So. Mark’s Gospel is only 16 chapters. It is the shortest of the Gospels and here at the end of chapter 8, we are hitting a huge turning point in the picture that the author of Mark is painting for their audience. Jesus has performed some miracles, he has taught a bunch, he has been healing a lot, crossing cultural boundaries and continually aligning himself with not the powerful, but the lowly. His disciples, so far, have just been along for the ride.
After all that they have seen and done with Jesus, he now turns to them and asks, “who am I?” “who do others say that I am?” “Now who do you say that I am?”
It definitely feels like a test… and they have the answers ready.
You kind of get this sense that it's school and the teacher is asking “what does 2+2 equal?” When you are young, you know the answer is 4 because you have been told the answer is 4. But you don't really get it until you get out the little cubes, or M&Ms and count them out one by one.
The disciples know the answer, but they don’t quite understand it yet.
Jesus at last gets to his point. He tells them of what is to come. “I’m going to undergo suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again.” You can almost see their faces… like I imagine it would be like something you would see in a cartoon. Where they are just standing there with their mouths open and like their cartoon eyes are just blinking with incomprehension at what Jesus just said.
First of all, who says that? Who makes this kind of declaration? Second, they are intending to follow him for years. To learn at his side, to learn what it means to be like their teacher. And so far, it's been a good ride, all that healing and teaching and feeding thousands of people. So all of a sudden, Jesus is like, “yo, there's going to be a lot of suffering, I will be tortured and killed, now follow me. Ok? Got it guys?”
It’s not easy to hear. It wasn’t easy for the disciples, and it’s not easy for us. This isn’t one of the gospel stories where we feel resolved, there’s a happy ending, and Jesus did something good today. Yay. He is buckling down. Getting serious on us. On the disciples.
And Peter pulls him aside and is like, “uh no, Jesus, uh we don’t get it. You are saying some scary things and it's worrying us.” Because how do you hear this? Imagine the time and energy they have put into this ministry. Imagine the fellowship and love they have shared together during their journey. Imagine how their lives have already been transformed by sharing in the work that Jesus has done so far. This pronouncement of Jesus is nothing short of alarming and crazy to them.
And they don’t get it yet. How could they? They don’t have the information that we do. They haven’t read the end of the story. Spoiler alert, Jesus is the son of God who is about to do the most epic and excruciatingly painful and heroic thing ever. And change the world forever. Jesus saves. But he’s not quite to teaching them that part of the story yet.
He’s still trying to get across to them the importance of what he has been doing during his life. This part is sometimes overlooked in the grand scheme of the story. We like to focus on the saving part, the resurrection, the eternal life and forgiveness of sins. Separating out the other 14 chapters of this gospel.
But if we only do this we would be selling Jesus short. And selling us short in our mission as a church.
Now this statement, “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
Let’s be clear what this “take up the cross and follow me” statement does NOT mean. Jesus is in no way endorsing suffering. He is not a fan of the grin and bear it mentality. Taking up the cross does not mean that if you are faced with structures of violence and oppression, personal attacks, and violences to the psyche that you just have to endure to be a good christian, as this passage has so often been widely abused to endorse. Jesus is not in favor of these things, let's remember that he has redefined the hierarchy of social justice, healed many, fed many, and frankly has done his best to remove these sufferings from the world and boldly asked others to follow in his wake.
He is saying what it takes to follow Christ is to be selfless and humble. To stand up for those that he has already been standing up for. To take care of others and serve the poor, the orphan and the widow. And it's not always going to be an easy road. But that is the road we are called to to follow Christ.
A fellow seminary classmate of mine, Pastor Lenny Duncan, who is the author of Dear Church: A Love Letter From A Black Preacher To The Whitest Denomination In The US, said in class one day, “I’m sorry that God called you at a time like this…. But he did.”
At a time like this. At a time that feels like no other time in our lives. A time when we fear the very air we breathe. A time when leaving our houses can seem frightening. Where going to the grocery store or even to church can feel like a tall order.
“I’m sorry God called you at a time like this… but he did.” Taking up the profound nature of the cross and following Jesus isn’t easy, and it most certainly isn’t simple.
But we are called. We are called to give our lives to the gospel. The whole gospel. Not just the happy ending, but all the hard work it takes to get there. We each have our own vocational callings as members of the body of Christ. Some to heal. Some to teach. Some to raise children. Some to be activists. Some to be caretakers. Some to help manage money. Some to fix the building. And I could keep going on.
But now I want to give you a chance to say what this calling to be humble and shoulder the cross of discipleship and serve as we are called means to you.
So what does this calling mean to you? What does it mean to you to be a follower of the gospel at a time like this? What does it mean for us as a community to be called?
Unlike Pastor Lenny, I am not sorry that we are called a time like this. Because as I look around this room, I am filled with hope. There is so much we can do together. That we ARE doing at a time like this.
We are powered by the Holy Spirit and filled with the promise of the gospel, and with these gifts, and we are equipped to do good works together. This gospel charge to some seems like a burden, or an obligation, but it is an opportunity. Giving your life to the Gospel is a gift. It's a calling, it's an honor that is bestowed upon us. It also comes with responsibility.
Responsibility not to waste this opportunity that we have been given to serve God. This opportunity to bring a little light into this world.
Giving your life to the Gospel doesn’t have to be scary. It’s not a test that we either pass or fail, because it isn’t a burden and isn’t a test at all. There is no one right way to serve God.
But rather many opportunities to love, opportunities shine another light in this world that can feel so dark sometimes. Many opportunities to praise God and to get another step closer to the actualization of God’s kingdom on earth. So lose yourself in the Gospel. Amen.