I have a routine as I prepare sermons week to week. I try to read the texts as early as possible. If I get a good nap on Sunday afternoon, I’ll look at them in the late afternoon or evening. The gospel reading will echo in my mind all week, as I continue to mull it over. There are a couple of websites I visit to read commentaries and reflections. I look back at sermons I’ve previously preached on the text. I think about what’s going in the world, the city, and in our congregation. I’m always looking for a new idea, a new perspective that will give me a new way of thinking about the text, as well as a way for you to enter into the text as well, and to explore how that text might inform your own life.
All this becomes especially problematic when it’s a text I know well. In the case of today’s gospel, it’s not just that I’ve preached several sermons on it over the years. It’s also one I used regularly when teaching New Testament and Intro the Bible over the years. I’m guessing I worked with it more than twenty times in the college classroom. It’s very familiar to me, and I’ll be honest, my overall approach to it is pretty well fixed. What I can’t do, can’t even imagine is how you might be hearing this text, whether it’s for the first, or thirtieth, time.
What do you hear, what grabs your attention? Jesus’ question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples’ response? Perhaps you wondered why anyone would think Jesus was Elijah. Perhaps you wonder who Elijah was. What grabs your attention in this text, what piques your curiosity? Is it the exchange between Jesus and Peter, or what comes next—Jesus’ prediction of what will happen when they go to Jerusalem? Or are you intrigued and challenged by the final section in this passage, what Jesus has to say about discipleship?
It’s a crucial text, coming roughly in the middle of the gospel and it announces new themes that will dominate the rest of the book. That it’s an important text is probably not surprising to you. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is quite famous, although in Matthew’s version, not Mark’s. Mark does not include Jesus’ initial response to Peter, blessing him and saying, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against you.” Indeed, in Mark, Jesus’ only response is to order his disciples not to say anything about this.
When trying to understand the significance of this episode, it’s important again to take note of geography. I talked a lot about that last week as we see Jesus traveling outside of his normal territory toward the Mediterranean coast, gentile territory, and then back across Galilee to the Decapolis, again, gentile territory. Today, he’s in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It’s a city that was developed by Herod the Great and then by Herod’s son, Philip who made it his capital city. But it wasn’t so much a city in which Philip enshrined his power and authority; rather, he and his father before him, used it to symbolize Rome’s power and their connection with the empire. It was named in honor of Caesar Augustus. When Jesus asks about his identity in the shadow of a Roman imperial city, and when Peter calls him the Messiah, there are significant political overtones, both to the question and to Peter’s answer.
What follows upon this exchange is the first of three times that Jesus will predict his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. The three share a very careful and tightly constructed structure. Each time after predicting what will happen in Jerusalem, one or more of the disciples contradict him, or show in some other way that they’ve completely misunderstand what he’s talking about. That is followed by Jesus explaining in more detail what it means to be his disciple, to follow him.
In this case, we have Jesus’ prediction, Peter’s rebuke of him, and Jesus’ reply, “Get behind me Satan.” What sets this occasion apart from the two follow is that Jesus words about discipleship are directed not just at an inner circle. The crowd is included. Jesus speaks to everyone.
And what hard words they are! “Whoever wants to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” Hard, and deeply ironic from Mark’s perspective, because as I have stressed repeatedly as we’ve gone through this gospel, Mark’s story is dominated by the theme of abandonment. Jesus is progressively abandoned by all of his (male) disciples, dying so utterly alone that his final words from the cross, express his fear that even God has abandoned him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
These words stand as command and judgment for Jesus’ disciples. But keep in mind, Mark is not writing history in the contemporary sense. He is writing about Jesus for an audience. He is writing to instruct, comfort, and inspire his first-century readers, who were probably in a very fearful position themselves, with possible persecution looming ahead. He is telling them that following Jesus is not an easy road. It may ultimately lead to the cross.
Hard words then, hard words now. Doubly difficult because the mantle of martyrdom is often claimed by Christians who are being forced to acknowledge that their privilege and position need to give way to the pluralism and secularism of contemporary culture. Christians do give their lives for their faith in our contemporary world, tragically so, but what conservative Christians are experiencing in present-day America is not persecution, it’s loss of privilege. That we have to compete with Taste of Madison or the Ironman Triathlon is not persecution. That’s not what Jesus or Mark had in mind with the words “Take up your cross and follow me.”
What might those words mean in our context? How do we follow him? More and more, as I wrestle with this text, as I wrestle with the Jesus of the gospel of Mark, I come to think that the very next verse is the heart of it all, “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.”
For all of the geography Mark has given us, providing the names of towns and journeys that should orient us to the world of Jesus, these words of Jesus are utterly disorienting. “You want to save your life?” Jesus asks, “well, if you do, you will lose your life.”
“But, if you lose your life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, you will save it.”
But wait, isn’t that self-contradictory? IF I want to save my life, I’ll lose it; but if I want to save my life by losing my life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel, I’ll still lose my life, won’t I” Think about it a moment. We’re left with no certain path forward, no clear answer, but a puzzle, a riddle, a conundrum.
I’ve come to wonder whether that’s not the point of it all. In the twenty-first century, our religious lives are constructed so narrowly. Our faith, our identity as followers of Jesus, is restricted to a tiny portion of our lives—those Sundays when we have nothing better to do, or really need a religious fix, ethical or moral questions that concern us from time to time, the desire to live a good life and raise our children to be good citizens.
But we all know there’s more. There are those times when for whatever reasons, the questions of God and eternity press upon us, questions of meaning and purpose, times when we contemplate the abyss, or wonder whether any of it matters, times when we even may wonder who we are.
That’s when Jesus’ words may hit home. Because they are asking not only about who and what we are, what matters most. They are also directing us to him, to what he did and said. As he traveled the road that ended at Golgotha, as he taught, and healed, and loved, he showed us what really matters, he showed us who, and what we are called to be. His love brought him to the cross. He called those who love him to take up their cross and follow him, to love, and serve, and heal.
He calls us to follow him, to love, and serve, and heal. And as often as we falter and fall, as often as we turn back and rebuke him, still he calls us, still he leads us, to love as he loved, to give of ourselves as he gave of himself.