The Second Sunday of Lent
Reading: Mark 8:31-38
Last week, we looked at St Peter’s first letter. At first, it might seem as if there is little connection between what we read then and this week’s reading from St Mark’s Gospel. In fact, there is more of a connection than there might at first appear. At the end of the letter, St Peter writes:
‘Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.’ (1 Peter 5:13)
‘Babylon’ here is normally understood to be Rome, the place where St Peter is writing from. We saw that St Peter addresses his readers as ‘aliens and exiles’ (1 Peter 2:11). Babylon was, of course, where God’s people were taken into exile after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. Babylon was a symbol both of pagan power and Jewish exile.
St Peter mentions his ‘son’ Mark. Traditionally, this Mark has been taken to be the same ‘John Mark’ in the book of Acts. John Mark is described as the ‘son of Mary’, a woman whose house was a centre and meeting place for the first believers. It was here that St Peter went when the angel freed him from prison after Herod had had him arrested (Acts 12:12). Mark was St Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10) and accompanied both St Barnabas and St Paul on what is commonly known as St Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:5).
Mark, however, abandoned St Barnabas and St Paul and returned to Jerusalem (Acts13:13). Precisely why, we do not know. My own feeling is that it was because Mark saw the direction that things were going. St Paul was beginning to speak directly to the Gentiles, and, perhaps, Mark wasn’t too sure about it. Many of the Jerusalem believers weren’t at this point.
After the Jerusalem Council, in about AD 48, had given its blessing to the Gentile mission, St Barnabas wanted Mark to accompany him and St Paul as they returned to visit the churches they had established previously, but St Paul would not agree. This resulted in a split between the two friends and colleagues (Acts 15:36-41).
St Barnabas took Mark and went to Cyprus, while St Paul took Silvanus and went to Syria and Cilicia. Interestingly, both Silvanus and Mark are with St Peter when St Peter writes 1 Peter. We sometimes forget that these are all people who know one another!
It is this John Mark who, traditionally, has been seen as the author of the Gospel of Mark. We can’t be certain because Mark was a common name. However, it does make sense and seems likely. It means that St Mark was there at the beginning and would have known people who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry and, indeed, he may even have been one himself. Some think that the young man who flees naked when Jesus is arrested is a reference by St Mark to himself (Mark 14:51-52).
St Mark’s Gospel itself is the shortest of the four Gospels. This is not the time to discuss the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but clearly there is one. It is for this reason that the first three Gospels are known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’. Today, most scholars think that Mark was the first to be written. Traditionally, the Church has thought that St Matthew’s Gospel was the first and that St Mark wanted to give a shorter version. The statistics are interesting. 97% of St Mark’s Gospel is in Matthew. Or to put it another way, Mark contains 60% of what is in St Matthew’s Gospel.
The truth is that we don’t know what order they were written in. While scholars spend a great deal of time on this, and it is certainly interesting, I am not sure how much of it actually matters when it comes to understanding the Gospels themselves. Scholars will tell you it does, but they would, wouldn’t they? At the end of the day, God has given us four Gospels, and we should take each seriously on its own terms. It is helpful to compare the different ways the Gospel writers record our Lord’s works and words, but we must let each Gospel speak for itself.
In seeking, today, to understand our Lord’s life and teaching and its relevance to our own lives, we need to draw on all four Gospels, while respecting their own message and interests.
Whether St Mark was written before or after the other Gospels, St Mark has carefully selected stories about our Lord, and in putting them together in a coherent narrative, he focuses on suffering. Preachers do this all the time. When talking to groups of believers, we choose passages to preach on that we think will speak to them. St Mark has selected material that not only tell us about our Lord’s life, important though that is to him, but which also speak directly to the needs of his readers.
If we are right, and the Mark in St Peter’s letter and the writer of the Gospel of Mark are one and the same person, then we can see why a Gospel about our Lord that has an emphasis on our Lord’s suffering would be of particular interest and encouragement to believers who are experiencing a ‘fiery ordeal’ (1 Peter 4:12).
St Mark begins his Gospel, as we saw for the Baptism of Christ, with the ministry of John the Baptist and our Lord’s own baptism. During Epiphany, we saw how all four Gospels stress that Jesus ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11).
I cannot stress enough that when we read about our Lord’s life and teaching in the Gospels, we are reading about his ministry ‘to his own’, that is, to the Jewish people. St John is speaking for each of the Gospel writers when he says that his aim is that we should believe that Jesus is the Messiah (John 20:31). Any understanding of our Lord’s earthly ministry must begin here.
The Gospel writers faced a real challenge. A suffering Messiah was not what anyone was expecting. As we saw on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus first disciples, who were originally disciples of John the Baptist, had no difficulty in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, the King of Israel. They did, however, have massive difficulty in seeing him as the suffering Messiah. This problem is present in the background all the time in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.
Our Gospel reading this morning occurs at a pivotal point in St Mark’s Gospel. Since our Lord’s baptism, St Mark has been describing our Lord’s public ministry. Helpfully, he provides summaries of it for us. St Mark summarizes Jesus’ teaching in this way:
‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”’ (Mark 1:14-15)
St Mark also describes the style of Jesus’ preaching. He writes:
‘… he did not speak to them [that is, the crowds] except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.’ (Mark 4:34)
St Mark gives us several examples of Jesus’ parables and of how Jesus explains them to his disciples. The Parable of the Sower, for example, is a well-known one (Mark 4:1-20). Jesus tells his disciples that this parable is the key to understanding his other parables and provides a model for interpreting them (Mark 4:13).
St Mark summarizes as well how Jesus minsters to people’s needs. He writes:
‘And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. (Mark 1:34)
Again, St Mark gives several examples of Jesus healing and casting demons out of people. Jesus heals, for example, the paralytic let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12) and casts the demons out of the man known as ‘legion’ sending them into the nearby pigs (Mark 5:1-20).
On the Day of Pentecost, when St Peter speaks to the crowd who have gathered to see what is going on, St Peter describes Jesus of Nazareth as:
‘… a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know …’ (Acts 2:22)
St Mark gives some examples of these deeds, wonders, and signs. The chances are that he had heard of them from St Peter himself.
St Mark emphasizes, however, that although Jesus did all these amazing things, Jesus was somewhat ambivalent about people telling anyone about them. After Jesus has healed people, he tells them to keep quiet about it. They don’t, of course, but Jesus still persists in trying to silence them. This secrecy theme in St Mark’s Gospel is described by scholars as the ‘Messianic Secret’. Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t seem to want anyone to know that he is the Messiah. He seems to want to keep it a secret.
This is not what we would expect. Today, people would hire managers and PR consultants to promote them and their message. Jesus’ own brothers say to him:
‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (John 7:3)
St John tells us that Jesus refused to go with them, but that later, ‘after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret’ (John 7:10).
So why the secrecy? Why, on the one hand, does Jesus want people to believe in him, while, on the other, want to keep his identity secret?
Our reading this week points to the answer.
St Mark tells us that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it was called Paneas after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It was against this background that Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).
There has been much speculation as to who Jesus is, and the disciples tell him what people have been saying. Some think he is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as a prophet. ‘But who do you say that I am?’, he asks them. Peter answers him:
‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)
Jesus had himself invited this answer, and it is obviously the right one, but straightaway St Mark tells us:
‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)
St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, then, is a massively important moment.
What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship, evidence of which was all around them, and turn the pagans instead to Israel’s God.
Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’ You are the Messiah’, answers Peter. ‘You are the One to lead us against this and rid us of it’.
We have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would set Israel free. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had joined John the Baptist and become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples. And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, they were both right and wrong at the same time.
The way in which they were wrong soon becomes clear.
Immediately, after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while they are still on an emotional high, Jesus says something shocking. St Mark writes:
‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)
In other words, Jesus won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will he not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.
St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside. He wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about this by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, even if misguided, words of an over zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God.
Jesus then speaks to both his disciples and the crowd. Both those who are already his disciples and anyone in the crowd thinking of becoming his disciple need to know that suffering and death are not only at the heart of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, they are also at the heart of what it means to be one of his followers as well.
Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’. What would the phrase ‘take up their cross’ mean to anyone who heard it? It would have struck terror into their hearts. Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.
Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as a possible outcome. If they follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to willingly take up the cross and deny themselves. Their goal isn’t to be success and glory in this world. By carrying their cross, they demonstrate that they have accepted that there is to be no hope of glory and success in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.
Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, we are accepting that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.
It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world that are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who abandon seeking what they want in this life for Jesus’ sake who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:
‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38)
Humanly speaking, it was because St Peter and the early followers of Christ were not ashamed of Jesus’ words that we are here now and the movement he started didn’t just become one more ancient and forgotten religion.
In a week’s time, we will be thinking of Sts Perpetua and Felicity, two young women with babies who suffered the most brutal of deaths because they were followers of Christ. And yet they could have avoided it simply by being willing to say that they were not Christ’s followers. What do words matter? Surely Christ would have understood? Surely their children having a mother mattered to him too? The thought of denying Christ, however, was a thought that was repugnant to them. They died willingly for him: of whom the world was indeed not worthy (Hebrews 11:38).
At Caesarea Philippi, St Peter was ashamed of Jesus’ words, and he was to be ashamed of Jesus himself, so ashamed that he was to deny even knowing Jesus. But Jesus gave him, as he gives all of us, another chance.
St Peter came to realize that suffering and self-denial, rejection by this world and alienation from it, are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is not something that only applied before the crucifixion, but which has now ended with the resurrection. This is how it is to be until our Lord’s return. Last week, we saw how St Peter wrote to believers who were suffering:
‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ (1 Peter 4:12-13)
We have seen how Jesus’ death on the Cross, what Jesus refers to in St John’s Gospel as ‘his hour’, was central to all he came to do. We will be thinking more about this as we approach Easter. This week, we learn that not only is the Cross central to Jesus’ life and to what he came to do, it is to be central to our life as his followers as well. Not only is it the way we come to God, it is also to be the way we live for God. Not only are we to keep Jesus’ teaching, we are to follow his example. And we cannot follow the example of his life without sharing in his death. St Paul writes:
‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11)
For many, the resurrection is a welcome relief from all this talk of suffering and death. This message of life is what they think we should be focusing on. The resurrection, however, doesn’t free us from suffering and death in this world, rather it gives us instead the power to be able to share in Jesus’ suffering and to become like him in his death as we wait for his glory to be revealed. ‘As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death’, St Paul writes (Romans 6:3). By becoming a follower of Jesus, we identify completely with him, and his identity becomes our identity.
How, though, does this apply to our normal everyday lives? We can see what our choice should be if we were told by the authorities to deny Christ. We may not do what we should, but we would at least know what it is that we should do. What does it mean, however, for us to take up our cross and to deny ourselves on a daily basis?
Many will have heard me talking about the religion of Self that is now the dominant ideology of our age. It teaches that we should affirm rather than deny ourselves. This ideology shows itself in many ways. One of the many ways it manifests itself is in the emphasis we place on physical health and well-being. Recently over Chinese New Year, for example, we have been wishing each other good health in the year ahead. You will often hear people say that there is nothing more important than your health.
Now please do not misunderstand me, health matters and Jesus healed people both physically and psychologically. Our concern for our physical health, however, can be spiritually unhealthy. It can reflect an obsession with ourselves and a belief that this life is the life that really counts. Jesus’ teaching is that this is simply not true. The life that matters is the life of the world to come and our over-riding concern should be, not our physical well-being, but our spiritual health.
‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’ (Mark 8:36)
The affirmation of Self shows itself in the Church in our attitude to Jesus himself. Like the disciples, we have made our minds up as to what the Messiah should do for us. It is because we are the most important person to us that we assume we must be the most important person to Jesus as well. If we want something for ourselves, then surely Jesus must want it for us too.
It is inconceivable to us that Jesus would reject us, condemn us, or not want us to have something that is important to us. We have made him into the sort of Messiah we want him to be. We find it hard to accept that he can be other than we imagine him.
So, here’s the thing: the Jesus that many believe in is not Jesus, ‘my Lord and my God’ (John 20:28), but ‘Jesus my imaginary friend’. He is the One who is always there for us and who will never tell us anything we don’t want to hear. We now have the incredible irony that if Jesus himself were to come to our churches and hear what we teach and say about him, he would not believe in him.
‘Jesus our imaginary friend’, however, is not someone who can lead us through the crises of life. The disciples were so sure what the Messiah would be like that they were simply unable to contemplate any alternative, and so, when the crucial time came, their faith simply collapsed and they were scattered. The faith of many who have been encouraged to believe in the religion of ‘Jesus my imaginary friend’ will collapse in the same way as the disciples’ faith collapsed. It may not even need a crisis to bring about the collapse. After all, if our imaginary friend only tells us what we already know and want to hear, why do we need him?
Jesus is not our imaginary friend who tells us what we want to hear; he is the One who tells us what we need to hear. He tells us the truth about ourselves: that we are not wonderful; that we cannot do what we want to do if we just put our minds to it and believe in ourselves; he tells us that we are sinners, lost and without hope and without God in this world.
It is the truth that we may find difficult to hear, but it is the truth that has the power to set us free. St Peter writes:
‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.’ (1 Peter 3:18)
The Peter who couldn’t believe that Jesus could suffer came to see why he had to. St Peter stopped believing in the Jesus he wanted to believe in and started believing in the Jesus who revealed his glory on the Cross. This was the Jesus Sts Perpetua and Felicity believed in and died for. They would encourage us to believe in him too.
We ask their prayers for the courage we need to do so.