“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter received no confirmation that he was right, only the command to silence, not to tell anyone about Jesus.
In today’s lesson, then, on that journey, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, will be rejected, will be killed, and three days later will rise again. This is the first of three pronouncements about Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection that he gives in Mark, the first written of the Gospels. Years later, Matthew & Luke provide similar accounts in their gospels. Each telling is followed, of course, by the disciples’ failure to understand. (Those disciples always get a bad rap.)
Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this moment had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future. But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that – contrary to all their hopes and expectations – he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again in three days. It was about the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.
Did Jesus really know ahead that he would suffer the shame of death by crucifixion, as he suggests here? Probably. Jesus was not the only miracle worker trolling through Palistine healing the sick and casting out demons. For the Jews of Palistine, the First Century was an era of apocalyptic expectations. Countless self-proclaimed prophets, preachers, and messiahs trampted through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment, many also offering healing and exorcisms, for a fee.
We even know many of these so-called Messiahs by name. The book of Acts tells us that the prophet Theudas had 400 disciples before Rome cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure referred to as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. Another messianic hopeful, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome – a sure sign the authorities had become sensitive to apocalyptic fever being in the air with a hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Kochba, and many hundreds more – all of whom had Messianic ambitions, and all of whom were killed for doing so. Add to this the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sicarii (or Daggermen), and it’s not hard to imagine an era full of Messianic energy. Jesus surely would have been aware of the fate that met the false Messiahs ahead of him, so he could probably predict his future too.
Crucifixion was a widespread and exceedingly common form of execution in New Testament days, used by many nations. One reason it was so common was that it was cheap, it could be carried out most anywhere; all one needed was a tree. The torture could last for days without needing an actual torturer. The procedure for the crucifixion was usually left entirely up to the executioner. Some victims were hooded, some were suspended upside down, some had their privates impaled, most were stripped naked. But, strangly perhaps, it would be wrong to think of crucifixions as a death penalty, for often the victim was first executed and then nailed to a cross. The purpose of the crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal, as it was to serve as a deterrent to others who might defy the state (although people kept on doing the things for which they could be executed, so I’m not sure capital punishment served as such a great deterent then – or now). For the deterrent reason, crucifixions were always carried out in public – at crossroads, on high ground – anywhere the population had a good view of the gruesome scene. The crucified were rarely buried, nobody claiming the body, usually being left for dogs and birds of prey to strip bare before the bones were discarded.
Simply put, crucifixion was more than a capital punishment for Rome; it was a public reminder of what happens when one challenges the empire. And so it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: especially rebellion, sedition, and treason – which is how the authorities looked at Jesus’ behavior.
From our perspective today, the cross is the symbol of Christianity. That Jesus was crucified for our sins gave us the cross as an icon for our religion. While Jesus was alive, of course, the cross had had nothing to do with the cult of Jesus. The great hope of the Israelite people at that time was freedom from the Roman overlords. Having seen Jesus’ miracles, experienced his magnetic personality as they followed him, and watched him draw enthusiastic crowds, it would have been natural for them to assume that Jesus would somehow challenge their subservient role under the Romans.
So after Peter tries to rebuke Jesus, Jesus responds that such an opinion is a “human” way of thinking. It’s what we all would have thought had we been among those first disciples. Jesus not only rebukes Peter, but then shocks them all even more deeply by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future too. Those who would follow him will “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” As if that’s not enough, Jesus
continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.
This news was so contrary to the disciple’s expectations and so difficult to comprehend that Jesus would have to repeat it twice more in Mark. The second time he spoke of this they still did not understand him, but “were afraid to ask him,” probably for fear of being rebuked again.
We do not follow Jesus by demeaning ourselves. We are called upon to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. To “deny oneself” means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” – love God and love your neighbor.
There was a ray of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it or understood it. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again. That was a whole new concept that would have been quite hard to comprehend.
Jesus gives us this hope for the future, but in this text we are called upon to follow him not just for this future, but in this life. Furthermore, to follow him now means as he said: a life “more abundant.”
At a critical point in our Gospel lesson, Jesus called his hearers to follow him. On more than twenty specific occasions in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry he asked the people, individually or in groups, to leave what they were doing and come after him. The question – Who is willing to follow Jesus Christ? – may be the defining question for Christians today.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny some substance or casual practice, but rather it is his invitation for us to imagine living a life of concern for others, a life of true compassion for the suffering, a life of giving to those in need.
This is what I hope we learn from our Gospel lesson for today. Every time we open ourselves to the needs of those around us … every time we actually take time to love someone who desperately needs our love … every time we get out of ourselves a little and seek not just what we want but what the world needs … we get a little closer to what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of … “taking up your cross and following me.”
As we move deeper into the Lenten season, I hope that we will take seriously the call that first came to us in baptism, a call that hopefully takes on greater meaning as we make decisions and order the priorities of life.
I feel drawn to close with a well-known prayer from St. Francis of Assisi that feels right for today:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Meet our Preachers
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.