Lent 2B, 2015
Mark 8: 31-38
A Liturgy is also available
THE CHALLENGE AND THE BLESSING OF DISCIPLESHIP...
This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a tough call.
It is a call to discipleship.
And mixed in with that call are several fragments on other issues.
Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin.
Suffering and persecution.
But I guess the primary thing we hear in the story are the words:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
Now, if read out of context, and with our post-modern western ears tuned in,
this particular invitation to discipleship can be heard as
a glorification of suffering,
docility (especially by women), and
an encouragement to become a victim.
Indeed, this is the way many people in the not too distant past,
were encouraged to interpret this story.
Because such a way of life is or was an imitation of ‘Christ’
So let me state in stark audiosonic:
such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story. Period.
For now, let me tease out some stuff on just two of Mark’s issues:
Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering.
Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se.
What he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering,
persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge
to their authority, is a very real possibility.
And those who have chosen to follow in the way of the humble Galilean,
Mark’s call to them is to remain faithful to that way,
and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution.
The first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do.
We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life.
It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible.
Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away!
But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life.
It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence.
And why wouldn’t it be!
With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with
hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences,
high taxation a daily occurrence, and
families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt...
“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
“Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether. It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine” (Patterson 2002:201).
No wonder the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now,
train their children to be able to endure suffering, for it becomes
an important survival skill!
So Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God's reign on earth,
painting Jesus and his followers as having the power
to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all,
was certainly very attractive.
The cross or crucifixion, was a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution.
Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective,
a potential and unnecessary troublemaker.
And political authorities then, as many still do today,
believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats.
They would never have sung:
“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died...”
That’s 17th/18th century middle-class piety.
Neither would they have said:
“It is her cross to bear”.
“God has given him a heavy cross”.
“You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”.
The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam
and carry it out to the place of your execution,
where you would be nailed or tied to it,
and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump.
As another overseas colleague has said:
“No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering... Following Jesus (was) both blessing - the ending of much human suffering - and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus' followers” (Joanna Dewey. LookSmart Web site, 2009).
So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general.
Violence destroys life.
It is not even an installation of a symbol for the much later ‘Christian’ congregations.
That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century
and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark.
And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue.
That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind
is redeemed, God is implicated in the death of Jesus
not as fellow sufferer but as executioner (Shea 1975:179).
What it is, it seems to me, is a general exhortation to remain faithful
to the way of Jesus, in the face of persecution
and even execution, by political authorities (Joanne Dewey).
That is “the all-absorbing commitment par excellence!” (Cairns 2004:123).
The call to discipleship then, was a tough call.
Your life could depend on it.
The call to discipleship now, can also be a tough call.
For now, it is a call to be on a journey,
living with questions rather than with answers.
And where that demands honesty and candour.
It is a call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather
than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy) or what one should believe, as important.
It is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises.
And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in
radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.
Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators - even resources -
for our 21st century struggle to be disciples,
to be the church, in our time.
But in reality we will have to work it out for ourselves, together.
That’s the challenge and the blessing of discipleship.
And I reckon we can accept nothing less.
Cairns, I. J. 2004. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books.
Patterson, S. J. 2002. “Dirt, shame, and sin in the expendable company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Shea, J. 1975. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association.