The Demanding Gospel

The original manuscripts of Mark ended at verse 16:8, as the women flee from the empty tomb in fear and confusion. The Risen Lord does not appear in this Gospel, which asks us to believe where we have not yet seen.

The Scripture

Mark 8:27-36
told by Deborah

While Jesus was traveling with his disciples he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?”

They told him, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

But he warned them not to tell anyone about him — and began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the clergy, and the religious authorities, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

He was absolutely serious in saying this. And Peter took him aside and reproached him: “Don’t talk like that!”

But he turned away and, looking at his disciples, he scolded Peter, “Get behind me, Tempter! You’ve set your mind not on godly things, but human ones.”

And he summoned the crowd along with his disciples and told them, “Whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself utterly, and take up his cross and follow me.

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. So what if you gain the whole world — and in the process lose your soul? What can be worth that?"

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
September 17, 2018

The Grim Gospel

Well, here we are again, down in the dumps with Mark; Jesus is talking about the necessity of His suffering and death, and how he will be scorned, shamed, and rejected. It’s tough to get through this text without succumbing to depression; there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “good news” in this Gospel, which has been described as one long Passion Narrative; a hopeless march toward the cross. Throughout we find ourselves cringing, preparing for the worst, knowing that this will not end well. The shadow of death looms over the story, an irresistible force — almost a character in itself, stalking Jesus.

Very likely the first Gospel composed, written around the middle of the first century, Mark has a raw immediacy, a sense of urgency. It is as if the crucifixion were just yesterday, as if Jesus’ followers were still in shock; reciting, in stricken, breathless tones the wondrous life and terrible death of the one they believed to be the Messiah.

It is the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, up until its end, without any of the comforting aftermath assurances we’ve come to expect. There is no joyful reunion in an upper room, no shared fish fry on a sunlit beach, no uplifting Ascension scene, no heart-warming Pentecostal flames. Mark presents us with an inevitable journey toward Calvary — for Jesus and for those who follow him.

Jesus told them, “Those who wish to follow me must deny themselves utterly, and each take up their cross and follow me.”

But I Don’t Want To!

horseWhoa. Hold your horses, there, partner.

What’s this business about “taking up my cross”? That doesn’t sound so good: crucifixion definitely comes under the heading of A Very Bad Thing. It’s simple common sense that suffering and sorrow, pain and injustice are better avoided — rather than actively embraced. That’s not what we signed up for…. Or is it?

In his blunt honesty Mark conveys an unpleasant truth: nobody gets out of here alive.

It’s not an option; we cannot finance, finagle, or fantasize our way out of the fact that life isn’t always fair, and that there will be suffering, sorrow and loss, illness and death — even within the most pampered and privileged existence. There is no alternative to taking up that cross, it is the reality of the life we have been given; the only question is: how shall we carry it?

As Son of Man — bearer of the reality of our humanness, Jesus did not deny the truth of suffering and death; he did not subvert it by calling forth armies of angels for his protection or defense, nor to bring him miraculously down from the cross. He lived as we live, grieved as we grieve, and died as we die. As Son of God — bearer of divine compassion, Jesus blessed and healed, comforted, counseled, called to repentance, and forgave. The Lord walked in our way, so that we would know how to walk in His.

Follow Me!

crucifixionJesus’ angry response to Peter’s denial of his prediction of his impending death (“Get behind Me, Tempter!”) calls our attention to the fact that Jesus accepted what lay ahead, despite the temptation to claim preferential treatment, to escape from the experience of laying down one’s life. As fully human, Jesus knew, as we know, with fear and trembling, the inevitability of suffering and death. He accepted it, but he did not relish it, no more than we do.

He did not relish it, but He was mindful of its reality. Jesus knew that an integral part of what makes us human is the fact that our days here are numbered, though none of us can know how much time we have been given.

But as for that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    ~ Mark 13:32

We don’t have all the time in the world. We have finite lives, and limited opportunities to determine how we will live, what we will do, and Who we will follow.

Will we be blessing bearers or hate mongers; blind to beauty or seeking it everywhere; will we be kind or condemning, compassionate or cynical? Will we, as Christians, uplift the Cross of Christ, claiming it as our own; accepting in it, the reality of death and the demand to live an abundant life this very day?

Deny Yourself?

Jesus told them, “Those who wish to follow me must deny themselves utterly, and each take up their cross and follow me.”

dog licking cakeThe notion of “denying” ourselves can be a confusing one; it doesn’t mean refusing to recognize the reality of our individual natures — it is not to deny who we are; but something along the lines of “denying” ourselves that second slice of cake. It might be interpreted as “restrain” or “control yourself”; don’t let our egos drive the bus — because they can readily steer us into all sorts of trouble; heedless and self-absorbed, they can run over everybody else.

As is said: “It’s not all about you.” Denying ourselves means behaving with humility, compassion, and concern for others; it is to live as Jesus lived: to follow the Lord.

And yet there may be more to the story. As we follow Jesus’ Way, we become component parts of the Body of Christ. Perhaps, in some important way, we are absorbed into the Divine; already one with the Lord, living in the timeless glory of eternity. Perhaps in the denial of ourselves we become, as a later apostle proclaimed, “Not me, but Christ who lives in me.”

In the Light of the Cross

cross of light

Illuminated by the Cross of Christ, the fact of our impending death (whether soon or far into the future) will lead us not into temptation — but, instead, will deliver us from evil.

As Jesus walked, so shall we: mindful, aware, grateful, faithful. We have the Light of the World to lead us: not rushing toward the cross, but not ignoring its import; cherishing life, and trusting God.

In the Light of Christ, death will have no hold on us; we will be free from the temptation to disguise existential fears with drugs, debauchery, or destructiveness — those opiates of despair. Neither will we be taken in by the worthless promises of safety and security and lasting, radiant health from corporations, committees, or celebrities. Instead, we will accept death as a fact of life, a goal to reach with honor; a crown of glory to win.

There it stands — close companion of the Ancient of Days: the End of Our Days, beckoning us forward, challenging us, demanding of us, “Your time here is limited: What will you do? How will you live? Who will you serve? And, if you gain the world but lose your soul in the process, will it be worth it?”

Gracious Lord Christ, through your redeeming faith and courage, you taught us how to live fully and die fearlessly. Illuminate our understanding and infuse our hearts with unwavering trust in God, and tender compassion for humankind, that we may truly walk in your Way and live in your love — now and forever. Amen.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah 

Suggested Spiritual Excercises

Your time here is limited: What will you do? How will you live? Who will you serve?