I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings.
Perhaps it’s all complicated for me because much of my scholarly work focused on the persecution of religious minorities, of Christian dissenters, witches and heretics who came under the wrath of the Christian rulers of Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. I’ve read accounts of their suffering and martyrdom, accounts of the brutality inflicted on unwitting and usually innocent suspects. I couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago when I was burrowing in archives in German libraries that I would see accounts of similar brutality in our own day, forced conversions, executions, beheadings.
And as a one-time scholar of religion, I want to understand the interplay of religion, politics, and culture that lead to such actions, the complex forces that contribute to such horrific human evil. But I’ll be honest, what we’ve seen recently is beyond my capacity for making sense of it.
What makes it all the more difficult is that many of us struggle in our context to accept the name “Christian.” Given the prevalence of conservative Christianity in the media and culture, the loud claims made by conservative Christians for certain political and social positions, many of us cringe when we hear what they say and struggle to articulate our own views and different interpretation of scripture. We want to be invisible Christians, unnoticed by those around us, because of our embarrassment. And then we encounter a text like today’s gospel reading, and suddenly all of our struggles are put to shame.
Today’s gospel brings us to the heart of Mark. I’ve talked about the overall structure of Mark’s gospel over the last two weeks. I hope you kept that in mind as you listened to today’s reading. So far, we have seen Jesus performing miracles, feeding the five thousand, casting out demons, healing the sick. Earlier in this chapter, chapter 8, Jesus has another feeding miracle, feeding a crowd of four thousand this time, as well as a blind man. Now Jesus turns to another topic, his crucifixion and resurrection, and a series of teachings about what it means to follow him. In fact, this is the first of three such predictions of his suffering and death. Each of them follows the same pattern. Jesus explains what will happen to him; there is an incident that makes clear the disciples have no idea what he is talking about; and then Jesus tries to teach them what following him, what discipleship, means.
Immediately before today’s gospel comes another event of great significance. Jesus and his disciples were walking around in the region of Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod the Great in homage to his Roman imperial master. It was the symbolic and actual center of Rome’s power in the region. While walking in the surrounding towns, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered simply, the Messiah. It’s no coincidence that Jesus asked those questions in the shadow of Caesarea Philippi. For Peter to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah was to proclaim him the promised deliverer of the Jewish people from their hated occupier, Rome. Messiah was an overwhelmingly political idea in 1st century Palestine.
Now come today’s verses. Having been identified as the Messiah and tacitly, at least, accepting that title, now Jesus begins to explain to his followers what it means for him to be the Messiah. He will go to Jerusalem, where he will be rejected by the Jewish political and religious leadership, undergo great suffering, and be killed and then rise from the dead.
Peter will have none of it. He takes Jesus aside and patiently tries to explain to him what messiah-ship is all about. But Jesus rebukes him, and as he does so he rejects that notion of political messiah-ship.
And then, as if to underscore his point, Jesus tries to explain to everyone there, disciples and onlooking crowd, what it means to follow him:
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.
These words of Jesus are among the most difficult of all of Jesus’ sayings, and because they go to the heart of what it means to follow him, they may be the hardest words in all of the gospels. They are also quite easily misinterpreted.
Just to give you one example. “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross.” One might take that to mean following Jesus means self-denial. Well, yes, but Jesus isn’t saying that following him means beating up on yourself or focusing on your own sins and shortcomings. It’s self-denial only in the sense that one puts following Jesus ahead of other things in one’s life. Granted, that’s hard enough. We want to personalize, internalize what Jesus is talking about but remember, when he tells his disciples to take up their cross, he’s not referring to some emotional or psychological burden, he’s not talking about the difficult colleague with whom we work, he’s talking about the wooden cross that the Romans used to execute rebels.
The challenge of discipleship, if the notion of being condemned to die for following Jesus isn’t enough, the challenge of discipleship becomes even more clear in the next, enigmatic verses: “whoever would save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”
In fact, that’s not clear at all—if you think about it, what Jesus is saying challenges us at the very core of our being; not just our priorities, but our very existence. Who doesn’t want to save their life? Isn’t the instinct for self-preservation at the very heart of life? And it’s the same whether we think Jesus is speaking about literal life—existence, breathing, or our spiritual lives, our salvation. In either case, whether we desire self-preservation or eternal life, Jesus seems to be saying that we will not get there from here, we will not achieve the goal if our goal is safety.
Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a way out of this conundrum. Jesus’ words here, his example of taking up his cross stand on the other side of all our natural, normal human desires and expectations. They stand on the other side of all of our ordinary human struggles, our work and vocation, family and friends, our hobbies and pastimes.
We hear those words in today’s gospel and think of all of those who have followed Jesus to the cross, the martyrs throughout history, those who have died because of their faith in the past weeks and months, and we look at our own lives, the challenges we face, the struggles we have, and we wonder whether there’s any connection between the words of the gospel and the witness of the martyrs and our own lives of faith.
These are hard questions, indeed. They are difficult not just because of what Jesus said and did and our desire to be his disciples. They are difficult because of all of the things that have been done and said in Jesus’ name, by those who would be his followers, in the past and present. They are difficult because of all of the other claims on our allegiance and on our lives. They are difficult because of their absolute nature and the complicated lives we live that force us to negotiate among all of the things that compete for our attention, commitment, and devotion.
But here we are, attending these services because in spite of everything else, there’s something in us drawing us to Jesus, making us want to follow him. When these hard sayings make us want to turn away from Jesus, like the rich young man who didn’t want to abandon his wealth, we need to remember that Jesus is not only hard sayings and impossible standards, Jesus also offers us grace and love. The same Jesus who said these words in Mark also said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
For all the demands of the gospel, the all-or-nothing of discipleship, the cost of following him, Jesus meets us where we are, walks with us on our journey, and lifts us up when we fall. His love and grace sustain us and heal us because we can’t do it by ourselves.