Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 28th of Second Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Mark 8:31-38, NRSV
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Good morning, Friends!
I’ve been having trouble re-orienting myself these past couple of weeks. As Eden told us this past week, we’re now in the season of Lent, and I often try to observe Lent by adding something new: by trying out a new discipline, by trying to expand my practice in some way. And for probably years, my prayer practice has been remarkably puny—well, not remarkably—it’s just been puny. And so I’ve felt the call to do something more purposeful in prayer; to spend more time, and to expand the kind of intercession that I routinely do when I pray first thing in the morning. Part of what I realized I needed to do was to find another time during the day, because I needed a little bit more time for what I was intending to do. I wanted to write in my journal as I prayed; I wanted to journal the prayers, and I knew that I would need some time somewhere other than first thing in the morning. And it’s been really hard to re-orient myself to that new practice! I have not been doing particularly well with it. The day gets going, and wooosh! It just doesn’t happen. I forget, or I decide, “well, I’m too busy for it right now, I’ve gotta do something else...” and it goes by the way. I don’t pick it up later, as often as I resolve to do.
So I’ve been having trouble re-orienting myself to this new practice, re-organizing my day so that I have time and space for intercession and prayer in the manner that I would like to do.
Last week Eden helped us understand what that season of Lent is about, particularly the whole tradition of fasting. She reminded us that it’s a process of preparation, a process, as she put it, that tells us “that spiritual depth requires mindfulness and commitment.” We don’t get into that kind of a place without re-orientation, without re-organization.
Lent is an opportunity to ask ourselves how much we are willing to re-organize our lives (and thus far, my answer to that question is, “not much!”) In her message, Eden talked about fasting as a negative act, which is the way most of us probably think of it. That is, abstaining from something, or giving something up; taking something away. She also invited us to see fasting as a positive act: engaging in works of justice, mercy and compassion—the kind of fast, as it says in Isaiah the prophet, that God desires. Any discipline we undertake, whether a negative or a positive fast, or some other practice, requires us to re-orient, to re-organize our lives. And that’s not something we will do easily—speaking for myself: it’s not something that I do easily. I rebel against any suggestion that I need to do something differently; I resist anything that might impinge upon my comfort, my routine, my way of doing things. And so that’s the resistance that I’m experiencing, trying to make a small change in my daily practice to include a bit more prayer.
I am going to suggest that we see a similar kind of resistance, although on a much different scale, in Peter’s reaction to Jesus in today’s passage. We were actually with these two just a couple of weeks ago, you might remember, when we looked at Mark’s story of the Transfiguration, in chapter nine. Today we’re rewinding to chapter eight, but to a scene that’s very much related. There’s an important lead-in to this passage that we didn’t read, and I’m sorry I didn’t change the bounds of the Scripture—it would have been better to start a couple of verses earlier. Because there’s an exchange between Jesus and Peter that really sets the stage for this encounter here in today’s passage. Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah [the Christ]” (8:29). Then Jesus orders the disciples to say nothing about this to anyone (8:30).
And then we go on to what Jim read to us. Jesus goes on to the teaching of his coming trial, death, and resurrection. Two things here stand out in significant contrast to that exchange he’s just had with Peter. First, notice that while Peter has just named Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed One, Jesus does not use that term to refer to himself. Instead, he chooses “Son of Man.” It’s the Son of Man who will be rejected, who will suffer, who will be killed, and who will rise again—not the Messiah. Second, while Jesus says the disciples are to say nothing about his being the Christ in v30, Mark tells us in v32 that Jesus speaks “quite openly” about his suffering, death, and rising again. Why does Jesus seem so reticent about one aspect of his destiny, and yet so forthcoming about another?
This is one instance of what some scholars have called the “Messianic secret,” Jesus’ apparent desire to keep his true identity known only to his disciples—as if he were a superhero and needed to keep undercover. Obviously, Jesus is not Clark Kent, and he’s not being bashful here. As best I understand it, Jesus orders the disciples to secrecy specifically because neither they, nor the religious authorities, nor anyone, really, at this point, understand the kind of Messiah that he really is to be. For most Jews in that period, the Messiah would have been a political savior, a king like unto David who would have overthrown Rome and restored Israel as a player on the world stage. In that understanding, the Messiah would have prevailed through military might, and so likely Peter and the other disciples were preparing themselves for a violent struggle—a glorious conquest, yes, but one that would come through some kind of violence. And it would have been a struggle against the power of the empire. For Jesus’ followers to have engaged in that kind of campaign would have been a disaster—in that time, there had been, and there would be later, some 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death, numerous Jewish rebellions, which Rome always put down mercilessly. So Jesus, in refusing public identification as the Messiah, wants to keep his disciples from making a fatal mistake.
Instead, he chooses the title, “Son of Man.” This is a title that shows up various places in the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars think that Jesus was claiming it in the sense that it is used in the book of Daniel, where it is applied to a figure that certainly seems like a messiah—and we get some of that imagery of the Son of Man coming in the clouds from the book of Daniel. But in some translations, the Hebrew phrase is simply rendered, “a human being,” and so other commentators suggest that Jesus’ preference for that title particularly evokes his humanity: “son of man” as a sign of his intimate connection with all aspects of human being. The radical scholar and activist Ched Myers suggests that the title should be rendered, “the Human One.” With that lens, we see Jesus as a Messiah who was willing to suffer for and with humanity, and suffer unto death, but who would not cause others to suffer through violence or domination.
Alas, these hints are not enough for Peter and the other disciples. Of course, the only reason that you and I get it is that we stand outside the story, and we know how it ends--and we have all of this theology and interpretation to illuminate our understandings. So in the midst of the story, Peter rebukes his teacher, strenuously resisting what Jesus is telling them. In Matthew’s version of the story, he says, “God forbid! May this never happen to you, Lord!” I wonder if, in the back of his mind, Peter wasn’t actually saying, “May this never happen to me…”
Clearly, Peter is having difficulty re-orienting himself to Jesus’ direction. He has been willing to re-organize his life quite a bit; he left his fishing nets, there on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to follow Jesus. But he doesn't realize how much re-organization is really necessary: what does it mean to follow a Messiah who is not only willing to die, but says that he must die at the hands of the authorities; and who is not willing to conquer by means of violence and domination? What does it mean to follow a Messiah who is going to go out, not in a blaze of militant glory, but with the ignominious death of a slave?
For Jesus then goes on and makes it plain, not only to the disciples, but to all who would hear him—he calls a crowd together, and spells out the cost of discipleship: denial of self, and taking up the cross. Now, “take up your cross” has become a phrase that we bandy about quite a bit, as good religious folk; and we tend to forget that in Jesus’ time, the cross was the punishment handed out to the lowest of the low. Slaves and insurrectionists were crucified. Crucifixion was a graphic, public depiction of how far empire was willing to go in maintaining its control. It was not something that could be taken lightly. So for the disciples and the crowd to hear this would have been sobering. “Take up the cross and follow me” would have meant, “follow me to a public execution.” It’s little wonder that the disciples continue to misunderstand, and Peter continues to deny Jesus.
So as I’ve said, “take up the cross” is a phrase that we use without really thinking much about it. How do we hear that call in our lives today?
There are lots of ways to answer this question, and I imagine each of you has your own answer. One way to think about it is that the cross is both an inward and an outward discipline. I think this is connected in some ways to what Eden told us about negative and positive fasting. Taking up the cross involves both taking things away and doing things differently. An inward process, and an outward action.
First, the inward: Friends have always emphasized the importance of inward reality vs. outward appearance. For the first generation of Friends, it was worthless to profess an outward faith if one did not also possess the inward experience that was the ground for that faith. So in our tradition, the cross is not only an event in history, but also an experience in the heart of each believer—an experience of renovation, as Dallas Willard might say (he has an excellent book called The Renovation of the Heart, which is very much about this kind of process). The inward cross is an experience by which those things in us that keep us from God are crucified and put to death, so that we may live fully to God. Dallas Willard says about it that spiritual formation in Christ, which I think is pretty much the same thing as the inward cross, “is the process by which one moves and is moved from self-worship to Christ-centered self-denial as a general condition of life” (Renovation of the Heart, 77).
I think this inward cross is not simply a one-time event, but a regular action of the Holy Spirit. It is the sort of thing that we need to undergo again and again; Luke, in his version of this passage, records Jesus' words as, “take up the cross daily” (Luke 9:23). We see this regular submission to the inward cross many places in the Quaker classics; I think John Woolman is a particularly good example. So many places in his Journal, perhaps on every page, we see Woolman making a daily effort to resign his will to God's: to experience the inward cross overcoming his own will. In my own experience, I find I need that same kind of daily resignation.
The cross is also an outward experience, an outward expression of discipline, I think. Here there are many ways that we might hear God’s call to fast in ways that lead us to justice and mercy and compassion, as Eden put it last week. One of the ways that we can do this is in choosing to stand with the marginalized, in choosing to go where Jesus would be today. To stand with the people who are being crucified by conditions of our society. And part of the struggle that is particularly acute right now, certainly in our country but also other places in the world, is in choosing to stand with people of color who have been marginalized, and in trying to crucify white supremacy. This is an inward process, certainly, for those of us who are white, because there are ways of thinking and ways of being that we have lived with all our lives that need to be re-oriented and re-organized. But it’s accompanied by outward work—the positive fast that Eden spoke of, of mercy, compassion and justice; choosing to stand with those who have been marginalized, to ally ourselves to them, and to seek to amplify their voices, when they have a story that needs to be told; and to not use our own words, but to use theirs.
This is part of the outward work of experiencing the cross. It begins inwardly, but it doesn’t stop there. It translates to outward action. This may be how you hear the call to take up the cross; it may not be. I would imagine that, however you hear it, there is both an inward and an outward dimension. There may be both a negative and a positive kind of fasting that needs to take place.
[Here are] the questions I want to return to, and that we’ll close with, as we consider how to take up the cross--two more questions:
How much are we really willing to reorganize our lives, for the sake of Christ and the gospel?
And what kind of reorganization is Christ calling us to, in the present, as we seek to take up the cross?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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