It became obvious at about 5 minutes to 6:00 last Sunday night that I had grossly underestimated the number of people who would want to begin Lent by listening to the whole Gospel of Mark over a silent meal. As we were setting up an extra bank of chairs in the back, I thought, well, this is a great problem to have. Plus, it kind of put us in first-century mode: crammed into a small space, focusing hard to hear as God’s word was read aloud to us. It’s how these texts were meant to be encountered, how the authors of the New Testament assumed people would receive them: heard, not read, and all together in community.
I loved the comments afterwards – everyone sharing what stood out to them, like the sense of urgency, the concrete event-orientation, the repeated clashes with the demonic, the ratcheting up of conflict with the authorities, and the very abrupt ending. Those things are all key to Mark’s strategy for bringing across the good news of Jesus, but we don’t tend to notice them if the only way we encounter the Bible is as brief excerpts served up when we come to church. If you ever want to have a relationship with Scripture that will make a difference in your life, you have to take in more than snippets.
We ate using placemats with a visual map of how the Gospel of Mark is organized; you can pick up an extra copy in the Great Hall. And since all of us using the parish Lenten guidebook will be reading Mark daily until the Triduum, I thought I’d comment quickly on what that map looks like. We can see three sections in the Gospel of Mark: the first part is in Galilee, the last part is in Jerusalem, and there’s a short entr’acte (if you will) set on the way between them.
The Galilee section is a full scale assault on the powers of sin and death, and it goes at breakneck speed: healing, healing, calling disciples, quick teachings, healing, calming a storm, casting out demons, healing, feeding 5000, healing – it just doesn’t stop, and it’s punctuated over and over by people’s reactions: fear, terror, amazement, and the mounting question: Who IS this? What is going on here?
In the brief middle section, the entr’acte, there are three conversations between Jesus and his disciples about who he is and what’s going on here, and they do not at all like (or even understand) his answers. He tells them over and over, because they cannot hear it and cannot grasp it (just like most of us can’t most of the time) that what they have assumed about God’s plan is wrong, and that what Jesus brings is not the kind of religion the world wants, but the kind God wants.
From there on, we move to the inevitable confrontation between what the world expects God to be like, and what Jesus knows God is like. Conflict mounts as people see Jesus’ refusal to pander to human assumptions; the authorities decide that Jesus is dangerous and has to be killed; and we move to the story of Jesus’ execution – roughly 40% of the book – and a brief resurrection account. Eight chapters for three years of ministry in act one, then two chapters for the face-facts entr’acte, and then act three, six chapters given to that one fateful, conflictual week in Jerusalem.
So where is our Gospel reading from today on that map? Well, it’s part of that face-facts entr’acte. It’s the very first conversation where Jesus begins to say, “look, I know some things you don’t about God and how God works, and you need to listen because this is not going to be what people expect.” The text says, “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man [one of Jesus’ terms for himself] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”
Now if that sentence describes the kind of person you want to be seen in public following, or whose startup you hope you get to work for, you are the exception to most human beings on earth. People in general prefer our enterprises to be successful, we want to be well thought of by key players, we want to point to how we have worked hard to establish security and prosperity. Jesus says, for the first of three times, that this isn’t how it works when God is involved. We have to let God take the responsibility, and accept that he chooses to work through humiliation and failure and death.
Well… I mean… it just feels obvious that that can’t be right, both to us and to the disciples. There’ve been all these healings, all these miracles, all this talk of a new kingdom being at hand. It’s been thrilling to be involved with. The disciples have had an in-service training. They’re doing their best. They can make it work. Right? So Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to talk some sense into him. “Rebuke” is the word Mark uses. (You talk to him, Peter! He trusts you!)
We don’t know what Peter said, exactly – it could be anything from telling Jesus to go get some rest and have a good meal and see if his mood improved, to promising that Peter and the other disciples would get out there as an advance team and do the legwork to win adherents in Jerusalem, to saying that if Jesus thought he was in physical danger nobody would blame him for hiding himself until things calmed down. Whatever Peter said, I’m sure it was sensible advice.
We don’t know what Peter’s advice was, but we do know what Jesus called it: pure evil. If you have somewhere picked up the notion that Jesus is always nice and universally accepting of everything, you can correct that this morning. What does he say here to one of his closest friends? “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” You’re thinking like human beings think. You’ve got to start thinking like God thinks. A struggle for Peter, a struggle for the disciples, a struggle for you and me and every church that has ever existed. God has his ways of doing things; they’re set forth in Scripture and they show up throughout church history, but they don’t seem plausible to us, so we prefer our own.
Jesus keeps trying to teach what God’s ways are like as the text goes on: “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.’” Now there may have been some period in human history where self-denial was a popular and plausible call. There may have been a time where deliberately cutting across the grain of what you prefer and think and get positive reinforcement for seemed like a great idea to many people. Maybe there was a time like that. The era we’re in isn’t it. We are surrounded with counsel to do the exact opposite, and if you want to see a lot of contemporary St. Peters taking Jesus aside over this teaching and beginning to rebuke him, you can find it in the spirituality section of any bookstore in 5 minutes.
Jesus goes on, “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.” Again, it’s the opposite of what human beings expect. The way to save your life, as far as we can see, is to hold it as tightly as you can: make your own way, discover more and more about you, express yourself, construct a personal identity. But Jesus is saying: that’s not how it works. The more you conceive of your life in terms of yourself, the less you can experience the fulness of life as God meant it to be – because, after all, then you already have a god, and there is no room for the real One to do his job.
If you are sole owner and vision-caster of your personal life enterprise, all a god could do is serve as your consultant, and the God of the Bible does not come that way. He’s God, or nothing. He owns you, or you own you. Jesus’ claim is that as you renounce ownership of yourself and admit that God is God, that is the beginning of true life -- and this is true even when, as it did for him, the road you walk leads through suffering. God is still trustworthy even then. Perhaps especially then.
Follow Jesus, deny yourself. Never popular counsel, in New Testament times or in our own. But once you get it, once you’ve had all your arguments with Jesus about it like the disciples did – it may take you twenty years, but once you start accepting that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, it’s powerful, powerful counsel. The power of that counsel to contemporary people who’ve been raised on the opposite – well, whatever you make of the phenomenon of this Canadian academic and clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who has recently rocketed into the public eye and is #1 on Amazon nonfiction right now, that power has to be at least part of it. I know he’s controversial, but I mean, basically he says “deny yourself” and gets 9 million YouTube views.
So after today’s passage, the Gospel of Mark has two more arguments between the disciples and Jesus about how God does things, all crammed into this small entr’acte before Jesus goes to Jerusalem and embodies how God does things. Two more times when the disciples are told straight up by Jesus that the God he reveals does not serve as our consultant or merely send us comforting thoughts and prayers, but comes in person to take over. To his mightiest work almost in spite of us, right in the middle of the very worst life brings, if we will only admit he is God. Right there, the deepest degradation and the most senseless suffering, is where God enters in through the Cross of Jesus Christ to work a transformation the human race could never make happen ourselves.
We’re free to argue with him about that strategy, just like Peter does today, and try to get him to be the kind of God we prefer. We can try our best to make Jesus change his mind, but he’s already decided. He’s going to the Cross, and whether we like it or not, he’s doing it for us.