“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, Devotion XVII)
We have lost the sense of community that once existed. About the same time that John Donne was writing these words in England, René Descartes’ was writing in France, “I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”[i] Which has conveniently been shorted to, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not a new idea, Aristotle put forth a similar idea in his Nicomachean Ethics. But somehow, during the Enlightenment, we reasoned ourselves out of community and into “every man for himself.” Now we have begun to think and to speak about “self actualization,” “my career path”, even “my personal relationship with Christ.” The prophets spoke of “the children of Israel” and Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of heaven.” Our vision of Jesus affects our relationship with others and our relationship with others, affects our vision of Jesus.
In today’s gospel, Jesus takes the disciples on the equivalent of a vestry retreat. They are going to the beautiful headwaters of the Jordan in Caesarea Philipi, away from the crowds that have been following them, for a chance to evaluate their ministry so far. The first question Jesus puts to the disciples is “Who do people say that I am?” Everyone had a place in society. Remember the opening song in Fiddler on the Roof, it lists all the various people in their community and the expectations of them, based on their position. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and he gets answers like Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets. Now this is major progress. If you recall the people of Nazareth reminded him he was the son of a carpenter, Mary’s son, of person of little use. Many people now view Jesus as a prophet, someone gifted with a special relationship with God and appointed as God’s spokesperson.
What about those who have been traveling with Jesus? How do those who have shared meals with him, those to whom he gave the power and authority to do all the wonderful things he has been doing, understand Jesus? Peter speaks up, “You are the Messiah.” Bingo, right? Not in Mark’s telling of the story. Jesus immediately tells them not to tell anyone. Messiah is a loaded word. Messiah means the anointed one. Peter is saying that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, a throne which is currently occupied by the hated half-blood Hasmonian, Herod Antipas, puppet of the Roman Caesar. The people had been looking for a hero, a person who would defeat the Romans, restore the line of David to the throne, and re-establish Israel as a world power. Jesus knows what images this word carries with it and he tries to educate his disciples on the reality of the title. Jesus is their prophet, priest and king, but not in the way Peter and others have imagined.
There has been much discussion and disagreement over the years about what Jesus meant when he says, “the Son of Man must suffer many things.” There is general agreement among Christians that in Jesus’ willingness to be obedient even unto death, which was fulfilled by his crucifixion on a Roman cross with the co-operation of his own people, and his subsequent resurrection three days later, Christ defeated death and opened the door for our future resurrection despite our sins. The hows and whys God chose this particular method to redeem man is part of the mirror we see through darkly. We struggle to understand why the Almighty and Everlasting God would be willing to take on mortal flesh and blood, and through the person of Jesus, allow himself to be tortured for our benefit. None of these theologies are perfect because in our limited way we must use the images available to us, the relationship between two human beings: the image of an unworthy slave being ransomed or purchased with Christ’s blood, the image of Christ’s blood as having some mystical power over evil and death, the image of Christ standing in or being a substitute for us in a legal sense to uphold justice, the image of God willingly participating in the fullness of the human experience, even at its most wretched state, to redeem even the most wretched. Jesus often alludes to the necessity to fulfill the scriptures, without giving any explanation as to why the scriptures indicate that the Messiah must suffer and die. I struggle with the idea that a merciful God would require the blood of a human to satisfy some debt of justice, or that there is a greater magic that even God must obey. I think perhaps, in some way, God understood that the only way we could understand how much God loved us was to come down and show us, and to show us that not even death was as great and powerful as God’s love. We human beings required Christ’s death before we could comprehend God’s love and God was willing to pay the price.
There is also a practical aspect to Jesus’ statement regarding his death. Perhaps, knowing the radicalness of his message, and the condition of the human heart, the inevitable outcome would be that he would be arrested and charged with treason and/or blasphemy, convicted, and killed. Many had already tried to have him arrested. Jesus’ parable about the tenants in the vineyard who kill the owner’s son allude to this knowledge.
The Good News is that God is not going to require us to take a theology exam. Faith does not require perfect understanding, but a willingness to follow.
Peter was having trouble hearing any Good News in what Jesus was telling them. He pulls Jesus aside and “rebukes” him for his statements. Now this is the same word that is used to describe what Jesus did to the “evil spirits” that were tormenting the demon possessed. Peter appears to think Jesus has lost his mind and Peter is trying to bring him to his senses. For just a moment, Peter has decided to relieve Jesus of command and assume that position himself, daring to give orders to Jesus. How often do we tell God, “now God, this is what I want you to do.”
Jesus doesn’t hesitate to turn the tables, rebuking Peter, and making sure everyone is listening when he does it. “Get behind me Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!” Isn’t that where we are most of the time? When we set our sights on human desires and passions, we become an adversary (that is what the word Satan means) to Jesus and his plan to bring about the kingdom of God.
We have domesticated the concept of the cross until it has little or no meaning for us anymore. We make delicate little cross and hang around our neck and stick in our ears. We make big gaudy crosses and call them bling, glue them to purses and flip flops, tack them up on the wall, and tattoo them in the strangest of places. It is art. The people to whom Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” knew the cross to be one of the most horrifying means of torture and execution saved for enemies of the state and disobedient slaves. There was nothing pretty about it.
Jesus was not talking about putting up with a disagreeable neighbor, a bad back, or any other perceived inconvenience when he said “take up your cross”. Jesus intended that we should continue doing the same things that he had been doing: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, socializing with all persons including the outcasts of society, casting out demons, speaking out when we see injustice and hypocrisy, loving others enough to die for them if necessary. He also knew that this was a dangerous way to live. Many people who have embraced this lifestyle have died prematurely as a result.
Jesus also knew, that to do anything else was to be among the walking dead. I think it is interesting that two of the first words most people learn are “No!” and “Mine!” They are words that separate us from the collective and help us recognize ourselves as being separate and different from our environment. They are also words of isolation, which keep us out of the kingdom of God.
Mark writes his Gospel, 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus’ passion has done nothing to expel the Romans from Israel, in fact, they are on the verge of a great war with Rome that will leave Jerusalem in ruins, yet Mark declares that his story is Good News. He is telling them Christ knows and understands your suffering, and the final victory has already been won despite what it might look like today.
Today we struggle with the rising cost of fuel, food, and medical care. Addictions and mental health issues plague millions. Political unrest both at home and abroad leave us confused, frightened, or disgusted. Christ calls us to continue in the path that he illustrated so long ago, a path that requires us to be in community with our neighbors. He knows the way will be difficult. He also knows the joy will outweigh the cost and that the war has already been won, we are just going through the pains of reconstruction.