by Daniel Harrell
Tonight’s look at the red-letters of Mark, the words spoken by Jesus, arrives at its climax. Since verse one of chapter one—where we as the readers were told that Jesus is the Son of God—tension has mounted as Jesus’ own disciples repeatedly fail to recognize his true identity. Despite a myriad of miracles and a ton of teaching, including last Sunday’s final exam on the significance of his feeding two multitudes with a few loaves of bread, the disciples still can’t see it. A crowd then brings a blind man to Jesus and begs Jesus to touch him. Jesus spits on him instead, saliva being a popular symbol of healing power. Except that Jesus’ saliva only manages a partial healing. Wiping the spit from his eyes, the blind man says, “I can see people, but they look like walking trees.” Whereas most healings in the Gospels occur instantaneously, this one happens in stages. Jesus has to put his hands on the man a second time and only then were “his eyes fully opened, his sight restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
Sometimes an object lesson is necessary to get the point, which is this: the movement from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight sometimes take time. So Jesus gives his disciples more time. The walk from Bethsaida where the healing occurred to Caesarea Philippi took several days, plenty of time to put it all together. Upon arriving in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus starts off with a softball (or maybe it was a spitball): “Who do people say that I am?” Having heard the scuttlebutt expressed back in chapter 6, the disciples relayed it to Jesus: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Each of these designations belonged to recognized harbingers of the long-awaited Messiah, a savior who would come from God in Moses and King David fashion to rescue Israel from their miserable existence and re-establish them as a mighty nation. Messianic expectations ran high; so high that by Jesus’ day, the image of the Savior looked like Superman on steroids. This is chiefly why Jesus never referred to himself as “Messiah.” The term had become too politically and nationalistically loaded. Not that this mattered to the citizenry at large. By calling him John the Baptist and Elijah, it was clear that they only considered him the runner-up anyway. And why wouldn’t they? Despite the miracles and the teaching, he was still just a homely carpenter from Nazareth.
Now comes the second try. Jesus turns to his own disciples. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter steps up. “You are the Christ,” he blurts out (Christ being Greek for Messiah). In Matthew’s gospel, the crowd goes wild, or at least Jesus goes wild. “Well, hallelujah!” he says, “Good for you Simon! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.” Jesus goes on to give Peter the Oscar for best disciple along with keys to heaven and his new name Rocky.
In Mark, however, Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet. On the one hand, Jesus remains concerned that people’s high expectations of a Messiah will derail his mission. On the other hand, tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s right hand man. Maybe Peter insisted that Mark leave out the congratulatory remarks given how bad Peter’s own expectations were going to screw things up in the next few verses.
Peter finally sees Jesus as Christ the King, only to have Jesus announce that being king means being crowned with thorns and strung up to die. Such news did not sit well. It would be like a franchise athlete announcing that he’s going to let the opposing team run up the score. Or like the acclaimed war hero surrendering to an enemy without a fight. Or like the candidate you worked so hard to elect pushing the opposing party’s legislation instead. Or like Batman telling the Joker where to find the Bat Cave. How can Israel be saved if its Savior surrenders? How can a Messiah win if he loses? Peter pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. He tells him to knock off the death talk. He’s scaring the other disciples. Did Peter not catch the line in verse 31 about Jesus “rising again after three days”? It doesn’t matter. Real messiahs don’t rise from the dead―real messiahs don’t die in the first place.
Jesus covers his ears and yells at Peter to get out of his face. Worse, he calls Peter Satan! Satan? Here you were thinking yourself to be Jesus’ BFF. Just trying to help. Looking after his best interests. Offer some friendly advice. Help him succeed as Savior. And how does he thank you? He calls you Satan! Are you kidding? Why would he do that? Peter’s words swept Jesus back to that desert experience following his baptism; where the devil first tried to divert him from the cross and onto the path of power, celebrity and fame. Isn’t this how any normal superstar Messiah would do it? C’mon, you can control the weather, walk on water and make dinner appear out of thin air. The armies of heaven are at your beckon call. Why limit your power, especially with all that’s wrong with the world? Satan had a point. And Jesus was tempted by it. But he refuses to give in, and we’re told that “the devil left him until a more opportune time.” Here it is. True, Satan will do better using Judas, but he doesn’t do bad using Peter. He definitely gets to Jesus. Speaking as much to himself as to Peter, he says, “You do not have in mind the ways of God, but the ways of men!”
OK, so Jesus would have to die. He would have to deny himself and take up a cross. Bad enough. But then comes the surprising part. If you were going to follow him, you’d have to deny yourself and take up a cross too. What, everybody goes down together? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” he says. I hate this passage. Sure, I believe that Jesus died for my sins. I grew up being taught that that the paycheck for sin is death and that Jesus’ death takes care of my death so that now my paycheck is made out for eternal life. For some reason, nobody ever told me the part about having to die too. OK, I knew I was going to die, but deny myself? I thought Jesus died for me! One day I was just reading my Bible, minding my own business, when I stumbled upon this passage, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross.”
I knew what it meant for Jesus to deny himself and take up his cross. What was this about me having to take up mine? I asked around. “Oh that!” people said. That just means putting up with difficulties in life, you know, like not getting mad at obnoxious drivers. Somebody else was like, “that’s just Jesus’ way of saying don’t be selfish.” Others suggested how I was supposed to “work to fix my bad habits,” or “stop lusting and being greedy” or even “give up sweets for Lent.” But these were the crosses I had to bear, I thought none of them seemed to be so much about denying myself as about improving myself, which had nothing to do with denial at all. There is a tendency in America to reduce the gospel down to a set of principles, as if Jesus’ main mission is to make life easier.
I was telling you last Sunday about the Christian who bought an atheist’s soul on eBay and made him to go to church so that the Christian could get some fresh perspective on Christianity. In one church they attended together, the sermon basically went like this: “Go for stability. Being moody is a selfish way to live. Nobody likes moody people, including God. Your will is stronger than your emotions. Don’t be moody and your life will be easier, praise the Lord.” (Seriously) Afterwards, the Christian turned to the atheist and how asked how anybody could find this objectionable. The atheist agreed, “It’d be like disliking the taste of water. It’s so bland, how can it offend? By the same token, how can it inspire? Be stable? Did Jesus say that?”
This story sent me to the writings of the 19th century Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. I pull out Kierkegaard out whenever I’m having a bad day—just to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth. After detecting how fellow philosophers devoted themselves to making people’s lives easier, Kierkegaard subsequently dedicated himself to making people’s lives harder (which he did in part by publishing only in Danish). In regard to Jesus’ words, he wrote, “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
For the earliest Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one too. And yet for Christians in America taking up a cross is sort of like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America (even a Christian minister) means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police recently opened fire on a Christian gathering. Or in Indonesia, where three children’s workers were detained for running a Christian church camp. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing their faith.
Whenever I read about such Christians, it’s always with a request to pray for their release or rescue—a request with which I’m sometimes reluctant to comply. The history of the church has shown over and over again how persecution only surfaces whenever Christian communities genuinely follow Jesus, publicly living out his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth and refuse to worship the idols of prosperity. Jesus wasn’t saying that you have to die to follow him; but rather, following him could get you killed.
Of course the alternative was worse. Verse 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” In other words, “follow me or you’re doomed.” Most people conclude that Jesus is talking about hell here: There was a day when the threat of hell was enough to make a person come to Jesus. These days people wonder what kind of God would ever send a person to hell and why would anybody worship a God who did that? But notice that Jesus says nothing here at least about anybody going to hell. He’s not addressing not so much unbelievers as his own disciples; believers who are embarrassed about what they believe. Imagine Jesus showing up with all the angels and opening wide the door to heaven, and overwhelmed by God’s grace as you walk in, only to have Jesus lean over and whispers, “I am so ashamed of you.” What a lousy way to spend eternity.
Another (more Biblical) picture that always comes to my mind is of Peter again, this time talking to the resurrected Jesus on the beach, after all the suffering and dying Jesus said would happen were done. Jesus gets right to the point: “Simon (reverting back to his pre-Rocky name), do you really love me?” Jesus asks it three times, obviously to match the three times Peter was ashamed of Jesus. Three times Peter denied ever knowing Jesus at the moment Jesus needed him most. Peter replies to Jesus each time, “Lord you know I love you,” the third time with deep grief, no doubt recalling his own shameful behavior. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” In other words, “show me.”
I don’t know how many of you had the chance to be here last night to hear Shane Claiborne, the author and activist known for his do-rag, dread locks and horn-rimmed glasses. He described his own Kierkegaardian encounter with the Bible which led him to wonder where the people lived who asked the question: “What if Jesus really meant the stuff he said?” His search led him to pick up the phone and call Mother Theresa. He tells a funny story about bugging nuns to get her number, and then calling it expecting a nice receptionist to answer saying “Sisters of Charity, how may we help you?” Instead, he got this gravelly “hullo” only to find out that he was talking to the Momma T herself. After his initial shock, he told her how he wanted to come to Calcutta and work with her, to which she said, “come on then.” Was it that easy? OK, but where will we stay and eat, do we need to arrange accommodations? To which Mother Theresa replied, “God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows and God will take care of you too. Just come.” So he did. He went on to describe the remarkable experience that was, and how it led to his returning to find his own Calcutta in North Philadelphia where he now lives in simple community with a group of other Christians among the poor, serving them with the best they have, since to serve the least is to serve Jesus himself. Many ask about all that he has given up to do what he does, to which he quickly replies that following Jesus has never been about all that he’s given up, but all that he’s found. “And I have found so much,” he said.
Framed in this fashion, this passage becomes hard to hate anymore. To “deny yourself” is not to deprive yourself, but to give yourself to God by giving yourself to others with love. Maybe the question for Ash Wednesday is not “what are you giving up for Lent” but “what are you giving out for Jesus?” “Do you really love me? Then feed my lambs,” he said, which I always admire for its simplicity. Mother Theresa was famous for saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Someone once remarked upon seeing Mother Theresa’s work, “I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.” To which Mother Theresa replied, “neither would I.”
After Mother Theresa died in 1997, Shane Claiborne was asked whether her spirit would live on. He replied, “To be honest, Mother Theresa died a long time ago, when she gave her life to Christ.” May the same be said for all who follow Jesus.