By Peter Beck

Mark 8.31-38

I like Mark’s gospel. There’s no mucking about in Mark. He gets straight to the point in the very first verse of his book: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. And that’s it. There are no mangers, shepherds and heavenly choirs, no wise men bringing gifts! For Mark it all begins with Jesus baptism by John. This moment by the Jordan river, when Jesus is called to ministry, his divinity affirmed by the Holy Spirit and God the Father, is Mark’s birth narrative.. For Mark, Jesus baptism by the Holy Spirit, this proof of his divine nature, is the moment of birth.

And then the journey begins with a hiss and a roar! The spirit, Mark tells us, immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. Immediately! In Mark’s Gospel alone, the word “immediately” appears 27 times—three times more often than in the rest of the New Testament and seven times more often than in the entire Old Testament. It is as if Mark’s style of writing is a sermon in itself: what it tells us is that just as the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection moves at a breakneck pace, so too does the life of the baptized, the followers of Jesus, us! The work is urgent!  Mark gives us just the details we need, and the result is a fast-paced, streamlined account of who Jesus is, what Jesus does, and how people respond.

In the couple of verses before our gospel passage today Jesus asks the disciples ‘who do you think that I am?’. It is Peter who responds ‘you are the Messiah’. Wow.  Peter along with the other disciples has had nearly three years with this extraordinary charismatic young man. They’ve been entranced by the message Jesus has given of God, the god of love, the god who forgives and heals. They have listened to his words and parables, seen his miraculous works of healing and feeding people. And it is Peter who declares the conviction of his heart and says, ‘you are the Messiah’. In Matthews Gospel this is the point at which Jesus renames Simon as Peter, or Petros, the rock on which the church will be founded and built. Knowing Peter as we do, I suspect he felt pretty flattered and self-satisfied with such a recognition. Well done Peter!

But oh dear, not so well done Peter! Today’s gospel is the next scene in the drama. It is a point in Mark’s gospel where he begins a series of predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death in his own particular style of brevity and immediacy. So we hear ‘Jesus 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’.

At this point Peter clearly believes that Jesus is off his rocker and he rebukes him. This simply will not do. No one had ever spoken of the Messiah as having to suffer. After all, the word Messiah, Anointed, is a triumphant word. Peter and the disciples saw the Messiah as something very different – an invincible war hero who would lead the Jewish people to freedom, with force and violence if necessary and redeem them from their own vulnerability.

Aren’t we all like Peter in our own way? Wouldn’t we like a Messiah who will save us from the cruel, harsh world that surrounds us, miraculously get rid of Putin and his cronies and all those who we see as getting in the way of a peaceful and healthy world as we envisage it? A tame Messiah that will come when we call and keep the bad things at bay? But of course, what we see as the causes of the world’s misery and who is responsible for it inevitably reflects our perception and bias. What is truth? The truth is that such a perception of how to right the wrongs of the world, is just plain wrong.

Peter gets a sharp and very strong response from Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus demands. From praising and commissioning Peter to be the leader of the future Church, Jesus roundly rebukes him. He and the disciples just don’t get it! Maybe he remembers his forty days in the wilderness, Satan tempting him with power. Look, if you align with me all these kingdoms will be yours. Just say the word. Forget the one who is pulling you to himself, always to himself, forget your father. “Get behind me, Satan!” he cries out again as he did in the wilderness, directly to Peter, reversing what he had told him in their previous encounter. Now his meaning is just as clear: “Peter, you are thinking of all this in human terms. You are thinking of human power and armies and wealth, and even of violence. But the ways of God are different. He says “ If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their 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.’

And I ask myself, ‘Do I want to follow him?’ It will not be easy. I am not promised power or wealth or importance. I will recognize that God is the centre of my existence, not me, not myself.

“Take up your cross,” he tells them, he tells us, “and follow me.” Those early believers who listened to Mark’s story knew only too well what taking up your cross means. Crucifixion. They knew the reality of Roman cruelty.

They quickly learned what we are invited to learn every day. The life we are called to live as Christ-followers is filled with paradox. We gain by losing. We are saved by dying to self. The first become last. The last, the despised, become first. This is no happiness gospel. This is no prosperity gospel. We are not called to make millions while others go hungry. We are not called to live in mansions when others have nowhere to lay their heads.

The gospel of Christ is not casual. It is not reserved for those who say the right words while their lives speak of prestige and power.

It may not seem that way in this unequal and unjust society of ours. In times of distress, we ask: “Where is Godin all this? Where is Love?’ And then we remember Gethsemane and Christ’s tears and sweat, and his passion. Yet, he did pick up his own cross and obeyed. Taking up our cross means recognizing Christ crucified in the suffering world around us, and then recalling that true discipleship is paved by the way of our own cross.

But walking the way of the cross and proclaiming Christ crucified isn’t the end of the story. No, it’s just the beginning! The story continues on, through the resurrection at Easter, and to this very moment! In Marks’ Gospel he tells us the story of our redemption in the life and Ministry of Jesus. His relationships and stories, parables and healings, the expressions of his love he shows that his love does not use force to take people from the predicament of violence. We read all that we know of the nature and purpose of God’s love as we journey with Jesus through Lent. We make it our own. We will go through to the passion, the crucifixion where God in Jesus takes upon himself the whole world’s experience of violence evil and death out of love.

And then we journey on to Easter Day that cataclysmic event, the one which once and for all shows to us that God defeats evil and death and inaugurates the final chapter in our history, living out for ever all that is made known in Jesus’ life death and resurrection. This is the truth – all that separates and injures and destroys is and will be overcome by all that unites and heals and creates. This is the truth at the heart of our faith, that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate.

We cannot know the fullness of Christ’s resurrection unless we are willing to know Christ crucified. The Great Fifty Days of Easter find their meaning only after the solemn forty days of Lent. Easter morning finds its consummation only through Good Friday.

And so, as we continue our journey through this holy season of Lent, may we walk alongside one another, bearing our crosses and proclaiming the faith of Christ crucified—the faith of militant love. Of subversive grace. And of radical mercy. And may our hearts be filled with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection!




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