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In the first chapter of Mark, God declares Jesus to be his son, and immediately after that he is tempted in the wilderness by Satan (our text from last week). A similar pattern occurs in Mark 8. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and soon after that, Jesus is tempted by Peter as Satan.
Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) summarizes:
... Mark has structured his narrative so that he stresses that Jesus faces severe temptation at the three most crucial turning points in the narrative: (1) the beginning of the ministry; (2) at Caesarea Philippi where he is partially "unmasked" by a disciple; and (3) at the Garden of Gethsemane. In each case the nature of the temptation is to try and avoid what God wants Jesus to do and be. [p. 241]
Mark 8:22-10:52 is one of my favorite sections of scriptures.
8:22-26 -- "Healing the Blind Man" -- is both a conclusion to what has gone before and an introduction to this new section. This section ends with the "Healing of Blind Bartimaeus" (10:46-52). The two stories of Jesus healing blind men serve as nice "bookends" (or inclusio) to this section on discipleship.
The "Healing of the Blind Man" in 8:22-26 is the only miracle story that is found exclusively in the Gospel of Mark. (Unfortunately, it is not an assigned text in the lectionary.) It serves as a good illustration of what I believe is the key theme in this gospel, which is summarized by the father's cry in 9:24: "I believe. Help my unbelief." In his story of healing the first blind man, Mark suggests that there are three groups of people: (1) those who are blind, (2) those who have received one touch and see partially, and (3) those who have received the second touch and can see clearly. It seems to me that most of the characters in Mark are either type 1, those who don't believe; or type 2 people, such as the man who believes and needs help with his unbelief and Peter who is both a confessor and Satan in chapter 8. Perhaps the only one who sees clearly in Mark is the Centurion who sees Jesus die and says, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (15:39). In our text, the disciples see, but only partially.
This two-touch healing of the blind man is followed by Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30), but Peter's rebuke of Jesus in 8:32 indicates that he sees only partially.
The question Peter answers rightly 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). Our text is concerned with these two questions -- and I think that they are closely related.
In verse 31, Jesus begins to teach them. Hadn't he been teaching them all along? This verse marks a new beginning. Prior to this the emphasis has been on Jesus' authority and power. He casts out demons, heals diseases, commands the waves, etc. Now the emphasis will be on his suffering and death. Jesus' teaching also functions as a renewed call to follow.
There are four parts to what Jesus must do:
suffer many things
be rejected (after testing) by the religious leaders
after three days rise
An aspect of this which I have preached is that 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.
Although it is written as part of a commentary on chapter 7, Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) does say something very similar:
The good news involves both the transformation of the mind and the healing of the body. It also involves the leaving behind of some cherished traditions; often the greatest force of opposition to renewal is not the evils of this world but a clinging to past goods. It has been said that the good is often the worst enemy of the best, and it is so in this case. [pp. 250-1]
Often when I have talked with strangers and they discover that I'm a minister, a common line I hear is: "I know I should go to church more, but I try to keep the Ten Commandments." Why don't they go to church? I think that, in part, they don't go to church or feel a need for church, because they think that they are living pretty good lives all by themselves. They don't feel the need to receive God's grace that's given in the word and sacraments.
V. 32a is found only in Mark: "and he was speaking the word plainly." When Peter takes Jesus aside and "rebukes" him, it is not because Peter misunderstands Jesus' words, but because he does understand them, and he doesn't like them.
To quote that great theologian Mark Twain: "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."
There's a whole lot of "rebuking" (epitimao) going on. This verb is used most often of Jesus commanding evil forces: evil spirits (1:25, 3:12; 9:25) and the wind (4:39). Jesus "orders" his disciples not to tell anyone about him (8:30) and he "rebukes" Peter (8:33). (The phrase, "seeing his disciples -- note the plural -- he rebuked" is found only in Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke have Jesus "rebuking" Peter.)
Every time someone besides Jesus "rebukes," they are proven to be wrong. Peter rebukes Jesus (8:32). The disciples rebuke those who were bringing little children to Jesus (10:13). The crowd rebukes the noisy blind man (10:48). This verb seems to carry an idea of exerting power over -- something Jesus can do with evil forces and what he tries to do with his disciples. It is not something anyone should do with Jesus or with the beggars or children.
Last week we had Jesus being tempted/tested by Satan. Satan appears again this week, but in the person of Peter who seeks to prevent Jesus from doing what he must do.
Why does Peter do this? He has not "set his mind on" (phroneo) the things of God, but on human things. This verb has an emphasis on the underlying disposition or attitude. Jesus' harsh critique of Peter involves more than just the few words spoken on this occasion. Even after the clear words from Jesus, Peter still hasn't got the proper picture. He needs an "attitude adjustment". He is seeing with "human eyes" rather than through the will and eyes of God. He tells Jesus what is and what is not going to happen -- typical of first-born children? He wants to be a leader, not a follower. Are we ever guilty of having such attitudes?
Time could be spent brainstorming about the differences between our culture's (or the human) underlying disposition about life and God's. How much of our natural thinking or attitudes and criteria for success can turn us into tempters to the divine mission and ministry of God and the church? We might consider all the contrasts in the second half of our text to be centered on the distinction between God-thinking and human-thinking.
Walt Wangerin [The Book of God] novelizes this event from Peter's point of view, as follows:
He [Jesus] said, "Things are going to change now." He heaved a sigh. We all were moving with him now toward the little spring of water. He said, "I have to go to Jerusalem. When I get there, I will suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes. I'm telling you now so that you need not be surprised when it happens. It will happen."
Jesus knelt down by the spring, cold from the earth. He made a cup of his hands and scooped water. Just before he started to drink, he said, "I will be killed in Jerusalem, and on the third day be raised --"
I spoke again. I said the most natural thing there was to say.
Well, my feelings were so hurt by Jesus' words. Be killed? Was this the gloomy thing he'd been thinking about all the time?
I grabbed his wrist and shouted, "No!" The water splashed from his hands. "No, God won't allow it!" I cried.
On account of my feelings, I was gripping him with all my strength. But he started to pry my fingers from his wrist. He had terrible power in his hands.
I blustered on. Surely he knew that I was arguing out of love for him! "O Lord," I said, "this can never happen to you!"
After Jesus criticizes Peter, Wangerin emphasizes these thoughts in Peter:
"No, but I do care for the things of God! And I love you, Lord Jesus! This is so confusing. One minute I'm Peter; the next minute I'm Satan, but I didn't change! How can plain love cause such outrage in the Lord?" [pp. 706-707, italics in original]
Peter, like the blind man story I started with, sees; but he sees only a cloudy picture. He needs a second touch from Jesus. It is promised to Peter by name by the angel at the empty tomb (Mark 16:7). He will see the risen Jesus. He will then see clearly.
These words are addressed to a crowd along with the disciples.
"If anyone "wishes/wants" (thelo) . . ." (vv. 34, 35) indicates that it is a matter of the will -- perhaps related to the "inner disposition or attitude" indicated in v. 33 by phreneo.
There are three parts to wishing to follow behind Jesus:
take up one's cross
These are followed by five other sayings:
Saving one's life (8:35)
What's the benefit (8:36)
Life's Price (8:37)
Son of Man ashamed (8:38)
Some standing here (9:1)
"behind me" (opiso mou) -- I would suggest that this phrase, besides its usual reference to a physical position, might also indicate status. Jesus has to come first. Jesus is the leader. Peter, when he rebuked Jesus, was putting himself first; so Jesus tells him, "Get behind me!" Perhaps a motto for Christians should be, "We're number two."
What does it mean to deny oneself -- to say "No" to oneself? Some of us may be able to deny ourselves certain foods for a time -- so that we might look and feel better; but we aren't really denying ourselves. We are still dieting for the good of self. Can we deny our thoughts of getting good things for ourselves? or of evil for our "enemies? Can we stop our lusting after people and things? or feelings of revenge towards those who have wronged us? I'm afraid that most of us would be like Peter. Rather than denying ourselves; we would deny Jesus (the same word is used in 8:34; 14:30, 31, 72).
Denying one's self is concerned with the will -- that one's own will should not be the controlling factor in one's life.
Perhaps related to this concept is the idea of sacrifice. Although sacrifice usually means denying things rather than denying self, part of my dictionary's definition of this word is: "forgoing something valued for the sake of something having a more pressing claim." Sacrifice implies determining what things are of utmost value -- that take precedence over all the other valuable things in one's life. Should we ask, "What things of value have we given up for the sake of following Christ?" "What have we denied ourselves because we are Christians?"
A cross was an instrument of torture that eventually lead to a painful death. It was also a sign of ridicule as the criminal was forced to carry it through the town while people would laugh and hurl insults at the condemned man.
Williamson [Mark, Interpretation Commentary] writes: "The cross Jesus invites his hearers to take up refers not to the burdens life imposes from without but rather to painful, redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others." [p. 154]
Lowe and Nida in their Semantic Lexicon give this idiomatic meaning for the phrase, "take up one's cross" = "to be prepared to endure severe suffering, even to the point of death."
However, since the basic meaning of airo is to "pick up and carry," I am more inclined to see the "taking up of one's cross" to be a picture of the criminal (or an unlucky bystander, see 15:21) carrying the cross through the city, rather than the actual crucifixion. As I understand it, the act of carrying the cross was a public display of guilt which resulted in ridicule and scorn from the people. With this understanding, the phrase might be paraphrased: "be willing to publicly display your faith and suffer the consequences that such a display might evoke."
Often, our reluctance to publicly display our faith is the fear of what others might think or do to me. Rather than denying self, we seek to protect it.
Psyche is a word the ancient Greeks created to describe the difference between a dead body and a living body. It is whatever it is that gives life to a body: "breath," "spirit," "self," "personality," "soul," "life-force," etc. We might say that the psyche is what makes me, me.
Today, I would be inclined to use the word "self" for psyche in its four occurrences in vv. 35-37. How often in relationships do people really give their "selves," or do they hold back, protecting or saving their "selves"? A book from ages ago by John Powell, S.J. had the title: Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? An answer given: "I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have." So, rather than risk being hurt, we don't tell others who "I am." Trying to protect and save self from pain, we lose self. We become a non-self in our relationship with other people. We play a role -- make-believe -- rather than be our selves. In contrast to this, a few books I've read recently on family systems theory stress that "a self is more attractive than a non-self."
Note that in v. 35, the issue is not trying to save one's self/life; but wishing to save it. This leads back to the phroneo word in v. 33 -- one's inner disposition or attitude -- is it centered on self or on God?
What happens when one's wish to be a Christian is no more than another attempt to save one's self/life? Are there wrong ways to being a Christian? If one desire the benefits of the Christian faith without hearing Jesus' teaching to deny self and carry one's cross is that wrong? Is becoming/being Christian for selfish and self-centered reasons a wrong use of Christianity?
Replacing "life" with "self" in v. 36 leads to this translation: "For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and to lose one's self." What profit is it to stay in a marriage, where one's self is lost? What profit is it to succeed in business if one's one convictions are compromised? What profit is it to build the biggest church or to stay in a congregation, if one's beliefs are set aside?
An argument I've heard recently in favor of tradition in liturgy is that a 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?
At the same time I like this distinction given by Jaroslav Pelikan (The Emergence of the Cathlic Tradition 100-600)): "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living" [p. 9].
This change in 37: "What will a person give in exchange for one's self?" Easily leads to the question, "What is a self worth?" One answer is, "The death of God's son."
Verse 38 relates to the believers' relationship to the adulterous and sinful world and to Jesus and his word. Are we ashamed of being Christians in our lives in the world? Are we embarrassed to let others know about our beliefs? Are we again looking out for "self" rather than being disposed towards God and God's will?
In my previous congregation, we had a picture gallery in our church with photographs of many of our members. I don't know how many times at a wedding or at some other function in the building, someone has looked at the pictures, pointed, and said, "I didn't know they went to this church." Why didn't they know? I also wonder, "What do they now think of our congregation now that they know so-and-so belongs here?" What kind of witness has that member been making of his/her faith and of the church?
Related to this, a lady, who grew up in a non-Christian family, came to our church for a few weeks. Then she stopped. I visited with her. She had overheard one of our members, who worked at the same place, talk about going and seeing male strippers who were in town. This visitor found that very offensive. She never returned to our congregation. Members, whether they know it or not, are witnesses to their faith and their church. They may be good or bad witnesses, but they are witnesses.
Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) gives this summary of the parallel passage:
"The Christian life called for is not a reflection of, let alone the baptism and blessing of, the egocentric culture, but its polar opposite. Self-denial is not part of our culture's image of the 'good life.' But neither is the Matthean Jesus' call for denying oneself to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus' call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one's life that is not focused on self at all, either as self-esteem or self-abasement, as self-fulfillment or self-emptying." [p. 352]
I think that Mark with the inclusion of v. 38 (not found in Matthew) stresses more than Matthew that the Christian life goes beyond just one's relationship with self and God; but also with the world.
Williamson [Mark, Interpretation Commentaries, p. 156] offers these two quotes from Bonhoeffer:
When Jesus calls a man [sic], he bids him come and die.
(The Cost of Discipleship, part one, chap. 2)
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
(Letters and Papers from Prison, chap. 6).
Where is the gospel in this text? One answer is to remember that before the section about "what we are to do" is Jesus' clear announcement about "what he must do." Our actions need to be seen as a response to what Jesus has done.
Another answer may drive us back to the miracle that I suggested begins this section. Perhaps even after hearing and believing what Jesus has done and what we are to do; at best we can only confess, "It's as clear as mud." We have been touched by Jesus so that we have been cured of our blindness, but we are waiting for the final healing touch so that we might see clearly -- the now and not yet aspect of our faith. We see, but we are waiting to see clearly. We believe, but we need help with our unbelief. We follow Jesus, but our attitudes are often still centered on self and human things. The hammer of God pounces again to drive us to our knees before the saving grace of Christ.
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901