Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
According to the often-quoted wisdom of Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Today, the disciples reach a fork in the road in their journey with Jesus. We’re at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel. It’s the pivot point upon which Jesus takes a decisive turn to the cross.
The disciples walked with Jesus throughout Galilee. They witnessed his ministry of preaching and healing (6:7-13, 30). They watched his fame and favor grow so that Jesus could no longer visit cities and towns without attracting a crushing crowd. He called, they followed, but now their novitiate is over. Jesus reveals his way of serving God will not be to become the kind of warrior-king David was whom they had all hoped for. Jesus will rule not from a throne, but from the cross. He calls us to wield the power of love rather than the sword. The disciples (and Peter) do not yet understand that suffering born of love lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus has seen where obedience to the loving God will take him. The road leads to Jerusalem. The path of faithful service will lead directly into the grinding jaws of the Roman Empire, and the gnashing teeth of powerful, corrupt religious leaders. The disciples, however, are shocked and confused. They didn’t see this choice coming—now, they don’t know which way to turn.
We must pause a moment to make one thing clear. Our Bible does not say that God takes any delight in human suffering. Jesus’ healing miracles, his compassion for the crowds, and his miraculous feeding of the hungry multitudes are enough to show us that. God is good. Jesus came that we might experience life fully and share in this abundance widely. Yet our life in Christ is no antidote to suffering and grief. In fact, to embrace the call of Christ is to walk along with him on our own Via Dolorosa (which means the way of suffering), that was Jesus’ path in his final day in Jerusalem to the cross. We do this, not out of morbid duty but in a spirit of generosity and joy because as children of God the slings and arrows of this world can no longer reach us.
Yet the disciples have no clue that Jesus aims to heal the world by subjecting himself to human savagery in order to expose its ugly face and break its hold and power. Upon hearing this plan, Peter rejected Jesus’ words. He took him aside and rebuked him as though he were casting a demon out. Perhaps Peter was beginning to wonder, as Mark’s gospel tells us members of Jesus’ own family did, whether Jesus was not going a little bit crazy.
But Jesus would have none of it. He turned to the crowds who followed him and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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” (Mark 8:34-35).
These are puzzling words, to say the least. We lose by saving. We save by losing –but how could this be? The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power. Jesus controls the cosmic forces –even the wind and the water obey him. How could Jesus permit his enemies to succeed, who wish to destroy him just as they had already destroyed John the Baptist? St. Paul is right to insist the gospel of the cross makes a mockery of all our human conceptions of success (1 Cor. 1:18-25). In a pain-killer culture like ours, it’s tough to imagine anything good can come from agony –let alone to understand how suffering might actually be a path to healing and redemption.
We all know that this world can be a dangerous place. We all know only too well the reality of human savagery means that life for many born to this world should come with the same written warning as that seen posted at the entrance of an African game reserve: “Advance and be bitten.”
Logic dictates that evil must be met with force –right? ‘Human kingdoms advance by force and violence and with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, riddles, and tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood.’ (Brian McClaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 49).
This Lent, we are learning together about the call and power of forgiveness. How can we turn from vengeance to reconciliation? How can our anger and suffering be channeled into wisdom and healing rather than fear and violence? How can we break the endless cycle of violence? How can we pivot from following the ways of the world to walk in the demanding, life-giving way of the cross instead?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal. Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity.” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51) By telling our stories and naming our hurt we are able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story. In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bonds connection and community among us.
Look, even now, the world is being remade—not by force, but by the grace that is poured out like fast-running water through a relationship with God and one another as we gather here in Jesus’ name. The difference between Jesus and the disciples—the answer that ends our befuddlement at Jesus’ words about the call to save our lives by losing them—is that Jesus dwells in the undying kingdom of God, while we (and the disciples) believe we still live in the dog-eat-dog world where might makes right, rather right making might. Forgiveness is a key to unlocking the door that opens into the kingdom of God here in our midst.
Life in God’s kingdom opens us to a way of living that is radically different from the way people lived in Jesus’ day and in our own time. In our gospel today Jesus announces that this world is under attack. The land is subject to an invasion. “We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life” (McClaren, p. 60). God’s kingdom comes, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven –not through simple formulas, or lists of information, and not through angry threats or ultimatums, but like a treasure hidden in a field, like a seed hidden in soil, like yeast hidden in dough, beginning with the bravery to become vulnerable, the courage to face into our hurts and tell our story, the acceptance of the path of forgiveness, the way of the cross.
The kingdom of God spreads from person to person, to person like a virus, like a flame, like water moving downhill. Jesus’ scandalous message of the kingdom of God reveals the weakness of the apparently powerful and the power of the apparently weak (McClaren, p. 68). German quantum theorist and Nobel prize winner Max Planck once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The cross of Christ certainly changes how we look at life. Love is an abstraction and impossible without one another. By way of the cross, Jesus has shown us what we are. We are already one. Knowing this, we need never walk alone but courage comes with the sound of Christ’s steps by our side.” (ELW #808)