The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise. Those terms might well characterise the experience of the past 12 months, as a global pandemic has disturbed our regular personal habits, disrupted our communal practices, and destabilised our sense of “normality”. From this experience, can we identify with the disciples in this passage?
The disturbing element in the passage comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.
Jesus then engages in a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33) Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?
However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7). Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words. Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death: the Son of Man must suffer. The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.
So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels. Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity.
Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person. Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful. However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame. So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus.
This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel. And that’s the paradox we encounter and the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.
How might we relate these striking words of disturbance, disruption, and destabilisation to the experience of the past year, as we have lived through a global pandemic? What matters do we need to confront, work through, and reshape, as a result of this experience—in the same way that the disciples of Jesus had to do.
You can read more of my thoughts on this crucial passage on my blog this week, at Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2) – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)
Rev Dr John Squires
Secretary to the Pastoral Relations Committee
Canberra Region Presbytery
Uniting Church in Australia
0408 024 642