Text: Mark 8: 27-38
Do we want Jesus sugar-coated? Or do we want Him straight up? I believe that such questions provide one way of approaching this morning's reading from Mark.
The reading comes at the halfway point of the Gospel. It also marks a turning point -- turning from stories of healing and teaching in the peaceful backwater of Galilee to the story of Jesus' fateful journey to the heart of Roman rule in Palestine, the capital city of Jerusalem.
Up until now in Mark, the journey with Jesus has been going well. After his baptism and his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God. He calls his disciples, and they follow immediately, he is that compelling and charismatic. Jesus teaches as one with authority. He casts out demons and heals the sick with his hands. He confronts religious authority and is himself confronted by a Syrophoenician mother. He walks on water and tells brain-busting parables about the Kingdom. He brings a young girl back to life and gives sight to the blind. He feeds the 5,000 and then the 4,000.
And finally Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am." "The Christ," says Peter; that is, the Messiah, God's anointed, the long-waited King who will once again rule Israel in glory.
Jesus does not contradict Peter. But as he often does, he orders the disciples to tell no one. And this brings us to our turning point this morning. It is here that Jesus explains the kind of king he will be: a king who will be rejected by the elite, a king who will endure great suffering, a king who will be killed!
No wonder Peter takes Jesus aside and dares to rebuke him. But Jesus fires back to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" He calls the crowd and the disciples around him. From this point onward there will be no more secrecy. Jesus finally lays all his cards on the table.
"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."
The crowds have come to trust and love Jesus. But now that they have a complete picture of the Kingdom -- one where the King is killed and its subjects are called to take up their own cross and follow him on his fatal journey to Jerusalem -- how will they react? If ever there was a hard message to swallow, surely this is it?
Loss is a big part of life. The longer we live and the more we love, the more likely it is that we will have suffered loss. A crop fails. A business falters. Friendships wither. Parents die. A marriage that has been a touchstone in our lives for years, ends in divorce. As we age, our bodies lose vitality and flexibility. Pain is a part of our lives, and pain and loss often increase with the lengthening of our years. Finally, we learn at an early age that as individuals, we will all eventually die.
Coping with all this is one of the reasons many of us turn to religion. Is there not a message, a story, a Higher Power that will heal us of our pain, losses, and fears?
In our story this morning, Jesus confronts his own loss, suffering and death. But does his message have what we need to deal with the difficulties and fears of life?
I understand why Peter would be shocked by Jesus' statement that he will be rejected and killed. If Jesus and his disciples are now going to Jerusalem, surely they will do so to confront the hated Roman occupiers of Palestine and the religious leaders who collaborate with them. And certainly, Jesus would agree with that statement.
But if Peter is right that Jesus is the Messiah -- the new King David of the Jews -- should he not expect that this clash in Jersualem will lead to freedom for Israel with Jesus as the new King?
Unfortunately, life doesn't always work out that way. Yes, Jesus will speak out against Rome and against the collaborators. He will continue to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, and not just in the backwater of Galilee, but in the centre of the country in Jerusalem. But even though Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit and he seems to be the leader that his countrymen have been waiting for, Jesus states that even he cannot escape pain, suffering and death. Yes, he will rise again after three days. But for him as for us, there is no way out but through. He must carry his cross of pain and suffering up the hill. He must die.
Fair enough, we might say. It seems strange and sad; but we have been told all our lives, like our ancestors for centuries before us, that Jesus has gone to his death for our sake, and that his sacrifice has saved us. So why does Jesus also say that to be his follower we have to pick up our cross and follow him to Jerusalem?
There is no sugar coating on that message. But thankfully, I believe it contains truth and love and grace enough.
Jesus is telling us the truth. Despite his presence, which is the presence of God among us, life still includes suffering, loss and death. Despite Jesus speaking truth to power, we still live with injustice.
By not sugar-coating things, Jesus shows us a topsy-turvy, upside-down way to live a life of joy despite pain. Jesus has looked into the future; he has seen the worse, and he is showing us how to live with a trusting faith despite everything.
By acknowledging the inevitability of his suffering and death, Jesus faces and overcomes fear. Nothing that comes will surprise him. He knows that in becoming human, he has taken on our fraility. He stays awake to this fact, which gives him a freedom that people like Peter, who still cling to normal illusions about life, do not have. Jesus is living a resurrected, born-again life even before his Passion. And he is showing us, urging us and helping us to do the same.
Wake up, Jesus tells us. To wake up we (merely!) have to stare our worst fears in the face and not deny them. By facing our fears, we overcome them. And best of all, Jesus, in the form of Christ, Father, and Holy Spirit will be with us every step of the way.
Stepping aside from the pulpit, so to speak, for a moment, I confess that I don't really know what this reading from Mark means. I simply know that at this stage in my life, it is for me the most compelling passage in the entire Bible. When I saw that this passage from Mark was the assigned Gospel text for this week, I thought, I have to go for it. Who knows when it will come up again? At one level, I believe that I could preach on this text every week. At another, I feel blocked by it. But there it is, and I'm glad that it came up.
The ideas of overcoming fear by facing it; of rising to new life by dying to an old way of life; and of Jesus walking ahead of us and with us through all of life's joys and trials, speaks to me. Who knows what it all means; many things, I am sure. But it has that essential ring ring of truth for me.
Rev. Nancy told me in an email this summer that like many churches, Knox follows a common Lectionary reading list, but it is not followed every week; not when it doesn't fit the context here. This week, I'm glad that Knox often uses this list of readings.
In this week's reading from Mark, perhaps Jesus is reminding us, straight up, that life still involves injustice, suffering and death. The Good News is that Jesus has gone there ahead of us. He promises to walk with us every moment: through all our triumphs and joys, as well as our suffering and our death. Throughout all our life, we have Emmanuel: God with us.
Thanks be to God, Amen