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Mark 831-38 Upsidedown Kingdom Common Sense

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Mark 8:31-38
This text is part of Mark's carefully crafted mid-section, Jesus' movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, with sustained emphasis on teaching the way of discipleship that leads to God's kingdom. Three times Jesus announces his coming passion and resurrection: in 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33.
In order to grasp the content of this crucial carefully crafted section, Mark 8:27-10:52, observe the following pattern:

Passion-Resurrection Announcement Disciples Don't Understand Teaching On Discipleship
8:31 8:32-33 8:34-38
9:31 9:32-34 9:35-50
10:32-34 10:35-41 10:38:45

Each of these three cycles follows the same sequential pattern, and each is connected to Mark's use of way (hodos), which here in Mark is the way that leads to Jesus' suffering and death. The phrase, "whoever will come after me (opiso mou)" in 8:34 connects the teaching and the cycle as a whole back to 8:27 where the section introduces Jesus as going "on the way" (en te hodo). In the center of the second cycle (9:33-34), the phrase occurs twice. The third cycle begins with the phrase, "As Jesus was going on the way (en te hodo)" (10:32; cf. 10:46, 52).

Of the numerous explanations for this distinctive use of hodos, two emphases are crucially important. First, as Joel Marcus puts it: "The way is the way that the Lord leads; the disciples follow. The hodos of the journey section is not a "human way to the Basileia but rather ... God's way, which is his Basileia, his own extension of kingly power."1 Second, as Jesus leads (or makes) the way he teaches discipleship with sustained effort to assist his followers to also walk the way that he leads. The way (hodos), the symbolic frame for the section, embraces both the theological and ethical emphases. Here I disagree with Joel Marcus who stresses the former and denies the second.2 That hodos teaching on discipleship within the context of Jesus' Christological disclosure is both evident and striking. This does not mitigate Marcus' emphasis that the "journey" is not a human way to the Kingdom, but an extension of God's kingly power. Rather it joins together this important point with the intentional structural design of the section: the linking of Christology with discipleship. Neither pole of this relationship is to be glossed over for the sake of the other. Jesus therefore teaches the necessity (dei) of the Son of Humanity to suffer, for it is in Jerusalem, the destination of the journey, that this will take place (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34).

In 8:31 Jesus begins to teach "that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." Mark takes great care in the arrangement of the truth that he seeks to communicate because this truth is so precious and so central to the whole Gospel.
Immediately after Jesus' three announcements of his passion, the text indicates that the disciples do not understand what Jesus was talking about. As soon as Peter announces Jesus as Messiah, Jesus begins to teach what Messiahship means. But Peter was not ready for it; nor were the other disciples. Immediately after Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiahship, Jesus begins to present another view of Messiahship.

In 8:32, Peter rebukes Jesus! Peter knows what messiahs should do. Messiahs rule! They don't die! Even prior to this the first announcement, note that in 8:30 Jesus reprimands (rebukes, same epitimao that occurs in next verses), thus strongly sealing this Christological disclosure. Certainly this is a high point of the narrative as a whole and the denouement of the secrecy emphasis so distinctive to Mark. This command not to tell anyone that Jesus is Messiah raises the question, why?

But Peter is wrong and Jesus severely rebukes him. Jesus turns to Peter and says, "What you are saying is of satanic origin. It is not of God. Get behind me." This extends an earlier emphasis in Mark, from 3:20-27, where in the controversy over Jesus' source of power-whether Jesus is doing his work by God's power or Satan's-Mark makes clear that Jesus' exorcisms and miracles are God's work through Jesus, not Satan's power. In light of that earlier controversy, where all failed to understand Jesus, the cruciality of the Peters'--and the disciples'-- failure to understand here raises the stakes. On which side will the disciples be on, when it comes to the ultimate crisis? In 8:34 the new value-orientation becomes clears, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…. For what will it profit them, to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?" The answer to the disciples' grasp for political power is the way of the cross. This is Jesus' way (10:45 and the passion narrative).

As disciples we are not called to atone for the sins of the world through death on a cross. But we are called to participate in Jesus self-sacrificial paradigm in which we reject domination patterns and take up servant roles. I suggest this model of thinking and living is our assurance in judgment: "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." (v. 38). Indeed, Peter later denied; he was ashamed of a 'powerless' Jesus headed for criminal death. But thanks to God's power, the resurrection, and outpouring of the Spirit on Peter, he became a fearless witness to Jesus' new way of life (so 1 Peter 2:21-24!).

1 The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 33.
2 Ibid., 33-36.

Willard M. Swartley

March 12, 2006 - Second Sunday in Lent - Year B [RCL]

by the Rev. Suzanne Metz

 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

In Yann Martel’s wonderful novel Life of Pi, twelve-year-old Pi decides to explore a number of different religions in his native India. He has a rather remarkable reflection on a conversation he had with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin, about the crucifixion. Pi thinks to himself:

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers …. . But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified -- and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar (His Son) die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”

Pi sounds a little bit like Peter here. We might wonder what Jesus would have said to Pi if Pi had been having this conversation with Jesus in today’s Gospel instead of with Father Martin. We might wonder if Jesus would have responded the same way to Pi as he did to Peter, because actually neither Pi nor Peter can quite believe that suffering, rejection, and death could possibly be a part of Jesus’ life story. Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter actually said -- only that Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” But Jesus’ response is startling. “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s a little rough, don’t you think?  We might actually feel for Peter. It can’t have been easy to hear your leader say he was going to suffer and die. “Surely not!” Peter might say. “What kind of god would suffer and die for humans?” we hear Pi say. Love was Father Martin’s answer.

What Peter’s response was after Jesus rebuked him, Mark doesn’t tell us. But we do know that Peter had already acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah in the beginning of this very same chapter. Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the absolutely correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Now, just a few verses later, Jesus tells his followers again, and more openly, that he will suffer and die, but for the first time he explains why.

Here Jesus uses the image of the cross. Of course, the people in Jesus’ time would understand the reference to the “cross” that was used by the Romans for executions. We often refer to the “cross” as something we personally carry in life -- sickness, for instance, or a difficulty of some kind, or a personal problem. While these understandings are valid enough, this isn’t what Jesus is talking about here.

What he’s talking about is discipleship. Jesus lays out the cost of discipleship here. This “cross” Jesus talks about is what sets apart those who want to be his followers from that part of the world that focuses only on vainglory, selfishness, oppression, and greed.

Jesus reminds us that “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.” If we’re serious, really serious about being Jesus’ disciples, then we will lose our lives. Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying here that those who want to save their life might lose it, might have to give up something rather--crucial. He’s saying lose it! He’s saying that if we’re serious, life will be different. We won’t fit into the world in the same way.

But isn’t that odd? We look around and see people we consider to be very good people, very godly people, looking very normal. They work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. They seem to fit. For the most part, we do the same. We work and play and pray and move about in society quite normally. We seem to fit. There certainly are still those who physically lose, or are in danger of losing, their lives for the sake of the gospel: people like Oscar Romero, missionaries in the Middle East, people who work with the poor in Latin America or Africa or even the United States. Many of us, however, can’t imagine that ever happening to us. Are we in danger of having the son of man be ashamed of us when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy Spirit? Does Jesus have nothing to say to us in this part of Mark’s Gospel?

Of course he does. This image of losing our lives isn’t only physical. When Scripture speaks about “the world” in this way, it means the world’s way of operating -- the system, not the planet. It’s not speaking of the created stuff of the world, that wonderful gift of earthly beauty, but the way we deal with it and with each other -- kosmos meaning “orderly arrangement” or “system.” Jesus challenges us to consider where that kosmos came from. God didn’t set up our political or economic or social systems; we did. God didn’t tell us to look at other people as markets or competitors or enemies; we did that ourselves. What Jesus challenges us to do is to lose that way of thinking -- die to it -- and take on God’s order, God’s way, God’s kingdom. This is what the kingdom of God means: the operating system of heaven, not of this world. Then the planet becomes our trust from God, other people become our brothers and sisters, and our goal becomes fostering God’s way of operating rather than this world’s, rather than business as usual.

Jesus was crucified because the religious and political and social establishments -- Jewish and Roman alike -- found him to be a threat. Jesus’ disciples can’t expect anything different, can they, if they are real disciples and not just disciples in name only? Few of us, I hope, will get hung on crosses to die. But many of us may find ourselves looked at strangely sometimes, or shut out of “the best” company, or made to feel disrespected and unwelcome, simply because our values are not the ones “everybody” -- the world -- accepts. Our business as disciples of Jesus is to follow him, not what “everybody” does, or even “the best” or “the leaders.”

Peter eventually understood discipleship and as we know, paid the ultimate cost of that discipleship. Most of us, I hope, will at least come to understand a disciple’s connection to Jesus as the young boy Pi did. He said, “I couldn’t get Jesus out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

If we are his disciples, our goal is not to get ahead but to get closer to God, not to be successful but to be faithful, not to gain this world’s approval but God’s. This eucharistic celebration of ours today claims that we are thankful for the opportunity to do just that.

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is Executive Director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and Assistant Professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.


Selected Sermons

Sermon for that Day

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 16 or 16:5-11; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38

by the Rev. Judith Carrick

The structure of Mark's Gospel, from which this week's reading comes, is like a mountain. As we go up one side, we hear about the ministry of Jesus; the miracles, the healings, the feeding of thousands, the calling of the disciples. The top of the mountain is Peter's declaration, "You are the Christ," the first time it is stated exactly who Jesus is. And then, starting today, we come down the other side of the mountain toward the cross.

Before Peter's declaration, "You are the Christ," there must have been a good deal of speculation about who Jesus was, not just among the disciples, but among ordinary folk as well. All of his activities, separately and together with his disciples, had to have attracted the attention of many. Certainly we know the authorities took notice. Just who was this man, Jesus?

Of course, finding out exactly who Jesus was brought the disciples more than even they had bargained for. When Jesus told them that he was to be rejected, abused, and even murdered, Peter, perhaps fearing for his own life, rebuked Jesus. In his humanness, Peter could not imagine such a thing happening to a messiah. Perhaps in his own mind he had conjured up the great and powerful things that Jesus would do when his "messiahship" took hold. Perhaps he envisioned himself standing beside Jesus, one of the messiah's trusted assistants, sharing the glory. Surely suffering was not part of Peter's dream for Jesus, nor probably for himself or any of the other disciples. Reflect for a moment on just who that rag-tag band of disciples was, and then how shocking this revelation must have been to them.

And so Jesus had to continue his teaching to his disciples and others, revealing to them the true nature of his mission on earth and, by extension, their mission as well. Just as Jesus in his healing ministry gradually opened the eyes of the blind man at Bethsaida, so he gradually revealed to his disciples and others the nature and implications of his "messiahship." He would lead, they would follow; this was not to be a partnership of equals. They must be prepared to deny themselves, to abandon any thoughts of self-centeredness. They must be prepared to take up their cross, to perhaps face martyrdom. In those days it was a common practice under the Romans to literally carry the cross-beam of your own cross to the place of execution. Not a pretty thought to contemplate. And all for the sake of spreading abroad the good news of the kingdom of God, to attain true life in the age to come. Simply put, to trust in God and obey God's will, to accept loss and injury in the cause of Christ and his Gospel, and all the while refusing to spend all one's energies on preserving and enriching one's own life in this world. To follow Christ's example, to become more like him.

Joseph Girzone's books about a character called Joshua have enjoyed great popularity in recent years. In Joshua and the City, the main character, Joshua, a type of Jesus if you will, sets out to confront the many needs and injustices that face a large city, one that is given no name, but that could be any one of a number of cities right here in the United States. He takes on a huge project of urban renewal, without the bother of endless bureaucratic snafus, and overcomes seemingly insurmountable problems like poverty, racism, and AIDS. As he lives among the people, as he walks their streets and eats in their homes, lives are touched, relationships are healed, hearts are transformed, despair is replaced by hope. As they begin to accept the challenges he lays before them, they begin to change within themselves, and, in the process, with his love and support, they become more and more like the one who teaches them. They become more like Joshua.

Of course, fiction is one thing. Certainly we know from the stories of our own faith journeys that these changes do not come about as easily or as quickly as we can turn the pages of a book. We find out as we read on in Mark that even the disciples, in their humanity, had some difficulty in following Jesus to the cross. Some fell asleep when Jesus went to pray. Peter openly denied Jesus after his arrest, and some of the others went into hiding until after the resurrection and they had the opportunity to see him and be with him again. But ultimately they were changed, they went out and preached everywhere, doing the work they had been commissioned to do.

We are now at the Second Sunday in Lent. Let us remind ourselves that Jesus' message was not only for his disciples and followers then, but it continues to be a message for all those who would follow him. The Gospel is not simply a retelling of what happened at that time, it is intended to show people everywhere exactly what is involved and demanded whenever and wherever they recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ. But what we also need to keep in mind, the thing that makes it do-able, is that we are not alone in this. Because Jesus asks this of us, we have his promise that we will not have to do it alone. Be it our own suffering, our own trials, our own doubt, our own fears, there is nothing that Jesus has not seen, that he has not heard, nothing that would cause him to withdraw his love or his saving grace.

Consider Abraham. Each time that God called Abraham's name, he answered, "Yes Lord, here I am." Even when God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son, his trust in God never wavered. At the last minute his son was spared, and a ram was provided for the sacrifice. We cannot know the mind of Abraham. Perhaps he was confident all along that God would intervene and provide another sacrifice. But nevertheless, he never wavered, always faithful to the will of God as it was revealed to him.

And then there's a small five-year old boy whose sister had a rare and serious disease. Her only apparent chance at recovery appeared to be a transfusion from her brother, who had miraculously survived the same illness and now had the antibodies necessary to protect his sister. When the young boy was asked if he would do this, he considered it for a moment and then said, "yes," he would do it for his sister. As the transfusion progressed, he laid next to his sister, smiling. She was looking better all the time; a pink glow had returned to her cheeks. But all of a sudden, he looked up and asked, "Will I start to die right away?" This very young boy had gone into this, thinking that while he might be able to save his sister, his life might be the price: A step into the unknown for the love of another.

Thankfully, not all of us are called upon to face the life or death situations that confronted Abraham and that young boy. But we all do have to make choices all the time, some big, some very small, choices that reflect on our own discipleship, that each and all together give a telling picture of our commitment to Jesus. None of us can know what lies before us, or what will be asked of us in the days and even years ahead. What Jesus asks of each of us is that we follow him through our days, that we keep our eyes on the One who endured everything for us; that wherever life's path takes us, we let his love and his light be our guide.

How trusting and faithful are you? Can you do better? Let us try during this Lent to be the disciples Christ calls us to be, disciples who truly follow Jesus to the cross. Then truly nothing in this life can touch us for, as St. Paul says, "Whatever may happen, in Christ we prevail. Neither death nor life, neither things present nor things yet to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord." Thanks be to God! AMEN.

The Rev. Judith Carrick is a vocational deacon serving in the Diocese of Long Island under the Rt. Rev. Orris G. Walker, Jr. Ordained in 1995, Deacon Carrick currently serves at St. Anselm's in Shoreham, NY. E-mail:


Uncommon Sense (Mark 8:27-38)

by Joel Marcus

Joel Marcus is professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Boston University School of Theology. His book Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, in the Anchor Bible Series, is available from Doubleday. This article appeared in The Christian Century, Auust 30-Sept. 6, 2000, p. 860. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Often Jesus’ words seem perversely contrary to sense. Take, for example, his central bit of advice in our Gospel passage for today: "If anyone wants to follow after me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will destroy it; but whoever will destroy his life for my sake and that of the good news will save it" (Mark 8:34-35, my translation). The New Revised Standard Version, out of a commendable desire to be gender-inclusive, transposes Jesus’ singular formulations into the plural ("If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves," etc.). But this paraphrase loses the original’s sense of immediacy, of personal address -- the impression that each and every individual is confronted by Jesus’ call and must say either yea or nay to it.

But what does this call urge its hearers to do? To die, or at least to be willing to do so. And why should anyone want to die? How can dying be the way to find life? Jesus’ advice seems to turn common sense on its head.

And yet, as often happens, Jesus’ advice is also based on common sense -- the sort of down-to-earth, practical wisdom that is dispensed today by people like Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, and that fills the Old Testament book of Proverbs. In the seventh century BC. the Greek lyric poet Tyrtaeus wrote, "The man who risks his life in battle has the best chance of saving it; the one who flees to save it is the most likely to lose it." In other words, what is most important in the heat of battle is not to lose your head (either figuratively or literally). And it is impossible to keep a cool head if you are trying in a panicky way to steer clear of danger -- the fleeing soldier is easily shot in the back. On the other hand, intrepid soldiers sometimes miraculously survive, even when their companions are falling left and right, because they act in a purposeful and deliberate fashion that unnerves the enemy.

Jesus takes this piece of secular, military wisdom and transposes it onto a different plane. The transposition is apt, because Jesus pictures himself as a general in an army, and the present situation as one of fierce baffle -- the climactic battle, in fact, between God’s army and that of the personified power of evil in the world. From the outset of his ministry he announces that God is about to invade the world and smash Satan’s strongholds; in fact, one of the commonest nuances of evangelion, the word usually translated as "gospel, "is "good news from the battlefield." Jesus, then, calls people to follow him intrepidly into the final baffle, without looking back, without hesitating, without giving a thought to the danger that such following might pose to their lives. And he promises that those who do so will, against all expectation, find life.

But wait a second! What sort of battle is going on here? And what sort of general is Jesus? Generals don’t usually end up being crucified -- unless they’re bad generals. Yet this Jesus, this would-be Messiah, ends his life nailed to a Roman cross, dying through a mode of execution so horrific that it was considered to be appropriate only for slaves. And Christian theology has always seen this terrible, degrading death as a victory, indeed the victory by which God vanquished the power of evil once and for all.

Through that victory, the church believes, a strange vitality has been released into the world, a spirit of hope that still erupts in arenas of weakness, suffering and death. Recently a friend described to me her 20-year battle with cancer, a battle which she had thought she had won ten years ago, but which she has had to begin fighting anew in recent years. There is a difference, she says, between the battle she waged 20 years ago and the one she has waged in the past five. This time she has sensed a Presence with her, one that she identifies with the suffering Christ, who assures her that everything is going to be OK. And the hard part is that she doesn’t know exactly what "OK" means in this context -- whether it means, for example, that she’s going to live, or whether it means that she’s going to die. Despite that uncertainty, she feels she can trust this "voice" she hears when it says that everything is going to be all right.

There is a price to be paid for such assurance; it involves looking death coldly in the eye. But that is a price that we will all eventually have to pay. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes how he learned to do this amid the starvation and brutality of a Soviet prison camp:

"From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself, ‘My life is over, a little early, to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die -- now or a little later. . ."’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogator will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.

Solzhenitsyn discovered in the gulag what my friend also knows -- that there is a strength that comes from renunciation of life, a strength that triumphs even over the powers that threaten death. Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead. That is his victory, that is how he wins the final, apocalyptic battle over the power of Satan. And that event means that death will not be allowed to speak the last word over us either -- thanks be to God!

First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 14

William Loader

Pentecost 14: 14 September Mark 8:27-38

This passage is often seen as a turning point in Mark’s gospel. It signals a moment of recognition: Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. But it all goes terribly wrong. One cannot escape the message: confession of Jesus as Christ is not enough! In the same way it will not be enough for the rich man in 10:17 to kneel before Jesus. There is no shortage of successors to Peter and the rich man in history and in the present day. Attributing status to Jesus, even adoration of Jesus, can deserve the same response now as then: ‘Get behind me, Satan. Your focus is not on God’s way but human ways’.

Mark knows of Peter’s position of leadership among the disciples and his foundational role at the birth of the Church after Easter (16:7). So the passage is deliberately shocking. What was the problem? The disciples had not been faring well in 8:14-21. Mark portrays them as behaving like outsiders who cannot grasp what Jesus is saying (compare 8:16-18 with 4:10-12!). He sets in contrast to their blindness the healing of the Bethsaida blind man (8:22-26) - deliberate symbolism. So we should not really be expecting a breakthrough in our passage which immediately follows.

In 8:27-28 the disciples report current assessments of Jesus, already noted in 6:14-15. Jesus could be John the Baptist returning, or Elijah or one of the prophets. For the latter Mark probably had Deut 18:15-18 in mind which promises a prophet like Moses. Elijah was, and still is, a figure of Jewish hope (Malachi 4:5; Mark 15:35-36). Both are figures of hope and will appear with Jesus in the transfiguration story (9:2-13), where greater focus falls on Elijah and his identification with John. These assessments are not very wide of the mark. Elijah and Moses in different traditions are to accompany God’s final initiative to rescue the people. Jesus belongs here somewhere.

Peter’s assessment, ‘the Christ’, (the Anointed, anglicised Hebrew: Messiah), represented the belief, well documented in Jewish literature of the period, not least in the Dead Scrolls, and lived out as a claim by not a few in this period, that God would deliver Israel from oppression by sending a new ruler, like David. There appears to have been some diversity in the way people expected the Messiah to act, with some emphasising the military and others the miraculous. There must have been sufficient flexibility in the term for Christians to apply it to Jesus, even though he was far from the military option. It stood as an accusation against Jesus in his trial. The Barabbas figure, the companions in execution, and the charge on the cross reflect how dominant the revolutionary understanding was.

So Peter got it right in form, but got it wrong in substance. We see that when he rejects Jesus’ suggestion in 8:31 that Jesus would not be successful in the usual sense of the expectation. Jesus said he would suffer and die and then rise, like the holy ones in Daniel, from which also the term, ‘Son of Man’ is drawn where it originally symbolised the people (Daniel 7). Yes, Jesus is Messiah, but not the usual kind of Messiah which most apparently expected. 8:33 suggests that there is something more at stake than Peter’s view of messiahship: behind it is a view of God.

Failure to grasp the way of the Son of Man - and, in effect, the way of God - repeats itself twice more making a typical group of 3 occasions of which Mark is fond. The next prediction of the Son of Man suffering finds the disciples arguing who should be the greatest (9:30-37). The final one has James and John petitioning Jesus about the top jobs! We will meet them again in weeks to come (10:32-45).

Mark makes it plain. Only as the suffering Son of Man is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Messiah will be vulnerable. He is on the way to Jerusalem. His crowning will be on a cross with a crown of thorns. Mark’s portrait of Jesus subverts popular norms of greatness and power. Why does Mark portray Jesus like this? It must have something to do with history. It also has something to do with his understanding of God and his understanding of what it means to be human, to be a disciple. The latter could not be clearer, when we read 8:34-37. Losing one’s life is the way to find it! This is not abandonment of self care, but abandonment of preoccupation with building and maintaining a self at the expense of others, disempowering and impoverishing others. Mark’s hearers may well have been facing this in an acute form: weakness and failure need not be disaster.

Does it really affect our understanding of God? Or do we have one norm for Jesus and the disciples of lowly vulnerability, and another for God? Surely the main thing about God is being almighty? There are huge problems if we make God an exception, or, to put it another way, make Jesus an exception in the life of God, as if to say: ‘Normally God is not like Jesus. In Jesus vulnerability was a temporary divine ploy to win us back. In the end God is not like that.’ This would make 8:33 really difficult. The evidence suggests that, on the contrary, Mark wants us to see God like that, too: caring, vulnerability, love are the central features in Mark’s theology (of God).

8:38 employs characteristic apocalyptic language to sum up what counts in the end: confessing or denying Jesus. Tragically this (and indeed the whole passage) has been understood as a call to blind allegiance, like people swear themselves to support a sports club to the end or worse, enter totalitarian allegiances which frequently end in disaster for themselves and for others. Totalitarian allegiance to a Christ confession has often made Peters into enemies of the gospel (in the name of Christ!) and still does. Whenever our image of Jesus the king replaces the crown of thorns with a traditional crown and sceptre and replaces his cross with a throne we should beware.

But be fair to Peter. He grasped something which many have not grasped: Jesus’ agenda was political as much as it was religious. It was about liberating individuals from oppression. It was about power change in individuals and communities. It was good news for the poor, that would count as good news. Our danger today is less that we might ally with the messiahship of success and change which Peter knew and more that we ally with a notion of Jesus’ messiahship which is spiritualised into irrelevance for the world of the poor.

Philip’s Caesarea, honouring Roman might, is a good starting point for thinking about power. How do we stop the process whereby Jesus ends up becoming the chaplain to such powers? What is real gain for our community, for us as individuals? What is real gain for God?


MARK 8:31-38   When Jesus taught his disciples about his impending death,

everything he said had little or no meaning for his disciples.  Peter

rebuked him because he still did not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus

came to be.  In a sense, he was yet one more temptation in the way Jesus

had chosen.  Israel did not have any concept of a suffering Messiah. 

Their view was that of a messianic king who would achieve a military

victory over Israel's enemies and bring in a golden age of peace and

prosperity.  Even the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55) with

its prophetic and salvific mission cannot be regarded as anything like the

Messiah the New Testament authors had in mind.  That synthesis only came

to fruition in the person of Jesus.  We need to be very careful not to

impute the New Testament view of the Messiah to the works of Old Testament

prophets centuries earlier.  Rather, the NT authors appear to have

searched the OT for proof-texts to sustain their interpretation of a

suffering Messiah that ultimately had come from Jesus himself.  As John

F.A. Sawyer, of the University of Newcastle on Tyne, England, wrote in

*The Oxford Companion to the Bible* (1993): "The notion that his suffering

or self-sacrifice is in itself saving is given unique emphasis in

Christian messianism."

Peter was the putative leader of the apostolic fellowship and, for Mark's

audience, the now martyred "prince of apostles."  In rebuking Peter, Jesus

reiterated the discontinuity between his messianic role and that perceived

by his chief opponents, the Pharisees.  They were becoming the dominant

interpreters of the Jewish religious tradition at that time.  They had

developed a view with four main characteristics: a monarchic messiah of

impeccable Davidic ancestry; a messiah who would be preceded by the return

of Elijah; a messiah whose arrival would be accompanied by many signs and

wonders; and one whose prophetically announced mission would be

accomplished during his own lifetime.  In his many clashes with the

Pharisees, Jesus discounted his own fulfilment of these qualifications. 

Above all else, for the Pharisees his crucifixion would totally abrogate

any messianic role.  The majority of Jews followed them in this regard. 

Peter spoke not only for himself, but also for most people of that time.

Mark's narrative goes on to quote Jesus instructing not only the disciples

but the crowd as well about the cost of discipleship.  They must follow

him all the way to the cross and beyond.  By so saying, Jesus made it

clear that he was a different kind of Saviour.  It also communicated to

Mark's audience in Rome essentially the same message that Paul's letter

had conveyed.  The gospel proclaimed by the apostolic church revolved

around faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Such faith

not only would be costly in terms of this world's values.  Christian

discipleship required sacrificial commitment that inevitably could lead to

death.  Even worse, however, was to deny their faith, a very current issue

for the Roman community with its cult of the emperor.  That would

effectively end every hope of redemption and eternal life when Christ

returned in glory (vss. 36-39).  The issues involved in being a faithful

disciple could not have been stated more clearly.


copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006

            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.

Next week's readings: 2nd Sunday of Lent
By John Pridmore

Mark 8.31-end

OUR lectionary is tempered to our limited attention span. Our readings are fun-sized fragments. Torn from their context, these snippets of scripture often lose their force. So it is with Sunday’s Gospel, in which for the first time Jesus speaks openly of his passion. Without what’s gone before, Peter’s "confession" at Caesarea Philippi and the impact of Jesus’s prediction is diminished.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter at last wakes up to what Jesus’s strange signs and sayings mean. "You’re the Messiah!" he cries. It is the recognition Jesus has been waiting for. He can now speak of what awaits him. But it turns out that his understanding of messiahship is very different from Peter’s. Jesus accepts the title, but reinterprets the role.

Mark’s Gospel has a dramatic structure, and this — Peter’s confession leading immediately to Jesus’s stark warning — is its turning point. Alas, what Mark joins together, the lectionary rends asunder.

Jesus now begins to speak "plainly" of what previously he has only hinted: that his mission as Messiah is not to restore the Davidic monarchy, but to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Plain-speaking this may be, but puzzles remain, above all, that of the title "Son of Man".

Some years ago, a conference of Bible translators took place in Colorado Springs on "gender-related language in scripture". The conference concluded that "the phrase ‘Son of Man’ should ordinarily be preserved to retain intracanonical connections". This is an overblown way of saying that, despite the risk of "linguistic sexism", we must keep the phrase "Son of Man" because of all its resonant echoes.

"What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8.4); "I saw in the night visions and behold . . . one like unto a son of man" (Daniel 7.13); and, most hauntingly: "Son of man, can these bones live?"(Ezekiel 37.3).

The phrase "Son of Man" means many things. It can be equivalent to the personal pronoun "I". It can mean "one" in the sense of "One does so love Sandringham." It can mean "humankind". Probably it was a title of the Messiah.

Perhaps its multiplicity of meanings is the reason Jesus elects to refer to himself in this way. The title at once reveals and conceals. Jesus defers to us the interpretation of the title he chooses for himself, just as we must make what we will of the one who half-hides behind it. Jesus speaks plainly — but keeps his secret still.

Peter rejects the construction Jesus places on messiahship, and meets a stinging rebuke. "Get behind me, Satan!" The ferocity of the reproof is an indicator of the intensity of the temptation this "Son of Man" is suffering.

Jesus must "take up his cross" as, too, must Peter, when his hour comes.

Take up thy cross, the Saviour said,

If thou wouldst my disciple be;

Deny thyself, the world forsake,

And humbly follow after me.

The hymn misleads, for it turns what Jesus says on its head. It treats "taking up the cross" as a metaphor for self-denial generally. Jesus is much more specific. To deny oneself is — literally — to take up one’s cross. The criminal condemned to crucifixion must carry the beam, to which he be nailed, to the place where he will hang. This is the "cruel and unusual punishment" that the disciple may well have to face.

The text is not about giving up After-Eights for Lent. The context is that of a Christian community in which martyrdom was no metaphor. To be sure, crucifixion becomes for all time the supreme emblem of the cost of discipleship. Paul, "crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2.20), sees to that. But, for Mark and his first readers, "the way of the cross" could be a death row as real and grim as any in Texas.

Much mischief has been done at the behest of "self-denial". Feminist theologians have shown how pious talk — mostly on male lips — about self-denial as a fundamental Christian virtue has tacitly served to perpetuate the subjection of women in Church and society. Those temperamentally deferential confuse self-denial with their natural unassertiveness. (Years ago, I was scandalised when a diocesan bishop said to me: "You have to compete for the top jobs in the Church." I still wonder whether my outrage sprang from a sensitive Christian conscience or innate wimpishness.)

"Deny thyself, the world forsake" Forsake the world? Surely our hospitable Lord embraced the world? To deny oneself is to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel — and so to save it. In context, this may be Mark’s comfort for the prospective martyr. Today a cross of real wood and nails; tomorrow a crown. ("Die now — pie later"?) But those of us spared martyrdom must still make our peace with the Christian paradox that we must die to live — a topic for a Lent group and a task for a lifetime.


Mark 8:31-38


1. As last week (Lent 1B), René Girard's significant work on Satan. I passed along a condensed version of his essay on Satan in The Girard Reader. Here's another portion from the section on skandalon that refers to this week's text [Matthew's version inserts "scandal" into Mark's]:

Just before his Passion, Jesus warns his disciples that he is about to become a scandal to them. As a group, the disciples do not behave as badly as Peter but at the time of Jesus' arrest, they all scatter ingloriously and they do not reappear until after the resurrection. Whereas Peter, at least for a while, becomes an active persecutor [by denying Jesus and joining the crowd around the fire at the high priest's house], the other disciples are passive accomplices of the persecutors.

This passivity is a limited form of participation in the Passion, but it is participation nevertheless. It is fascinating that the word "scandal" would apply in this case. It truly applies to all degrees of participation in the Passion.

Scandals, we found, are permanently conflictual relationships in our individual lives. Now we see that the word also applies to the participation in the mimetic consensus against Jesus. This use is disconcerting. We tend to feel that our private rivalries, our intense conflicts, do express something genuinely personal and unique in us. The conflictual nature of scandals seems to guarantee that they are what the existentialists would call an authentic modality of human existence, that they cannot turn gregarious at the drop of a hat.

We feel this way because, as a rule, we are scandalized. Jesus is not and he feels differently. He knows that scandals are mimetic from the start and they become more so as they are exacerbated. They become more and more impersonal, anonymous, undifferentiated, and therefore interchangeable. Beyond a certain threshold of exasperation, scandals will substitute for one another, with no awareness on our part.

If we look carefully at the operation of scandals in the Gospels, we will have to conclude that they are very much the same thing as demonic and satanic possession, which is also characterized by a process of transference, as in the case of the Gerasa demons, for instance. Jesus, I believe, prefers to speak the language of scandals, whereas his disciples feel more at home in the language of Satan and his demons.

Once again, Peter is a good example. When Jesus first announces that he will suffer at the hands of the people, Peter is scandalized. His ideal is the same as ours, worldly success, and he tries to instill it into his master. He turns his own desire into a model that Jesus should imitate. This is how Satan operates, of course. Hence the famous words: "Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me." If the scandalized disciple had succeeded in mimetically transmitting his own mimetic desire to his master, he would have scandalized Jesus straight out of his divine mission.

Peter's behavior is the combined effect of his preexisting scandal, which is mimetic, and the additional mimetic push provided by the crowd.

All those who join a belligerent crowd act more or less like Peter. They all transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. As they become more numerous, the target's attractiveness as a target increases, and the process becomes irresistible.

The notion of scandal bridges the gap between individual and collective violence. The mobility of scandals, their tendency to unite around a common victim, provides a mediation, a communication between the two levels.

The violent unanimity of the Passion results from a massive transference of scandals, a snowballing so powerful that its effects become inescapable. (pp. 199-200)

For more on skandalon, see "René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon."

2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 103-106. For example:

The confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-9:1) is a classic example of "knowing but not understanding" (8:17). Through Peter the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and through Peter they refuse his definition of the role in terms of suffering and rejection (8:31-32). They represent Satan, the closed circle of violence in which Beelzebub casts out Beelzebub. They cannot conceive of any other way of controlling violence than by violence itself; for them, the Messiah cannot be weak. They have entered the heart of the secret of the kingdom, yet at this moment of deepest intimacy they are farthest removed from the truth. The irony of the outside insider is at its most acute.

In response, Jesus summons both the disciples and the crowd and teaches the way of the cross (8:34-9:1). The disciples are no longer different from the crowd; they are equally uncomprehending, and equally inclined to be ashamed of the Son of Man and his nonviolent way in this violent generation. The redefinition of the concept of the Messiah that is going on before the eyes of the reader is opaque to the participants ill the narrative. The crowd is innocently uncomprehending, the disciples mysteriously so. They are a foil to Jesus and the comprehending reader in a narrative marked by dramatic irony. (p. 103)

3. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story. See especially the comments at Epiphany 3B.

Reflections and Questions

1. In 1997 I gave a very 'Girardian' sermon with a development of the doctrine of election along with reflections on Satan: "Satan the Accuser and God the Chooser."

  • Mark 8:31-38. Following Jesus means following him to his death, and possibly our own. Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities. Peter rebukes him privately, but Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples, then turns to the crowds to declare that all who want to be his followers must take up their cross and follow him. If you're in this for yourself, you will lose everything. But if you're in this to follow Jesus and see the gospel lived, even if you die, you've gained it all.

-Mark 8:31 contains the first of many passion predictions. Others may be found in Mark 9:31, and 10:33-34.

-The question Peter answers right is, "Who is Jesus?" (8:27-30) The question Peter can't quite comprehend is, "What must Jesus do?" (8:31-33), which also leads to an inability to properly answer, "What are we to do?" (8:34-38). Steffregen

-One may know OF Jesus but not know who he is. 

-the greatest threat to Christianity is not evil, but the good. The elders, chief priests, and scribes were all very good people -- and very good people often have no need for Jesus.

-typical of first born children? He wants to be a leader, not a follower. Are we ever guilty of having such attitudes? Steffregen

-If we or Peter follow Jesus to the cross, you can be sure that we

 will be protesting all the way. Here is a path nobody wants to take, a burden no balanced person would willingly assume. Willimon

-Religion is easy, discipleship is more difficult

-We live in a pain-killer society  Wiley Stevens

-Circle the word, “must.” It is in the grand destiny of things that Jesus MUST go to Jerusalem, and suffer, be rejected, be killed and be raised from the dead. This was the divine destiny for his life. This was his primary purpose for coming to earth in the first place. sermons from Seattle

-He must be able to say with Paul that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. He lives no longer to follow his own will, but to follow the will of Christ, and in that service, he finds his perfect freedom.”  Barclay

-the word, “passion,” means suffering. By focusing on the word, “passion,” a reader can overlook Jesus’ prediction that he would be “raised from the dead.” People should not simply call this a “passion” prediction but a “passion and resurrection” prediction. To call this paragraph only a “passion prediction” is to limit the meaning of these words. Sermons from Seattle

-In the Greek language, the word is “skandalon” which means an offense, a hindrance, a stumbling block

-You don't have to look for ways to carry the cross.  Just chose love, truth and justice and suffering will come. Lindy

-A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.  M. Luther.

-There are two kinds of churches:  Visible--people gather in God's name, you can see who they are by going to church.  Invisible-- people who are God's hand and feet, only God knows who they are. Buechner

-You will not preach values to the people out there.  You will  go out there and live those values and that will be the only teaching and preaching that will take place.

-Men would rather build a temple than be one.

-Go from leave world and join church to enter world and be church

-Sometimes the power of the cross is refusing to use power

-Faith makes things possible, not easy.

-Go to any book store and you'll find lots of items pushing the warm fuzzies of the faith but little about the hard challenges of living out the Christian faith in a fallen world.

- A safe, comfortable faith that refuses to take risks can not suffer growing pains.

- In the giving is the gaining.

- Sermon outline: 

 You have something more to do Abraham and Sarah, even if you are "over the hill".

 You have something more to do, Peter!  Even if you are clueless, afraid, doubting and confused. 

 You have something more to do!  (all of us)  Something more than ritual, wearing a cross, studying

     bible verses, etc.

 - Jesolatry is just another idol.

-  The church is a work of faith, not a plan for success.-

-  The word became flesh and then through theologians it became the word again.

       K. Barth

-  Re-establishing relationship with God always carries a cross


-“It is in giving that we receive. It is in dying that we are born to a new and living hope.” St. Francis of Assisi

-Mahatma Gandhi said, "There is sufficient for the world's need but not for the world's greed."
-"Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand."   Mark Twain


1."huge fashion thing" the magazine's "Talk of-the Town" writer visited a new boutique at Macy's--improbably named

"Cross Culture." A clerk explained that "crosses are a fashion statement. This counter used to have silk starves and

evening bags. That's gone. Now we're doing trend-type crosses here .... We have one of the best selections in New York

City, but honestly, I'm a little low on crosses right now  They're flying out the door."  Christian Centry

2.The church is often compared to a ship (Nave) built

for storms, rough water, etc., not for safe harbor.

3.The church that forgets its past is like a person  with amnesia or Alzheimer -- they don't know who they are. They've lost their selves.

 Who am I? Who are we? What about me am I not willing to give up to gain the world? What about us are we unwilling to compromise

for success? Stoffregen


-Do you suffer from the "Here after syndrome?"  what am I hear after?

-We all know too well many times life is like the sign at the entrance of an African game reserve: "Advance and be bitten."  Rev. Wiley

-A few years ago, a large department store tried marketing a doll in the form of the baby Jesus. The advertisements described it as being "washable, cuddly, and unbreakable," and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. To complete the package, the manufacturer added biblical text appropriate to the baby Jesus. To the department store executives, it looked like a sure-fire winner, a real moneymaker. But they were wrong. It didn't sell. In a last-ditch effort to get rid of these dolls, one of the store managers placed a huge sign in one of the store windows. It read:

Jesus Christ
Marked down 50%
Get him while you can.

Lent--a time of self denial and self examination.

  1. Lent and Advent are both preparation times before a big event
  2.  Lent = "Lencten" meaning spring time (Old English)
  3. If sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end. (Buechner) 
  4.  Buechner suggests that during lent we ask these questions:

 1.. When you look in the mirror what do you see you most most want to deplore

 2.  Which thing you have  done would you most like to undo?

 3.  What person, or cause would  you  die for?

 4.  If this were the last day of your life, what would you do?  Answering these help  us to  see who we are and what we are becoming.

  1.  Fill communion cups with water so we can taste the “almost nothing” that is living.
  2.  Illustration Pretzel -- an ancient bakery item.  Used to be eaten only during lent.  Goes back to 5th century.  Shape is made in the form of two arms crossed in prayer.
  3.  Ash Wednesday is a kind of baptismal branding.
  4.  Lenten penance may be more effective if we fail in our resolutions than if we succeed for its purpose is not to confirm us  but to bring home to us our need for salvation.
  5.   If something is worth giving up, it should be for more than just the few weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

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