Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
It is no accident that Mark prefaces our reading today with this story of healing a blind man. What we hear today is the turning point of Mark’s gospel, the beginning of the second act, so to speak. Up until now, Mark’s story has been all about the first question Jesus poses to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” He has been teaching and healing and performing signs, all demonstrating what Mark has claimed from the beginning of chapter one: that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.” After all that they have seen and heard, Peter and the others show that they can see that this is true: “You are the Christ.” However, when Jesus begins to teach them what it means to be the Christ, we find out that Peter cannot yet fully see what is going on.
To Peter, a Christ who is rejected by the religious authorities rather than celebrated by them, a Christ who suffers and dies rather than one who conquers and reigns makes about as much sense as trees walking around having conversations with one another. What Peter knew (or thought he knew) about the Christ didn’t fit with what Jesus was telling him, so he took Jesus aside to correct him. Jesus responds harshly, even calling Peter “Satan,” because Peter’s vision of what a Christ does is not only wrong, it is dangerous and completely contrary to God’s design for the fulfillment of creation. In that moment, what Peter wants for Jesus—glory and power—is the antithesis of God’s will; it is satanic.
For Peter, his experience of Jesus until now has been the “first touch,” the initial action of Jesus that helps him to see that Jesus is, in fact, the Christ, even if he can’t see what that means. He waits, along with his fellow disciples, the crowds, and us, for the “second touch,” the moment when Jesus’ action will reveal the fullness of who he is and help us to see him and God’s kingdom clearly. Beginning with Jesus’ new teaching to the crowd, Mark’s gospel builds from here to this “second touch,” taking us along the road to Jesus’ Passion.
For Mark, it is Jesus’ suffering and death who reveal most clearly that he is the Christ and what that means. Unlike Peter, Mark believes that Jesus’ defeat and execution is not the evidence of God’s judgment or absence, but that he is, in fact, God’s Son. The cross is proof for Mark that our God is not a God who abandons us to evil and death, but instead suffers through it alongside us.
Theologian and author Marva Dawn writes:
...at the 1987 Vancouver World's Fair, the Christian pavilion's presentation utilized glitzy double-reversed photography and flashing lasers. When I tried to explain my qualms about the production to an attendant who had asked me how I liked their "show," she protested that it had saved many people. I asked, "Saved by what kind of Christ?" If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation? (from Reaching Out without Dumbing Down)
For Mark, it is of the utmost importance that the reader see God’s presence in Christ’s suffering because only then can we see God with us in our own suffering. Our God is not a God who miraculously escapes suffering, but who endures it with us out of love.
However, if Peter’s Jewish heritage couldn’t imagine a dying Christ; our Christian often heritage can’t imagine a Christ who isn’t dying on our behalf. We have been taught that Jesus’ death should have been ours, fair recompense for sinfulness, but that by taking our punishment for us, Jesus saved us from God’s wrath. His suffering, therefore, was redemptive: his pain saves us. If this is true, then our suffering must be redemptive, too. We hear Jesus say, “take up your cross and follow,” and we begin to believe that means we should willingly suffer the inconvenience of lost keys or traffic jams; to bear the unjust violence of an abusive spouse or the grief of losing a loved one; to be a martyr for our deeply held beliefs. When suffering on these terms, we are following in the example of Christ, the eternal victim.
This story teaches us otherwise. Peter’s satanic mind was set on the human things of glory and victory; our satanic minds are set on the human things of fairness, anger, and vengeance. Perhaps for us Christians, the crucifixion is only the first touch, and we are here with Peter waiting for our eyes to be more fully opened to God’s kingdom.
When Jesus rebukes Peter, notice what he says: “Get behind me!” Later, when he talks to the crowds he says, “if any want to get behind me to follow…” Jesus isn’t insulting Peter, he is commanding him to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus is telling him to put aside his own desires for himself and Israel and even Jesus and instead to seek what God desires: to take up his cross and follow.
We confess as Christians that we are saved by Christ; but remembering Dawn’s question, we might ask by what kind of Christ are we saved? Are we saved by a whipping-boy Christ in service to bloodthirsty and capricious God who threatens to punish us for all eternity, but whose justice we narrowly escape through a loophole? That kind of God is more likely to inspire disgust or fear, rather than love. What might our lives look like as we follow that God? Jesus might easily say to us and our silly ideas about the cross and God’s punishment, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Mark and the other evangelists paint a different picture. Instead of the story of a vengeful and violent God, we see the story of a loving and long-suffering one. The cross Jesus bore was not God's (misplaced) anger, but selflessly giving his life freely to those whom he loved, even knowing as he did so that we would take it from him. He denied his own wants and desires, even his own safety, to follow his Father; a path which led inevitably through the cross, but which, because of God’s love, also led out of the tomb.
This is the Christ who saves us, and who invites us follow him. This is the Christ who gives himself for us. In the words of the hymn, our thorns pierce him—hands and feet—and we feed on his very body and blood; and yet he lives, sustaining us with his own life. The cross he bears is not God's anger against us, but our sinfulness so often directed against one another, and even against God.
This Christ comes to us in the meal of Holy Communion, touching us again and again so that we may see more clearly that to take up our own crosses and follow means to serve: to serve God, to serve our neighbors, to serve even our enemies with every fiber of our being, even and especially when our service is inconvenient or uncomfortable or even dangerous. To follow Christ is to love those whom Christ loves and serve those whom Christ serves; to give ourselves, as he does, as strength for the weary and nourishment for the hungry. For us to take up our cross and follow means "to have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2.6-10)