A Real Frame-Buster — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? What say you? That question never stops challenging us. Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Let the celebrations begin! Think confetti cannons and dancing in the streets. This is the day the disciples have longed to see. God’s rule is returning to Israel. The long night of exile and occupation is finally over.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah. Then Jesus explains what that means. Jesus says, “It’s necessary for the Son of Man to suffer horribly, to be declared deficient by the religious authorities, to be executed, and then to rise from the dead after three days.”

Excuse me, what? Just when it was going so well, too. In his head, Peter was already designing the announcements and business cards and letterhead. Can’t you just see it? “Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah.” And underneath, “Simon of Bethsaida, Chief Operating Officer.” Suffering? Rejection? Death?

There must be some mistake.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

What we have here is a real “frame buster.” As in, frame of reference. As in “does not compute.” What Jesus says doesn’t fit the way Peter sees the world, so Peter can’t see it.

Years ago, psychologists did a perception experiment. They showed people pictures of playing cards for just fractions of a second. These were normal playing cards with one exception. The scientists put a funny card – a red Ace of Spades – into the deck.

More than three-quarters of the test subjects didn’t see the funny card. A few noticed right away. A few more knew something was wrong, but they couldn’t say what it was. But most people didn’t – couldn’t – see what was right in front of them. They couldn’t see the red Ace of Spades because it didn’t fit what they expected to see.

A suffering Messiah is like that red Ace of Spades. It’s a real frame-buster. It’s no wonder Peter takes Jesus aside to set him straight. All this suffering Messiah business was just crazy talk. Everyone knew the Messiah was supposed to come and kick some Gentile booty! How was Jesus supposed to do that when he was despised and dead?

To be fair to Peter, no one could have seen it coming. And no one did. Except Jesus. Jesus announces the whole new world in Mark 1:15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This whole new world requires “repentance.” You may recall from last week that this repentance is not about feeling sad and sorry for sins. This repentance means accepting a whole new way of seeing that whole new world. Marcel Proust said well. “The real voyage of discovery,” he wrote, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

That’s what repentance really is. It’s accepting all new eyes to see this whole new world.

It’s a lot to ask of stumbling, bumbling, fumbling disciples like Peter – and like me. Peter pushes back, and then he wishes he hadn’t. “You! You, you…Satan!” Jesus growls. “Get out of my face! You are clutching at your human framework rather than grasping God’s framework. Leave me alone!”

Satan? Now, that’s a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think? No, it isn’t. Testing Jesus’ identity, vocation, and mission is where this story started, remember? We heard it last week. In Mark 1:12, we heard that right after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit blew him out into the wild places. Jesus spent forty days with Satan, having his identity, vocation and mission tested to the limit.

It seems, now, that the testing wasn’t over. Peter gets the same boot in the backside Jesus administered to the Tester in the wilderness. A whole new world needs all new eyes.

The world under the powers of sin, death, and evil is, as Richard Swanson says, upside down. Jesus comes to turn the world right-side up. But we’re so used to seeing things upside down that a right-side up world looks terrifying at first. We’re good at seeing the world upside down. It’s all we’ve ever known.

A Dutch experimenter created a pair of “upside down” glasses in order to test how humans perceive things. He wore them for two weeks to see if he could adjust. For the first few days it was pretty awful. He couldn’t hit a teacup with hot water. He fell off his bike. He could barely manage the stairs. But it didn’t take long, and his brain adjusted. It flipped the images, and he began to function normally.

Of course, when he took the glasses off, his brain had to go through the adjustment process all over again. We can adjust pretty readily to an upside-down world. When the world is flipped right-side up, that seems uncomfortable and crazy and dangerous. But having our vision flipped is what repentance really feels like.

Jesus describes what it means to follow him into God’s whole new world. It will seem like everything has been turned upside-down, even though it’s right-side up. “If you want to follow me, then put yourself aside and carry your cross as I carry mine. What looks like saving your life is really losing it. And what looks like losing your life for me – and for the gospel – is really saving it.”

What we have here is a real frame-buster. Up becomes down, and down becomes up. Up until this moment, it’s been business as usual. In God’s whole new world, nothing can be the same. When frames get busted, it feels like crucifixion – and sometimes it is. That happens because our old ways of seeing and thinking and living have to die. Of course, that’s terrifying.

And it’s useless. Unless there’s something more.

Spoiler alert – Peter and the disciples really don’t get it until after Easter. God’s whole new world comes with a cross, a death, a burial, and an empty tomb. No one could really see the world right side up without that revolution of death and life.

Jesus’ resurrection is not just a new event in the same old world. Jesus’ resurrection is the whole new world. And a whole new world needs all new eyes.

I know it’s Lent, and we’re supposed to stick with the Cross for a while. But here’s another spoiler alert. God wins at Easter! And nothing can be the same after that. Following Jesus means seeing a whole new world with all new eyes. It means living as if the world is already right-side up.

The powers that benefit from an upside-down world will not go quietly. Jesus declares that the suffering, rejection, and cross are “necessary.” Here’s what that means. When you live right-side up in an upside-down world, it will be uncomfortable and painful to learn to see right-side up. And when you live right-side up in an upside-down world, crosses will find you. You won’t have to go looking for them.

This would be even more terrifying if it all depended on me…and you. But it doesn’t. I think about how the Apostle Paul puts this to work in Galatians 2:19-20. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The beginning of the Christian journey is accepting the gift of all new eyes. Christ lives in me by faith, and I trust that gift of a whole new world. Because of that gift, I can accept the gift of all new eyes – repentance – every day. And I can be part of the struggle to live right-side up in a world still committed to being upside-down.

This Christian journey is a real frame-buster. And a whole new world needs all new eyes.

The journey takes place in my heart and mind and spirit. I am struggling against my own racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism and all the other “isms” that demand I see the world upside-down. Every day I need to say, “Satan, get out of my face.” Of course, I find that Satan is not in my face but is rather wearing my face. So, this is a real battle.

Perhaps you share that struggle. Living right-side up is challenging and sometimes painful. But, for my money, that’s where the real life is.

This Christian journey is a real frame-buster. The journey takes place in the world where I live. Jesus calls me to be an ally with the oppressed and an accomplice to real, earth-shaking, frame-busting change. That’s what taking up my cross looks like. I don’t have to build my own cross, remember. Following Jesus means the crosses will find me.

Part of that journey these days is about who Jesus is, and whose Jesus is. Look, Jesus is not white. Jesus is not a preview of John Wayne. Jesus is not the world’s greatest salesman. Jesus is not a liberal politician or a conservative one. Jesus is not a capitalist – or a socialist or a communist. Jesus is not a fairy godfather or godmother. Jesus is not a staunch defender of family values. Jesus is not my personal guarantee of wealth, privilege, and comfort. Jesus is not American. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, is not Christian.

Jesus is God among us – busting our frames, turning the world right-side up, and offering us new eyes for a whole new world.

Is that something you want to look into?

Text Study for Psalm 22:23-31; 2 Lent B, 2021

I want to share a story from my book, Forgiveness: The Road Home.

In July of 2006 we took a congregational group to the New Orleans area to staff “Camp Noah.” This is a therapeutic Bible School for children who have survived the trauma of a disaster. We spent a week with the children of Hurricane Katrina, and we were changed for a lifetime.

As staff members, we all had our favorites (and not-so-favorites) among the children we served. As one of the older males on the staff, I had a special role in exercising some discipline. Thus, I became acquainted with several unruly little boys.

One of them wore a small cross on a chain around his neck – a gift from one of the other counselors. It became precious to him as a sign, but a sign of what? He was uncertain. He knew the crucifixion story. Jesus died on that cross. However, when I asked him why Jesus died, the boy frowned in deep thought.

I waited for an answer which I could not predict. Then I asked again, “Why do you think Jesus died on that cross?” The little boy answered with half a question, “Maybe ‘cause he bad?”

A reasonable response from someone who had been victimized so often and so severely in the first five years of his life – blaming the victim was the only story he knew. It was clear that he hoped another story was possible.

Where does suffering fit with faith? It’s a question that hovers over the texts for the Second Sunday in Lent.

Psalm 22 begins with the words we know Jesus spoke from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Today we find ourselves in the section of the psalm that has taken a turn from that despair in the general direction of hope.

Psalm 22, when taken as a whole, is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is suffering and surrounded. The writer’s physical condition is dire. The psalmist’s spiritual condition is even worse. Not only is the writer suffering, but the psalmist is certain that God has “forsaken” the writer. The Hebrew word has the sense of “abandoned” and can be used for when a husband “abandons” a wife, for example. Not only is God absent, but God is also silent in the face of the psalmist’s suffering.

In the past, the writer remembers, the ancestors relied on God and were delivered. But the psalmist assumes that she or he is not that important to God. In the face of that apparent abandonment, the writer is shamed for putting trust in an “unreliable” Lord.

The psalmist reminds God that they’ve had a relationship since the writer was born. Now that things are difficult, this is no time to take a holiday. There is trouble all around. The psalmist is melting with anxiety and dry-mouthed with fear. Adversaries and wild animals threaten the psalmist, and the collection agency has repossessed the writer’s property.

But you, O Lord,” the psalmist pleads in verse 19, “do not be far away!” The writer addresses God directly and with great emphasis. “Hey, you! Lord! Listen up! Don’t go wandering off just when I need you the most!” We who are trained to offer nice, safe, polite prayers could learn a few things from the direct demands and passionate pleas of the psalmist here. By “we,” of course, I really mean “I.”

Luther prayed like the psalmist. Tim Wengert points to Luther’s direct and sometimes demanding approach to prayer in Martin Luther’s Catechisms. He describes Luther’s prayers for Philip Melanchthon as Melanchthon lay in a semi-conscious fever in 1540.

Wengert quotes Luther’s own report of his prayers. “For I threw the entire sack in front of his door and rubbed his ears with the promissiones to hear prayers, that I was able to recall from the Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear me, were I to believe all those other promises” (Wengert, page 70).

“Hey, God! Yes, you! Listen up! Here’s what you promised. Here’s how you have produced in the past. Why should I be any different from those other folks? Oh, source of my strength, get yourself over here on the double! I’m in deep…stuff…here!” As Luther would say, the psalmist has thrown the entire sack at God’s front door and rubbed God’s ears for all they’re worth.

In half a verse, the psalm turns on a dime from lament to a hymn of praise! “You have plucked me off the horns of the wild ox! You have ‘rescued’ me.” The Hebrew verb for “rescue” also has the sense of “answer,” which is appropriate to the context. After all, the complaint in verse two is that God has not answered the cries of the suffering writer. The verb is the same.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes that the center of this praise section of the psalm comes in verse 24: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” We remember that the psalmist was despised by all the people (verse 6) and mocked by all who saw the writer (verse 7). But that is not God’s response to the psalmist’s suffering.

Affliction is not evidence of God’s abandonment. Suffering is not a sign of forsakenness. Distress does not point to damnation. The Lord does not look away in shame or disgust when we struggle to survive.

After my little cross-bearer in New Orleans gave his first halting answer, we launched into a kindergarten level discussion of atonement, solidarity, grace, and God’s love. At the end of that conversation, I was sure I had done nothing but bore the little boy into a much-needed nap. After our talk he curled up in my lap under a blanket and was soon asleep. So much for my marvelous powers of theological discernment and description. I have induced Sunday snoring in parishioners in the same way for years.

Affliction may not be punishment after all. That is a profoundly counter-cultural word for our moment.

We still live in a culture of “official optimism.” We are sure that complaining is an admission of failure. Prosperity and suffering must be “deserved” in order to make sense in such a culture. Anger at suffering is regarded as disrespect for and ingratitude toward God (or whoever is in power) and gets punished. This is why, I suspect, that we are comfortable in ignoring and abandoning the poor (if we are well off). We have been told they deserve what they get.

It’s a culture where the meme, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” makes humorous sense to people. “Quit yer bitchin’,” we’re told,  “It could be worse.” Is it any wonder that my little guy in New Orleans answered the question the way he did?

Suffering, however, is not in every case punishment for bad behavior. It might be the consequence of some particularly good behavior. This is the connection I would make to the Gospel reading. Peter has his mind focused on “human things,” what Luther would label as the theology of glory. Suffering, crucifixion, and death – in that theology – are sure signs of God’s judgment and rejection. Therefore, such things simply could not happen to one who has been identified as the Lord’s Messiah. This is why Peter takes Jesus aside for a little tutorial in the ways of worldly glory.

The theology of the cross is a different matter, as Luther describes it. Suffering and death are not the opposite of victory but rather the path to the empty tomb. There is no going around the cross. It is “necessary.” Even the forsakenness so clearly enunciated in the first part of the psalm is, perhaps, in some sense “necessary” for the journey from Lent to Easter to happen.

I am struck by the fact that in the psalm the verbs are all, by and large, in the present tense. God is far away. Those who see me mock me. I am a worm and no human – scorned, despised, mocked, derided. I am encircled by bulls, melting like wax, cotton-mouthed with terror. At the same time, I am rescued. I declare that rescue in the midst of worship. I praise the Lord’s name and pay my vows.

The psalm is not a progression from one state into another. Suffering and saving, pain and praise, are wrapped up together. That is the theology of the cross. God’s power is hidden in weakness. God’s wisdom is wrapped foolishness. Reality is hidden under the form of its opposite. “What is good,” writes Douglas John Hall, “lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality [of the cross], namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend creation from within” (Seminary Ridge Review, page 11).

To experience life in this way is to set our minds on Divine things rather than on human things.

Later, my little guy in New Orleans brought me back to our conversation. “I know why Jesus died on the cross,” he said with a sly and shy smile. “Really?” I replied. “I would like to hear what you think about that.”

The dark-eyed, brown-haired little angel stood up tall, took a breath, and delivered his theological thesis. “Jesus died because his heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” Then my little theology professor went off to mold clay and frustrate the other teachers.

“Jesus died because hie heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” I’ll take that.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-2223-31.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring 2006.

Hennigs, Lowell. Forgiveness: The Road Home. See the “Books for sale” section of lowellhennigs.com.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wengert, Timothy. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (part 3); 2 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Minding What Matters

But, turning about and peering at his disciples, [Jesus] gave Peter a dressing down and said, ‘Get out of my face, Satan!” Jesus continued, “For you are not focusing your thoughts on the things of God but rather on things that concern human beings” (Mark 8:33, my translation).

In last week’s “Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines” I focused on what it means to “change one’s mind” when the Kingdom of God begins among us. I noted that this mind-changing experience really is more of a mind-blowing reality. In the current text, we see that Peter’s mind is not properly “blown” and remains focused on all-too-human concerns of power, privilege, and position, concerns of safety, security, and certainty. In his fear, Peter takes it upon himself to begin to correct Jesus and gets a royally humiliating dressing down in return.

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

I can’t be too hard on Peter. How can he be responsible for knowing what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know? I’m reminded of the most famous quote from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But,” Rumsfeld concluded, “there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was panned and parodied dozens of times for his verbose and convoluted explanation. But he’s quite right. Peter finds himself in unknown unknown territory. “We must understand that in ancient Judaism,” Hurtado writes, “there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus,” he concludes, “Peter’s response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable” (page 136). This talk of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection just made no sense to Peter, and he tried to put a stop to such nonsense.

In Mark 1, Jesus calls for “metanoia” as one of the proper responses to the presence of God’s reign among us. God is on the move in the world, Jesus declares. Prepare to have your mind blown. Peter was neither prepared nor willing. So, he finds himself in league with the Satan, working at odds with the coming of God’s gracious rule.

It is no easier for us now. Metanoia always demands the deconstruction of our favored worldviews which prop up our privilege. “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and,” he concludes, “no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (page xv). This is a call to have our white supremacist minds blown for the sake of the Gospel and love of the neighbor.

The verb I translated above as “focusing your thoughts” is “phroneo.” The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about thinking. They had a number of words to describe different types of thinking. The verb here points to a general context of thinking. We might use the terms “worldview” or “frame of reference” or even “point of view.” So, Jesus is not criticizing isolated thoughts on Peter’s mind but rather his view of reality. As noted from last week, the coming kingdom of God changes everything. We can change our worldview to match, or we can find ourselves opposing the kingdom.

Years ago, I spent a week in a class with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He walked us through the inter-textual relationship between Mark 8 and Philippians 2. “Share this framework for thinking among yourselves,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in verse five, “which is in Christ Jesus…” (my translation). Paul uses the noun form of “phroneo” for what I translate as “this framework for thinking.” One of Frederickson’s points was that the “things of God” Jesus mentions in Mark 8 are best summarized by the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.

In fact, the whole argument of Philippians could be read as an expansion, a Christian midrash, on Mark 8. Paul’s call to the Philippian Christians is to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Forms of “phroneo” appear twice in that verse. This behavior means that the readers would “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others better than yourselves” (2:3). That call will find its commentary concluded in Mark 10, as we will read below.

The opposite of this worldview is described in Philippians 3:19. There are many who “live as enemies of the cross,” Paul warns his readers, and not for the first time. He can’t impress on them strongly enough the importance of his encouragement here. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame,” Paul continues, “their minds are set on earthly things.” The word Paul uses is once again a form of the verb, “phroneo.” Enemies of the cross with minds set on earthly things – that sounds a great deal like the confrontation happening in Mark 8.

If we track the plot from Mark 8 to the climax of this section in Mark 10, we can see that Frederickson is right on target. The disciples continue to focus on human concerns. They are especially anxious about their own power, privilege, and position in the coming kingdom. That anxiety comes to a full boil when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his royal glory. It’s time for another rebuke and some more teaching.

“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells them. God’s rule is about reversal – the least being the greatest and the last being first. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus concludes, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the worldview, the frame of reference, the point of view at stake already in Mark 8. The kingdom is beginning in Jesus’ ministry. That ministry puts him on a collision course with the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Those powers will do their worst to Jesus, but Life is on the other side. Those are “the things of God.”

Jesus turns from this difficult conversation to the crowds standing with his disciples. The private call to the disciples now becomes a public declaration of what this journey will cost anyone who comes along. All of this talk of cross-bearing and life-losing might sound abstract and spiritual to us in our current situations. But, Hurtado notes, “it is necessary to emphasize that the words must be taken literally if we are to read them as Mark intended. When Mark’s first readers read these words,” he continues, “they could have understood them only as a warning that discipleship might mean execution, for in their time the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution for runaway slaves and other criminals of lower classes” (page 138). The cross was a tool of execution by state authorities, Hurtado reminds us, and following Jesus was bound to get one crossways with the people in power. That never ends well.

Jesus calls disciples to be more than “allies” in God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to be “accomplices” in the work of the kingdom. I heard that helpful distinction in an ELCA-sponsored webinar on February 10, 2021, offered by Dr. Aja Y. Martinez. In a talk entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Conversation for Allies and Accomplices,” Dr. Martinez noted that “allies” are often helpers in anti-racism work but often function as tourists rather than residents.

She noted that it is far more comfortable to stand with the marginalized than to stand against the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. Standing with the marginalized is often the posture of what she termed as “allies.” Standing against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable is the posture of what she termed as “accomplices.” If’s far more comfortable to be a helper from a place of strength than to be a partner from a place of vulnerability.

Accomplices, Dr. Martinez noted, put their bodies at risk for the sake of the marginalized and the vulnerable.  Accomplices are in the fight for the long haul and not for the acclaim. Being an accomplice with the Crucified – that sounds a great deal like Jesus’ call to discipleship here in Mark 8.

Finally, however, we should note that none of this is suffering for the sake of suffering. Disciples may not have the privilege of going around the cross. But the cross is also not the final destination. The goal of all of this is New Life, beginning now and never ending. “Mark’s gospel has a stark and simple structure,” N. T. Wright says in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “chapters 1-8 build up to the recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship, and chapters 9-15 build up to his death. But always, in looking ahead to his death,” Wright concludes, the chapters “look ahead to his resurrection” (page 620).

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated. In the season of Lent, we can and should reflect our path to and through the cross, the places where we are called to be accomplices for justice and focused on the things of God.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (part 2); 2 Lent B 2021

Part Two: Why Do You Have to Die, Jesus (And Take Us with You)?

Following Peter’s confession and Jesus’ orders to keep it quiet, Mark moves to the central focus of his account. “And Jesus began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected as deficient by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed,” Mark writes in 8:31, “and after three days to rise up” (my translation).

What, according to Jesus’ teaching, was “necessary” if in fact he was the Messiah? In our reading and theologizing, we tend to focus on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, to the exclusion of his resurrection. Like Peter (and the blind man at Bethsaida), we tend to see only half the picture and then draw the wrong conclusions.

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

Ira Brent Diggers discusses this “necessity” in his excellent commentary on workingpreacher.org. “When this passage is taken out of context, it seems to suggest that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to suffer and die,” he notes. “However, when we read it within its narrative context, we come to see that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to give life,” he writes, “knowing that earthly powers will violently oppose them.”

What is “necessary,” Diggers points out, is not the suffering and death that will be a focus of Markan account. Instead, Jesus’ mission is necessary. The responses of human and demonic powers are not “necessary” but rather contingent. “Jesus dies,” Diggers writes, “because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order.”

There will be no victim-blaming in this account. Jesus responds to his Messianic vocation with faithful obedience. It is the powers of this world who are to blame for their own responses. “So, the real epiphany of Mark 8:31 is not that Jesus’ mission is to die,” Diggers explains, “but that his faithfulness to God’s healing mission will inevitably result in his death. In Mark, Jesus “must” die,” Diggers concludes, “because his commitment to human healing will not falter.”

I find this to be a critical insight into the text. The favorite tactic of oppressors, abusers, and tyrants of all kinds is to blame the victims of such authoritarian regimes for their own suffering.

If only the spouse had been more submissive and less demanding, the abuser would not have put her in the hospital with a broken jaw. If only Emmitt Till had followed the unwritten rules of conduct for Black men, he might have lived to see his fifteenth birthday. If only impoverished people had the good sense to work hard and make lots of money, the rest of us wouldn’t have to penalize them with even deeper poverty. When Jesus’ suffering and death are treated as the goal of the process, then abuse and murder can find grounds for excuse.

“Essentially,” Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”

When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces. What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, life, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.

James Cone tracks this dynamic in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” he writes, “because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2).

Cone does not suggest that suffering and death are the goal of the process any more than Mark does. Instead, Cone describes the opposite impulses of the reign of God and the dominion of death. “Both the cross and the lynching tree,” Cone writes, “represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning” (page 3, with Cone quoting Mircea Eliade).

Cone describes how violence, suffering, and death result as the system of white supremacy responds to the work of human liberation. “Although white southerners lost the Civil War, they did not lose the cultural war,” Cone writes, “the struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social inequality.” Whenever that system was “threatened” by black courage and progress, the predictable result was public and horrific violence and death.

Cone’s direct connection between the cross of Jesus and the white American lynching tree is precise and powerful. The Romans used crucifixion to terrify and traumatize, to shame and shackle subject populations. That was especially the case with slaves and rebels. Following the Spartacus slave rebellion, for example, the road from Rome to the seaport of Puetoli was lined with six thousand crosses as a warning to any and all who might consider such rebellious behavior. The sign or titulus attached to Jesus’ cross was a similar tool of terror and oppression.

Jesus teaches that suffering, cross, and resurrection are “necessary.” But necessary for what? Large parts of western Christianity are committed to the Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement. The cross, in this theory, was necessary in order to pay a “debt of honor” owed to God by sinful humanity. Sinners could not pay such a debt, so God provided the payment in the form of the Beloved Son. The Father hands the Son over to such death in order to make “satisfaction” for sin and thus to remove the obligation. Victimization is necessary to balance the books in the Divine economy.

While there is certainly language in the Christian scriptures to underwrite such a theory (formulated most clearly by Anselm of Canterbury in the 10th century CE), the more ancient and life-giving metaphor sees the cross as necessary to God’s victory in Christ over the powers of sin, death, and evil that seek to suck the life out of the cosmos. Gustav Wingren describes the ancient imagery in detail in his classic work, Christus Victor.

Luther, Wingren notes, embraced and deepened that ancient imagery in his theology. God’s work of forgiveness, life, and salvation is hidden under the form of its opposite, Luther tells us. In other words, one cannot use the tools of evil in order to defeat evil. Instead, suffering and death become necessary for Christ on the way to life beyond the grave – the life which the Creator has intended for us all from the beginning.

In our gospel text, Mark assures us that Jesus declares this Divine necessity and the systemic response “openly.” The Greek word has to do with public proclamations and declarations. It is the word Paul uses frequently to remind his readers that he and others have preached the Gospel of Christ with “boldness” – that is, in public and with no holds barred. Jesus has kept things relatively quiet until now, but the time for reticence is past (at least in his conversations with the disciples).

The sequence in verse thirty-one takes us from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. That “open” declaration will be required of those who wish to follow Jesus in the future. Part of the painful irony of Mark’s account is that Peter, who makes the first open declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, will be the one who later denies that he ever knew him. Thus, Peter will be the first to deny Jesus before others.

In spite of that massive failure, Peter becomes the head in some sense of the churches in Rome. If Peter can be restored in the wake of such an apostolic collapse, then there can be hope and a way forward for other disciples as well. There could be a word of gracious discipline and hopeful forgiveness for Christians in Rome who had succumbed in the face of persecution (perhaps the persecution in which Peter was himself martyred).

There is a stern warning about the possibility of such failure and an implied hope for restoration and new life. Our imagined baptismal candidate might indeed know Christians who had failed and been restored to the community. Perhaps some of them witnessed to our prospective new Christian. This passage would help the community understand and interpret how to deal with such lapses and restorations.

Perhaps it is also a challenge for us to declare openly the necessity of our own proclamation of justice and the inevitable response of the systems of sin, death, and evil among us. We should be able to see that a primary expression of such systems is that of white, male supremacy in the Western world (and church).

“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar,” Cone writes, “that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (page 31). Peter’s response, coming from his half-sight of self-interest can help us white, privileged, powerful people confront our own willful blindness and move toward real life. More on that in the next post.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38; 2 Lent B 2021

Gospel – Mark (27-30) 8:31-38

Part One: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Who is Jesus and what is he like? This is a topic for heated discussion in our churches and our culture. For a significant portion of Christian culture on this continent the distance between Jesus and John Wayne hardly exists. I would refer you to the excellent work in this regard by Kristin Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Du Mez describes, for example, the image of Jesus promoted by Billy Graham, especially in his early career as an evangelist. According to Graham, “Jesus was no sissy—he was a ‘star athlete’ who could ‘become your life’s hero.’” Athletic metaphors gave way to militaristic ones for Graham, especially in the context of World War II. “The Christian life was ‘total war,’” Du Mez reports for Graham, “and Jesus was ‘Our Great Commander.’ Graham’s Jesus,” she concludes, “was ‘a man, every inch a man,’ the most physically powerful man who had ever lived” (page 23).

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

There is the ongoing struggle over Warner Sallman’s Nordic depiction of Jesus which adorns thousands of church basements and dining room walls in numerous American Christian homes. In contrast, there is the reconstruction by anthropologists and archaeologists of a typical first-century Palestinian Jew from Galilee. As opposed to Sallman’s fair-skinned, straight-haired, nearly blond and blue-eyed fashion icon, the reconstruction shows a smallish fellow with curly black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, and a more bulbous nose. You can learn more about that reconstruction at https://www.medicaldaily.com/was-jesus-white-forensic-facial-reconstruction-allegedly-shows-what-jesus-really-365668.

There is the laughing Jesus we often see on Holy Humor Sundays. We have seen various white versions of Jesus in film for as long as people have been putting images on celluloid. As we will see below, our preferred images of Jesus function much more as mirrors of our own preferences and prejudices than they do as windows on to any “real” history.

And yet people ask. Will the “real Jesus” please stand up?

I would read verses twenty-seven through thirty as well as the appointed verses in order to give the full context for the reading. Hurtado suggests that continuous reading and includes Mark 9:1 as well, but we did that for the reading on Transfiguration.

Mark does not spend a great deal of time on geography in his account. So, when we get a map reference, it’s worth reflecting on why Mark would include such a detail. Caesarea Philippi is really outside the accepted borders of Israel. At the end of Mark 7, Jesus and the disciples sojourn in Gentile country and meet a deaf man and the Syro-Phoenician woman. Chapter 8 begins with the second mass feeding account in Mark, but this feeding occurs in Gentile country as well.

Hurtado suggests that “the larger narrative into which this feeding account is set is full of growing tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment. It also contains teaching and events,” he writes, “justifying a proclamation of the gospel beyond Jewish borders” (page 122).

Our gospel reading is preceded by the healing of a blind man. Without a doubt, Mark uses this healing to illustrate and unpack the spiritual “blindness” of the disciples in the preceding paragraph. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Jesus asks them in verse 18. “Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” It is clear that they do not see or hear yet. Jesus quizzes them on the meaning of the Feeding of the 4000, and they fail to connect the dots. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus’ exasperation comes through that question loud and clear.

N. T. Wright points out that Jesus is actually quoting Jeremiah 5:21 at this point (Kindle Location 1935ff). The problem in the Jeremiah passage isn’t simply blindness. It is, rather, that the people have abandoned the worship of Israel’s God and gone after foreign deities. The people have stubborn and hard hearts and insist on going their own way (thinking from a human perspective, as we shall see in the next paragraph of the reading). The inability to see what’s happening is not a function of one’s eyesight but rather a function of one’s vision of reality.

This is the only healing that happens in two “stages” in the gospel accounts. “It is the unparalleled phenomenon of a healing occurring in two stages,” Hurtado writes, “that particularly connects this story, not only with the preceding passage, but also with the following ones (8:27-38), in which the disciples show the need for a similar two-stage lifting of their spiritual dullness” (page 133). He concludes that “this story provides a fitting introduction to the account of the disciples’ limited perception and their need for a fuller understanding of Jesus’ mission” (134).

It’s good to remind ourselves often that we are in the role of the disciples in Mark’s account. It may have been difficult for our imagined baptismal candidate hearing Mark’s gospel for the first time to see Jesus for who he really is on the first glance. That awareness may have come in stages, just as sight came in steps for the blind man. This is an encouragement to expect growth in faith and knowledge on our journey as disciples. This is an encouragement, as well, to continue to study and learn the faith for a lifetime. I have always found it to be one of the privileges of pastoral ministry that people paid me to continue that focused study of scripture and theology, worship and prayer, speaking and service, for a lifetime.

Jesus’ question in verse 27 is much more of a “mirror” than it is a “window.” The responses say as much about the respondents as they do about Jesus. “Now of course all three opinions are wrong in Mark’s view,” Hurtado writes, “yet he cites them to show not only that people were blind to Jesus’ true significance, but also that people did recognize in Jesus some sort of special significance like that of the OT prophets” (95).

The question of Jesus’ identity is an important issue for Mark’s account, because this is the second time we get this list of answers. We read about King Herod Antipas’ anxiety in response to the reports of Jesus’ authority and acclaim. Some in the gossip network wonder if John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others believe Elijah has returned in Jesus. Still others think he is “like one of the prophets of old.” Herod goes with the first answer – Jesus as John 2.0.

In Mark 6, the listing of identity options for Jesus comes right before a full description of the execution of John the Baptist. So, identifying Jesus comes right before a description of a state-sponsored lynching here in Mark 6. Identifying Jesus comes right before a prediction of Jesus’ own state-sponsored lynching in Mark 8.

The extended description of John’s imprisonment and death is a preview of what is in store for Jesus. Hurtado lists the similarities. Both John and Jesus are executed by a civil power. Both Herod and Pilate hesitate to carry out the sentence but do so because they fear what will happen if they don’t. Herodias and the Jewish religious establishment demand satisfaction for how they’ve been dishonored. The followers of John bury him, and Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus.

As Hurtado notes, the proximity of miracle stories and executions reminds us that the cross overshadows everything else for Jesus. “For Mark,” he writes, “it is not finally the power of the miracles but the sacrifice of the cross that most clearly discloses Jesus’ significance” (page 95).

Peter’s response is partially correct, but we readers of Mark know the full answer. We received it in the first verse of Mark’s account: “The Good News of Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Son of God.” Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Peter has a partial vision of who Jesus is. But his partial vision may lead him to the wrong conclusion, like the blind man who saw people as walking trees (Lord of the Rings fans will not be able to resist connecting that one to the Ents of Fangorn fame – I know, I am an unrepentant geek).

We can’t know for certain what Peter intended by his response, but it seems likely that he connects Jesus to a Davidic Messiah – one who would “restore the kingdom to Israel” as we read in Luke’s later account. While Jesus answers to the title of “Son of David” at points in Mark’s gospel, that title only captures a small part of his vocation and mission. The title of “Messiah” by itself in Mark often leads to misunderstanding and even unbelief. It is only part of the answer, a partial vision, not the whole story.

Unlike Matthew’s account, Mark’s gospel does not report clearly that Peter got the “right answer.” Peter responds, and Jesus gives orders that the disciples are not to share this information with anyone. That’s an indication that Peter got it at least partly “right,” since Jesus orders the disciples and others to keep quiet about full reports of his power and authority. Peter’s response indicates “that for Mark the title is a correct one,” Hurtado writes, “and that Peter’s use of the title displays some recognition of Jesus’ true significance” (page 135). Nonetheless, Jesus does not give Peter an “A” on his theology exam.

“Thus, the present passage brings into the open the use of the term Christ (Messiah) as a proper confessional term to apply to Jesus,” Hurtado writes. “But the following material will show that the term can be used properly only when it is informed,” he continues, “by a genuine understanding of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Christ” (page 136). This partial understanding of Jesus’ vocation and mission, if widely circulated, will do more harm than good. “It is not just that others would not understand its proper meaning,” Hurtado concludes, “even the disciples do not yet know what they are saying!” (page 136).

Who do people say Jesus is? More to the point, who does God say Jesus is? We began that conversation last week with the baptism and testing. We will come to a powerful and profound conclusion to that conversation on the Sunday of the Passion when we read the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. We can have some interesting conversations on the way.

References and Resources

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.