Homily on Mark 8:31 – 38
“If any want to become my follower, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross
and follow me.”
Jesus’ words are familiar; familiar, but still challenging. By definition, a disciple is a follower, and so a follower of Jesus is a disciple of Jesus.
We gathered here are inclined to want to follow Jesus – We appreciate his example, we admire his teachings, and in some way and in various ways we want that example, and we want those teachings, to shape our lives. So, yes, we would be followers of Jesus, disciples of Jesus. When Jesus says “Follow me,” we would say, “Yes.”
Here in this pivotal text in Mark, Jesus is telling us how to follow. In this passage and throughout the central part of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is defining and describing Christian discipleship.
To the would-be follower, Jesus first calls out, “deny yourself.” And I suspect that this congregation, this group of UpIslanders, this gathering of Chilmarkers, understands and responds to Jesus’ call to “deny themselves.”
You know what it has meant and still means to “drop everything” to respond, to drop your own concerns, your own needs, and your own desires to respond to the needs of others, to the needs of the community. This is a community of volunteer firefighters and paramedics, members of town boards and church committees, neighbors who lend a hand, deep hearts who care for the victims, the sick, and the destitute, here and afar. This is a community in which many have selflessly given of themselves, denying themselves the peace and comforts and time that they might, you might, deserve.
So, we resonate both with following Jesus and denying ourselves.
But in the middle of Jesus’ great call is the image of the cross – and that gives me pause and may give you pause as well. There is something deeper here.
Of course, when we are given the image of the cross to consider, we today think of Jesus’ death. But when Jesus spoke this startling image, he had not suffered crucifixion, and those who heard his call to “pick up your cross” didn’t associate it with Jesus at all.
But in the Roman empire of Jesus’ time, crucifixion was indeed cruelly common, and to take up the cross was “to put oneself in the position of a condemned man on his way to execution, a prisoner and a criminal.” (Swete)
If we had lived in Roman-occupied Palestine in those days, and if we had seen a man carrying a crossbar, we would not need to ask “What on earth is he doing?” No, we would have recognized him at once as a condemned criminal, because the Romans compelled those they condemned to death to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion.
This was the imagery that Jesus chose to illustrate the meaning of self-denial; this was the imagery that accompanied Jesus’ call to follow him.
As much as this community and this church live out some depth of the meaning of denying oneself, the image of the cross that Jesus uses pushes us deeper.
Jesus ’ words certainly don’t permit us to imagine that self-denial involves simply giving up chocolate or small luxuries during Lent, or even that “my cross” is some personal and painful trial. No, if we take the image of the cross seriously, then following Jesus, that is, becoming and being a Christian, involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice except death and resurrection – dying to the old life of self-centeredness and rising to a new life of holiness and love.
You may recall the Apostle Paul’s words, which mirror Jesus’ image and echo his vocabulary: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) and“those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with it passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
So, we are given reason to pause as we consider Jesus’ words about the cross –
our crosses to carry, and his cross on which to die.
But if we are given pause,the Apostle Peter runs head-long into new teaching from Jesus, words of the suffering, rejection and death that, in time will be associated with Jesus’ own crucifixion. And Peter brashly opposes Jesus for what he says. His encounter with Jesus is astonishing and powerful. Can you imagine this scene?
“And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”
In turn, Peter is, strangely and strikingly, rebuked by Jesus – strong and unexpected words: “Get behind me Satan!”
What was it in Peter’s response that Jesus is compelled to rebuke it so firmly? Why would Jesus find Peter’s protest so wrong as to conflate it with Satanic deception?
Immediately before this morning’s passage, we have Jesus’ great question to his disciples: “But who do you say I am?” In response, Peter had intuitively blurted his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, but he clearly did not have the full idea.
Following Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah, an understanding still emerging, but incomplete,Jesus determines that the disciples were ready to learn more about the sufferings of the Messiah: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things …………and be killed”
This was a new set of instruction by Jesus for the disciples, and it clashed with the apocalyptic notions held by many Jews of the time that there would come a military Messiah who would destroy Israel’s enemies in violent and bloody conflict.
While we don’t know exactly what Peter anticipated of the Messiah or what he expected of Jesus whom he had followed for three years, we can see him standing aghast at what he now is hearing from Jesus, and then bursting out in explosive exclamation: “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” as the Gospel of Matthew offers it.
Jesus, turning to face his disciples, then rebukes Peter; “Get behind me Satan!” he says, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human.” The same Peter who had recognized with divine revelation that Jesus was the Messiahhas now become complicit in not only a wrong-headed belief, but Satanic deception.
The presence of the other disciples, who surely shared Peter’s conviction that Jesus was wrong – the Messiah could not be rejected! – forced a sharp and open rebuke by Jesus. Jesus called them to witness that he resolutely refused the temptation represented in Peter’s word.
For what Jesus had just set forth, that the Messiah, the Son of Man, must suffer and die, he would repeat two additional times in this Gospel’s account, and the emphasis becomes central to his ministry, but the disciples never fully comprehended it while Jesus lived.
By his repetition, Jesus underlines the importance and centrality of his suffering and death. And his rebuke of Peter only draws the lines more heavily on the Messianic portrait he is drawing.
Still, today, the voice of Peter sometimes drowns the voice of Christ. For like Peter, many people deny the necessity of the cross. For the necessity of the cross is a stumbling block to human pride.
Our response to the rebuke of Peter is a mirror of our own understanding of Jesus’ words: “For the Son of Man must undergo great suffering……. and be killed.”
As we gather ‘round this communion table on this Lenten Sunday to take the elements representing Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, we can ask ourselves,
Is this necessary? And what does this necessity say about me, about my own sin and my own self-centeredness, and about the path I must walk?
And if we find that Peter’s words of rebuke to Jesus come to our lips, may we also hear the voice of Christ echoing into our own time and life. Amen.
The Rev. Charles W. Bowman
March 8, 2009
Notes: Material drawn and adapted from R.Alan Cole, Mark; William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark; John Stott, Through the Bible Through the Year; Wenham, Motyer, Carson, France, eds. The New Bible Commentary