Mark 8:31-38, To Follow Jesus to the Cross

[March 1, 2015] Today is the Second Sunday of Lent, the “Forty Days” of lengthening, originally referring to the length of the day, but now referring to our preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Last Sunday the lectionary text recalled us to the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark. This Sunday we take a look at the gospel’s midpoint, when, Jesus’ Galilean ministry now having ended, Jesus “teaches” them—for the first time—about his impending suffering, death and resurrection. This not only has us look forward to the events of Holy Week, but points us to the significance of Lent itself. It calls us to examine ourselves with respect to our expectations of Jesus and also with respect to our own faithfulness before the tribunal of the world and the tribunal of God. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that this is not only about his faithfulness but about ours; and that our faithfulness is measured by the same standard as his, his faithfulness is the measure of ours. Ultimately, he shall be our judge.

This is an interesting point, and hopefully we will have time to explicate it. If we would understand who Jesus is, we must understand him in connection to the cross. Jesus, of course, is condemned by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and put to death (we can hardly consider what Jesus went through as any sort of “trial”) by the Roman authority, but vindicated (justified)—raised from the dead—by the superior authority of God. And quite literally, the people who first heard this gospel put together by the apostle Peter in the city of Rome were being put to death in the Coliseum by the power of the Emperor. They were literally on trial before the world and laying down their lives. Jesus was saying to them, in this remembrance of his words, that though they are condemned by Rome, they will be vindicated by God when they are resurrected from the dead and stand before the Son of Man when he comes in glory. In its original settings (of Jesus and the first auditors of the gospel), this sets up in the strongest possible terms the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, and where our allegiance must lie.

But how does this speak to us today? It certainly speaks in the same way to our suffering sisters and brothers in Africa and the Middle East and Asia where very many are literally being put to death because they are Christians. Often, when they die at the hand of terrorists for example, there is no trial; their identification with fellow Christians is enough. Nevertheless, this setting is not far removed from that faced by Jesus’ disciples and by the disciples who first heard this gospel from Peter, who himself was shortly executed by the Emperor Nero.

But what about us in those lands where Christianity, if no longer established, is well tolerated, even if it is disdained? If we are not hauled before any literal tribunal on account of our allegiance to Jesus, is not our faithfulness to Jesus daily on trial before the world? We can probably answer in the affirmative if we understand what we mean by the “world.” Likewise, not only will we stand on trial before the Son of Man when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, but are we not on trial before him now, daily?

These statements and ideas need to be deciphered. Otherwise we can be engaging in sentimental gibberish that gives us a sense of justification (self-righteousness) but does nothing to improve our actual spirituality and the state of our soul. Can we do this?

In the Gospel according to Mark, and therefore with its original audience, the emerging issue was the not understanding and the inevitable misunderstanding of Jesus. Jesus presents himself to Israel as he serves the “lost sheep” (Mark 1:14—3:6) and soon gathers to him those with whom he makes himself at home (Mark 3:7—6:13). It is these he is able to send out in his Name. But in 6:14—8:30, as he begins to manifest who he really is, he encounters “blindness.” Even the disciples, whom he has “laid hands on” (Mark 8:23), can only see partially. In Caesarea Philippi, Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah!” but Jesus silences him: “Do not say this to anyone!” For even with such a confession, Peter does not understand. This was the question the gospel raised for the first auditors: you too confess Jesus, but do you understand what you are talking about? Yes, Jesus is indeed the Messiah. But when you say that word “Messiah” what do you mean? Likewise when you say “Son of God” or give Jesus any other honorific title.

From this point on Jesus and his band of women and men disciples head to Jerusalem and “on the Way” Jesus teaches them that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be vindicated by God as the Son of Man. Three times this gospel punctuates his journey with this kind of “teaching.” Moreover, along the way Jesus speaks less to the crowds and more to his band of disciples, giving them instructions on his own Halakah, the way to walk—halakh in Hebrew—in his footsteps and thus be his disciple. At the end of this section Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus (symbolizing the disciples) who then follows Jesus “on the Way.” The journey to clarity of sight comes from walking the Way.

The problem is illustrated by Peter himself. The first time he hears this teaching that the “Son of Man” must suffer and die, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for such talk. After all, the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13 (who is literally “a human being”) is victorious over the “beasts” who ravage and trample on God’s people. Jesus too must not suffer defeat but rather must cause his enemies to suffer defeat. Of course! What must Jesus be thinking? Or has Jesus given up in the face of discouragement?

Jesus hears the voice of Satan in Peter’s words. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1:13); he is the “king” of demons and householder of their “house” (Mark 3:23-27); and he is the one who snatches the word of the sower sown into us before we can understand it (Mark 4:15). Probably he is the primal agency of the “world.” This last passage, from the Parable of the Sower, indicates that he is behind our blindness as to who Jesus really is. Now he threatens Jesus by asking Jesus himself to misunderstand his apostolate, that for which he came and the manner of work to which he is committed by his baptism. Peter becomes the mouthpiece of Satan when he thinks the way human beings think (phroneis ta tōn anthrōpōn) and not the way God “thinks.” The way that human beings think is the “world”; it is that over which Satan has dominion.

Ironically, this way of thinking is powerfully represented in Daniel by the ferocious wild beasts in his visions; it is a human being (the Son of Man) who conquers them. Under Satan humans act like ferocious wild beasts instead of like humans. To think like God is to be truly human. (Of course, the choice in the vision to represent the forces of the world by wild beasts is not a moral reflection on actual animals.)

Then Jesus lays down the conditions of discipleship. If anyone wants to continue to follow him, they must do as he does. Jesus depicts a trial before a worldly tribunal: “When you stand before the judge (in your own time), you must renounce yourself and, when the judge sentences you, you are to submit and carry your cross to the place of your execution, thus following me in my footsteps. (This is how you are to live in the world!) Anyone who tries to save her neck in the time of trial will end up losing it. (“Soul” here refers to one’s life.) If you renounce yourself in the time of trial—when on trial “for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel”—and thus lose your life, you are the one who will save your life. How? The same way I will.

“If you manage to save your life—even if you are offered all the wealth of the world in exchange for simply renouncing me—what will you gained? For in fact you will not have saved your life but in reality have forfeited it.” This is a paradox. If you save your soul, you lose it; if you lose your soul, you save it. The paradox works if you understand that the first refers to your life in the world, the second refers to your life before God. Your life in the world is a fiction; your life before God is reality. The reason your life in the world is a fiction is because your life in the world is something you are imagining. Your “soul” in this sense is your own construction. It is purely a mental thing fabricated by yours own identifications and attachments. (I say this in a post-modern sense, not a New Age, New Thought, Christian Science, or Gnostic sense.) Your actual soul is who you are before God, as God created you. If you choose one you lose the other; if you renounce the one, the other becomes available to you. There is nothing in this world that is worth your true self, that which you are before God. If you forfeit your true self in order to gain the world, what are you going to use to buy back your soul? The “whole world” cannot buy it back; and now, what else do you have to offer?

But “love is strong as Death, passion as relentless as Sheol. The flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of YHWH himself. Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown. Were a man to offer all his family wealth to buy love, contempt is all that he would gain” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). God’s love of us is stronger than death, and survives even the grave.

Jesus follows this depiction of our trial before the world with another courtroom scene, one that far outweighs the other. We shall stand before the Son of Man “when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” If it turns out that we were ashamed of Jesus and his words during our trial before the worldly tribunal, our Judge—the Son of Man—will be ashamed of us on that day. This trial far surpasses the other in its importance for us. By then, the worldly tribunals will be nothing but ashes. Built as they all are on illusions, the light of day will cause them to vanish like the morning mist; then reality will emerge like the sun’s dawn. If, on that day, the Son of Man is ashamed of us, we have no recourse but God’s mercy.

If we understand what this worldly tribunal is, we do not have to imagine a Zoroastrian us-versus-them scenario with the believers pitted against the unbelievers, an apocalyptic motif picked up by Gnosticism and sectarian Judaism and that we hear echoed in Christianity and Islam. This horizontal division between people is misleading and harmful. The division is vertical. The “world” is a mode of being that we all operate in. Peter was operating in it when he rebuked Jesus; this was why Jesus addressed him as Satan. It is a mode of being that we need to renounce. When we renounce it, however, the world (as a mode of being) that is operating in others will condemn us as outsiders and will tend to treat us as a threat. How this takes form will depend on its particular manifestation.

To repeat, that mode of being, this way of thinking, is operating in us first, and it is this that must be first overcome before we can face it when it comes to us from others.

What was it, however, that Jesus condemned in Peter? What was this way of thinking that seems so totally opposite to the way of Jesus? Surely what Peter objected to was not simply the heroism of self-sacrifice. The world seems to have an honorable place for that. One sacrifices oneself for the good of another, or of others, or of the whole. We always give at least lip-service to such behavior. Peter, however, was objecting to Jesus’ way: the way of love and humility in penitence: of accepting the judgment of God’s holiness on all human works, of loving God in the divine holiness and for the divine holiness. We need to not forget how this gospel began—with Jesus accepting for himself the baptism of repentance. How does a human being accept the divine judgment without resentment? Who ever does? Yet this is what Jesus did and what he calls us to do—to follow him in this way.

It is for this reason that he is our Judge. For while we picture this like children, imagining Jesus sitting as a Judge behind a table, the image is a metaphor. What judges us is the comparison of ourselves to him. We are judged in the light of who he is; our humanity is judged by being put in the light of his humanity. We are condemned in such a light, for we are rebels against it all. He is the reality of human nature; we are rebels because we are attached to our fictions, our illusions; and in the light of his revelation our fictions cannot stand. We have nothing left.

Yet the one who thus condemns us loves us and identifies with us in our condemnation, and in that solidarity with us as we stand under the judgment of the divine holiness, the Father absolutely loves him, and loves him for his solidarity with us. When we adhere to Jesus, by his calling us, by the Holy Spirit operating within us and drawing us to him, we are in that place where the Father loves us as he loves his Son; we are accepted in the Beloved; we are not left alone. Instead, we are freed of our illusions, not annihilated with them. It is the divine love that is stronger than death (and that gives value to all human love).

While we do not deny the reality of worldly tribunals nor the tribunal at the coming of the Son of Man, I hope we can see that the world always has us under trial and, at the same time, we are always before the tribunal of God. While these events are eschatological, they are also apocalyptic and explain our present life: as we appear (mentally, to others and to ourselves) in the world and as we actually are in the reality of God and creation.

Leave a Reply