Lectionary Passage Mark 8 vv 31 – 38
The topsy-turvy Messiah and His uncomfortable words.
We are used to hearing comforting and comfortable words from Jesus – words such as ‘Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11v 28 and ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave His only Son, so that everyone wo believes in him may not die but have eternal life.’ John 3 v 16. It comes as quite a shock to hear some of His uncomfortable words. In this Sunday’s passage, we hear what must be the most uncomfortable of them all – ‘If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross and follow me.’ Mark 8 v 34.
In the careful arrangement of his Gospel, Mark presents this passage as the turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, according to Mark, Jesus had exercised His ministry of teaching and healing in the north, in Galilee. Although frequently in conflict with the Jewish religious authorities who, hearing about Him and His distinctive style and teaching, came from Jerusalem to see for themselves, Jesus enjoys the relative safety of largely rural Galilee. From this point on Jesus ’sets His face towards Jerusalem’ with all that it means. It means for Jesus suffering and death. He needs the disciples to understand that. In quick succession we find this and two other warnings about both His death and also His promise of Resurrection. Mark 9 vv 30 – 32 & Mark 10 vv 32 – 34.
In the first ‘half’ of Mark’s Gospel we read of people’s amazement at some of the things they had heard and seen. The work of Jesus had prompted the question ‘Who is this man?’ Mark 4 v 41. Jesus, wanting to be sure that His disciples had at least some understanding of who He was, challenges them not only with the general enquiry ‘What’s the gossip?’ or more precisely ‘Tell me, who do people say I am?’ but then asking the disciples directly ‘What about you, who do you say I am?’ It is, of course, Peter who replies, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Mark 8 vv 27 – 30.
In Matthew’s account of Peter’s declaration, Jesus warmly commends Peter – ‘Good for you’ says Jesus to Peter – Matthew 16 v 17. And then all those familiar words about Peter the Rock and the rock foundation of the Church. Mark, in this passage, follows Peter’s declaration with the account of quite strong conflict between the two of them. Jesus has some hard things to say and some hard lessons for those disciples. And for His disciples today – us!
Our passage starts with the prediction by Jesus of his rejection by those at the very centre of the religious life of the nation, of His suffering and of both His death and resurrection. Peter takes Him aside and rebukes Him. The words here ‘take’ and ‘rebuke’ are very powerful words. Take puts Peter in charge, as if he is ordering a child. Rebuke, equally directive, is the word used of Jesus’s command to the demons – Mark 1 v 25 or the storm – Mark 4. 39.
What is going on?
For Peter, along with many, many others, the word Messiah has connotations of Victory, of Triumph, of Glory. The Jews champing under the bit of the Roman occupation of their land and the subjection of their people, longed for freedom and independence. They had built up the hope and the expectation of a dramatic intervention in their sorry plight by God who was to send His Messiah who would restore them to what they believed as their rightful place and standing in the world. Yet here was Jesus, just acknowledged as the Messiah and accepting that acknowledgement, talking about rejection, suffering and death. That seemed unbelievable nonsense. How could it be? It was completely upside down to their long-held dream.
The clues were there – but the disciples had missed them. In His first recorded sermon at Nazareth, Jesus, using Isaiah, had defined His ministry as to ’bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed.’ Luke 4 v18. We find the precursor to that manifesto in the poetry of Mary’s Song of Praise, known now as The Magnificat, where she sings of God scattering the proud, bringing down the kings, sending the rich away with empty hands in order to lift the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. Luke 1 vv 46 – 51.
God’s standards, God’s work is topsy-turvy to the world’s.
That is echoed in the rebuke of Jesus to Peter. ‘Get away from me Satan. Your thoughts don’t come from God but from man!’ The thought, the temptation that Jesus could take a direction that took Him away from suffering and death was the devil of an idea. Peter needed to hear that in no uncertain terms.
And so do we. The second paragraph of this passage is uncompromisingly direct. The words of Jesus are uncomfortable in the extreme. To follow Jesus means forgetting, denying self. It’s not about giving up alcohol for January or chocolate for Lent, it is the complete subjection and surrender of our inner-most being to God. To follow Jesus means accepting the burden of carrying the cross. The Romans ordered condemned criminals to carry their cross on the way to execution – as we shall see in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. It’s about the acceptance of the burden of sharing the suffering of others as well as ourselves. To follow Jesus means a willingness to lose our life in the service of the Gospel. To follow Jesus is not to be ashamed of Him and His teaching.
In our Covenant Service, we say –
‘I am no longer my own, but yours. Your will, not mine, be done in all things.’
At the end of the promise that we make together comes this –
‘Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours.
It is the challenge and the commitment of following Jesus. It is the assurance and the promise of God Himself. It is the topsy-turvy world of Christian faith.
Bryan Coates February 2021