One of the things about my job that is both wonderful and at times frustrating is that among many other things, I get paid to talk to people. And while some of those conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult, many of them are opportunities to get to know people, to hear about their spiritual journeys, to learn about their struggles, their hopes and passions, and sit with them in the midst of their pain and suffering.
This week, I’ve met with a number of interesting people, among them a college student who wanted to talk to me about his senior thesis (that’s something I haven’t done in almost ten years); a young Roman Catholic woman who is searching for a new church home. There were also several homeless or nearly homeless people There were also conversations with people curious about the proposed development project on our block.
But the richest conversations, not surprisingly, were conversations held with somewhat larger groups. The first was with those of us who gathered Tuesday night to talk about the book we’re reading, “The Last Week” and then yesterday, the Vestry and some other lay leaders came together for the vestry retreat and in the morning we talked about some of the challenges facing us as a congregation, and more broadly American Christianity in general, and how we as a congregation might go about adapting to our changed context.
In both of those conversations among the things we discussed was how difficult it is to be a Christian in our context, to follow Jesus. On Tuesday night, we talked directly about today’s gospel reading, about Jesus’ words to “Take up our cross and follow him.” Yesterday, while our conversation wasn’t as closely related to scripture, it was emotionally powerful. We heard a mother talk about her daughter’s willingness to share her faith at her high school; and vestry members who talked about the negative reactions they get from co-workers when they tell them that they go to church.
No doubt, you have had similar conversations. Perhaps you’ve experienced negative reactions when you’ve shared with friends or co-workers that you are a member of Grace or attend regularly., or even, if you dare, share that you seek to follow Jesus Christ. It’s likely you’ve struggled to respond when conservative Christians have expressed views about immigration, gender or sexuality, or race on social media or in mass media that you find repugnant.
We live in charged times and in times like these, times unlike any most of us have ever experienced before, what it means to do what we do, to be who we are, to claim publicly our identity as followers of Jesus Christ and members of his body, can be difficult. It’s not just that such conversations make us uncomfortable, it’s that we may begin to wonder whether our commitment to Jesus Christ is worth the effort, whether it might not just be easier to give it all up and join the growing numbers of those who claim no religious affiliation or identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
In today’s gospel reading, we overhear a difficult conversation, albeit of a very different sort. Although the setting was very different than ours, the author of the Gospel of Mark was addressing somewhat similar concerns in his portrayal of this conversation. While we can’t date it precisely, most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the year 70. It was written in the middle of an intense crisis. In the year 66, Jewish groups had rebelled against Rome and it took some time for the Roman army, led by the emperor’s son, Titus to quash the rebellion. In 70, he succeeded in reconquering Jerusalem and in the process destroyed much of the city and especially the temple, which was the focal point of Jewish worship.
That would cause an existential crisis within Judaism that would transform the faith. It also precipitated a crisis in early Christianity, which had still not emerged as a religious movement in dependent of Judaism. That would only occur in the following decades.
Mark was likely writing for followers of Jesus Christ who had fled the fighting in Judea and perhaps Galilee and were in the midst of an existential crisis of their own. It’s likely that many of them believed the Jewish revolt would precipitate Jesus’ return in majesty and power to inaugurate God’s reign. And when that didn’t happen, when the Roman army conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, they entered into a period of doubt and uncertainty.
Mark was writing in response to that crisis. He wanted to help his readers, this small group of disappointed and fearful followers of Jesus Christ. They had been waiting for Jesus’ return for more than a generation, and it seemed more and more that those hopes were futile, and that they were likely to suffer the same fate as the Jewish rebels.
All that background may not make Mark’s gospel any more comprehensible to us for the simple reason that Mark’s response to this existential crisis in both Judaism and nascent Christianity was not to hold out hope that God would suddenly intervene and make everything right.
We see the outlines of Mark’s response in today’s gospel reading. It comes immediately after Peter’s great confession, when he says in response to Jesus’ question about his identity, “You are the Messiah.” And immediately, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples just what it means that he is the Messiah—that he will suffer, be rejected, and killed and rise again on the third day. It’s the first of three such predictions in Mark’s gospel and each one is followed by an episode that makes quite clear that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, that they reject his description of the nature of the Messiah. And each of those episodes is followed by a series of sayings of Jesus that lay out what it means to follow him, to be his disciple.
So these are stories about Jesus’ identity and calling and Messiah, as well as stories about what it means to follow Jesus, contrasting the behavior of Jesus’ disciples with the behavior of true or ideal disciples. I will have a great deal more to say about this in the coming weeks. It’s the central drama of the last week of Jesus’ life, and if you want to know more about that, I encourage you to join our Tuesday evening discussion group.
“If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and take up your 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.”
Those are hard words, challenging words. They were hard in the first century and they are hard today. I think’s it is pretty clear, given all that I’ve said about the setting of Mark’s gospel what they meant in the first century—that if you are a follower of Jesus, your fate is bound up with his, that you will carry a cross like he did, that you will be persecuted, perhaps even be killed because of your commitment. But, and this is the important point, you will not be alone on that journey. It is a journey that Jesus himself walked, and he will be walking it with you, and like him, God will vindicate you in the end. Mark was reassuring his readers as they faced possible persecution.
That may be fairly clear, but what it means for us may not be quite so clear. Especially in a time when Christians of many persuasions are crying persecution every time their views are rejected or when they are challenged in the public sphere. At the same time, other Christians are experiencing real, horrific persecution across the globe.
It may mean that instead of focusing on our own faithfulness and the challenges we face, we should think about and focus on the suffering in our midst and in the world. Jesus says, “Follow me” and his way leads to the cross. He bids us to follow him, to walk with him on that journey to Jerusalem, the journey to his suffering and death.
Mark reminds us that on the cross, in Jesus’ suffering and death, we see God, God suffering in the world, suffering for the world, God at God’s weakest. Jesus calls us to follow him, to accompany into that suffering and pain, to bear witness to that suffering, to see God there, to make God present there. There, on the cross, as we bear witness, we see God’s love, expressed in all of its power and hope.
It is that Christ, that God, to whom we are called to bear witness, that Christ we are called to follow, to accompany into the midst of the world’s pain and brokenness. May we find the strength to make that journey, to bear witness, to confess Christ crucified. May we help the world see the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.