A Lectionary Reflection on Mark 8:27-38 For Proper 19B / Ordinary 24B
“Jesus died for me.” You’ll hear the cross of Jesus framed in this way in sermons and worship songs across the world every week. You’ll hear it proudly proclaimed by Christians every day in the wealthiest suburbs, the most driven corporations, the poorest slums and the most desperate of situations. Myriads of people find these words comforting in both joy and suffering, and myriads of people pin their eternal hopes on this simple theological statement. Far be it from me to challenge the power of the truth expressed in these words.
But, there is one thing I must challenge. As true as it may be to say that “Jesus died for me,” it is an incomplete truth. And it is this incompleteness that makes it dangerous. People who believe that Jesus died for them have killed other people in the name of that same Jesus. People who sing those words every week in church – even proclaiming that Jesus died for the rest of humanity along with them – will point fingers at these other Jesus-loved people because of their different beliefs, convictions, or ways of living and loving. People who claim the cross of Jesus for themselves find no contradiction in manipulating legal, economic or political systems to benefit themselves and others at the expense of poorer, less powerful or less connected people in other countries or communities. Saying that “Jesus died for me” is passive faith that requires nothing from me except to believe that Jesus did what was required to get me to heaven.
But, this is not the meaning Jesus gave to the cross. Yes, he knew he was going to be crucified – you couldn’t say and do the things he was doing and expect that there would be no deadly consequences. But, he did not expect that his death would lead others to believe that they had been let off the hook – that they no longer had to speak and live as he did because he had done all that was necessary. On the contrary, his death was not so much the end of sin as it was the start of a revolutionary new movement of justice and love.
As much as we have struggled to grasp this, we are simply repeating the wrestling that Peter and the other disciples experienced. It’s significant that Mark places the scene of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ just after the healing of the blind man in two phases and just before the Transfiguration account. The disciples had come to the conviction that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. This was a huge step of faith for them – and a dangerous one that could have got them stoned for blasphemy. But, it was only the first step in reaching the kind of faith that Jesus offered them. It was like seeing people only as trees walking around, and not picking up the details in their faces. It was like walking up the mountain and seeing the glory of God, but thinking you could contain it in a shack made from human hands.
Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus starts to invite his disciples into the paradox of his Messiahship. Jesus words make it clear that Peter got it right when he called Jesus the Messiah, but what this means, says Jesus, is that he must die and the hands of the religious leaders. It would also include rising from death in some way that the disciples could not have begun to grasp at this stage. So, Peter rebukes Jesus, but then is rebuked in turn. In trying to stop Jesus from embracing death, he is standing in the way of the very revelation he has just begun to grasp. He has seen the truth of who Jesus is, but he has not yet understood it. For Peter, the Messiah is a clear, understandable role, and death is contrary to what it means. Which is why Jesus needs to open his eyes further and lead him into a new – not understanding – appreciation of paradox. The Messiah Jesus is to be is not a victorious, military commander, nor a righteous, religious judge. Jesus is a defeated Messiah, a guilty Messiah, a dead Messiah. This is the first paradox that must be welcomed.
But, it doesn’t end there. The cross, says Jesus, is not just for him, but for all who will follow him. They too must die in order to live. The paradox of the Messiah is not an intellectual truth to be debated. It is an experiential reality to be lived. This is the second paradox that must be welcomed.
What is clear from Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus died because he embodied a whole new way of being human. He rejected the power plays, the wealth accumulation, the instant gratification and the addiction to pain-avoidance that characterises human motivation and behaviour. He embodied love for friends and enemies above all, finding greatness in service, and giving his life for something that was bigger than death – the Reign of God; a world that is made whole and one through God’s grace, justice, peace and love. The grand vision of Jesus was to impact a few people with a message so compelling they would willingly follow him to the death, and in so doing, would be unswayed from their conviction and their compassion. It was an invitation for people to follow him to death with no fame or fortune to make it worthwhile. In fact, there would not even be a guarantee of success. The only reason they might have to choose this way was because it was right. It was the only possible way that the world could become what we all dream it would be.
To say that “Jesus died for me” is to remove this paradox from Jesus’ Messiahship. It is also to remove the paradox from his call that we take up our crosses and follow him. The “Jesus died for me” paradigm, if that’s all it is, cannot heal the world. Rather, it waits (almost gleefully in some cases) for the world to be destroyed by humanity’s need for control, so that it can be removed to another world where everything is blissful and pain-free. But, the message Jesus preached and lived is bigger than that. It’s so radical that it cannot be contained in simple, linear truths. It can only be embodied in paradoxical lives that follow a crucified Messiah into a hidden Realm that is here, but yet to come, by choosing to die in order to find life.
The truth is, following Jesus is a death. If we are to embrace the paradox of Jesus’ Messiahship, we will have to die to our own agendas, our need for comfort and control, our avoidance of pain, and our addiction to exclusivity and uniformity. Then, we will have to die to our need for “eye-for-an-eye” justice, the right to violently defend ourselves at all costs, the freedom that comes only at the bondage of others, and the passivity of believing that the cross was a once off thing that only Jesus had to endure.
Following Jesus makes no sense in this world. But, then, it was never meant to.