this by taking him up on this bid to come and die (thanks, Bonhoeffer) in hopes that because God raised Jesus from the dead, we too will be raised in the end in the New Creation.

[1] David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse.

[2]Wright, N. T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity makes sense. Godalming: Elam Publications, p. 105, 2011.

[3] See their song “Everything In Its Right Place” on Kid A.

[4] This is a mashup of Hebrews 2:9 and 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[5] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me, 122-123.

[6] William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78.

Scott Savage

About the Contributor

Pastor, Santa Monica Church of the Nazarene