Back a year ago, when we first entered lock-down, thinking it would last a few weeks, I remember reading in various places advice on how to take advantage of this unique situation, to learn new skills, for example. Often, the example of Isaac Newton was held up to us. During the two years he was in quarantine because of the 1665 outbreak of plague, it is said that he discovered the laws of gravity and optics and invented calculus.
While I doubt anyone has been as productive as that over the last year, there are numerous examples of people using their isolation productively and creatively. Most of us, myself included, aren’t like that. We find ourselves exhausted all of the time, trying to work, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to the task, depressed and demoralized.
As we struggle with the uncertainties of our lives and the pandemic, as we watch the problems with vaccine distribution, our hopes that one day soon our lives can once again take on some semblance of what we used to regard as normalcy, today’s gospel may come across as tone-deaf or inappropriate to our situation.
Let me offer a little context. After a couple of weeks reading from chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, we’re back in the middle of it, in chapter 8, in an early portion of what is a very skillfully constructed section of the gospel. Today’s reading comes immediately after Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Messiah and is the first of three predictions Jesus makes that he (the Son of Man) will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of these three predictions is immediately followed by something that makes clear the disciples don’t comprehend what Jesus is talking about, and then Jesus follows it up with a teaching about what it means to be a disciple, to follow him.
In this case, we have Jesus making the prediction that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and on the third day rise from the dead. The gospel writer then says that “Peter took him aside and rebuked him.” Then, in a remarkable turn, Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Had we been reading the gospel continuously, this episode immediately following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the sudden turn would be obvious. We might want to interpret that turn in terms of Peter’s personality as evidenced in the gospels—impetuous, mercurial. He’s the one who jumped into the lake when he saw Jesus walking on the water and began to drown. He’s the one who wanted to build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Jesus predicted his denial, Peter protested loudly, then went on and denied Jesus, and immediately began to weep.
But there’s more to it than Peter’s personality here. There are multiple contrasts. Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah but as becomes clear, his notion of Messiah is not what Jesus had in mind—the royal deliverer, restorer of Davidic monarchy and the prestige and power of the Jewish people. Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering did not reference himself in the first pronoun, nor use language of Messiah. Instead, here as he will in the two subsequent predictions, Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man”—a rich, traditional image that hearkens back to Hebrew prophecy, to Ezekiel and to the Book of Daniel. Its best meaning is “Human one.” We might see here evidence of Jesus rejecting the title of Messiah with all of its connotations for a much humbler, more universal symbolic title and identity.
The human one who will be crucified in the most horrific, cruel way, a form of execution used by the Romans for its most notorious criminals and especially for rebels against its power. The cross symbolized Roman power and imperial terror. For Jesus to tell those who were with him, his disciples, followers, and the crowd, that if they wanted to be his disciples, they would have to take up their crosses.
We hear that language refracted through two thousand years of Christian theology and devotional practice. Take up your cross… We hear that call against the backdrop of Christian reflection on Christ’s death, theologies of atonement, and personal struggle. Taking up our cross has come to mean bearing whatever burden and suffering we may experience in our personal lives, burdens that we can lay at the foot of Jesus’ cross, who bears our burdens and died for our sins. We personalize it, internalize it, and yes, domesticate it.
But Mark didn’t mean it that way. Writing to a beleaguered, frightened community in the midst of conflict and war, as they watched the power of imperial Rome crush the Jewish rebellion, the cross meant for him and for them, their fate as followers of Jesus. “Take up your cross” meant just that—condemned to death by Rome, forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution, where the executions and the hanging bodies would stand as powerful witness to the folly of resisting Rome.
Jesus went on to explain, or perhaps a better word is, to challenge his listeners with what it meant to take up their crosses and follow him, to explore their motivations and hopes in doing so: “For whoever would 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.”
It’s a statement that catches us off guard, turns the rock of certainty to which we cling into sand that slips away, leaves us hanging in midair with no parachute. If we examine it closely, it challenges all of our assumptions, our desires, our hopes. If we want to save our lives—well, who doesn’t want to save their life—we’ll lose it; but if we lose our life, we’ll save it. But doesn’t that mean that if we set about losing our life because we want to save it, we’ll lose it anyway? Well, you get the horns of the dilemma on which Jesus leaves us hanging.
And to us today, in the midst of our world’s suffering and all of its uncertainty, what do these words mean? What do we do with them? What does it mean to “follow” Jesus when we’re essentially confined to our homes, when the notion of a journey, even if it is a journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, and not a delayed vacation to an exotic locale, when the notion of a journey, any journey is little more than a distant dream?
If you hope I’ve got this figured out and will give you the answers, that I’ll tell you what Jesus means and what you should do, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Jesus’ words hear stand us judgment and warning on whatever certainty we might have about ourselves, about Jesus himself, and about what the future holds. Just as the readers of Mark’s gospel were looking at a difficult and uncertain future, so too are we all. We don’t know what that future holds, what challenges we will face in the coming months and years. What we do know, and can be certain of, is that we can choose to walk that journey with Jesus and that as we walked, nourished by word and sacrament, strengthened by God’s grace, it will be a journey into hope and new life, a journey into possibility and resurrection.