Lent 2 · Mark 8:27-38 · March 8, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
This second Gospel reading in the season of Lent begins with a significant geographic border-crossing. Jesus has left the friendlier confines of Galilee, heading north to Caesarea Philippi. The name itself suggests the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, and the city was a significant site of pagan worship. Jesus has left behind the crowds and is walking alone with his disciples.
Along the way comes the question: “Who do people say that I am?” This episode occurs near the very center of the Gospel of Mark, and this is Mark’s central question. Who is Jesus? Peter gives the only life-giving answer: “You are the Messiah.” It is the answer that becomes the bedrock of the church’s first confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11). Although here again it is important to note the details Mark does not include, no talk of name changes or of rocks to build a church on. The rest is left as another of the great messianic secrets of Mark’s Jesus: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).
This is in stark contrast to the revelations that come immediately after, those things that he then speaks of “quite openly” (8:32). This is Jesus’ first prediction (of three) of the Passion in Mark, that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). With this prediction, the tragic vortex of Mark is set into motion.
Of course, Jesus’ prediction cuts against the grain of Jewish expectations of the Messiah’s mission. Hence, Peter’s rebuke, so hushed Mark doesn’t bother to record his words. Notice Mark’s “stage directions” to this part of the narrative. Jesus speaks of the Passion out in the open, center stage. Peter “took him aside” (8:32) to rebuke him, stage right. Jesus then turns and looks back to his disciples, stage left, and exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan!…” (8:33). Jesus’ wilderness wrestlings with the demonic continue in his very interactions with those closest to him. In this case, the temptation enters through the misunderstandings and naïveté of the disciples, who in Mark never do seem to get it all together.
Despite how well we know the story, Jesus’ words still cut against the grain of our own expectations. Perhaps that’s why Jesus directs his next words not only to his disciples but also to the returning “crowd” (8:34). “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” (8:35). Mark’s radical call to discipleship could not be any more clear than here in verses 35—38. This talk of how to save and lose, profit and forfeit, a life is oft-quoted. And indeed, these are days when many have lost much of their lives, or at least that part of their life that is expressed in their “life savings,” through hardly any fault of their own. Yet, what is it that we have lost? And by losing it, what have we gained?
Anytime we have lost some of our own misunderstandings and naïveté about what life is about and, more importantly, what the Gospel is calling us to, we have gained. To lose our illusions is to gain the truth. The key to gaining a clearer understanding of reality lies in the lowest common denominator that Jesus points us to, the reality of death. If Mark’s narrative form is indeed (as many suggest) tragedy, this is the ultimate tragic trajectory. It is only the tragic hero who has the courage to ask, “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?” (8:36-37). Such is the apparent contradiction—the paradox of discipleship—that Jesus would point us to.
No, Jesus is more than pointing. He will bear up and become that contradiction on a hill outside Jerusalem. Here is where the tragic vortex of Mark will spin into its inevitable end. And that is where the divine paradox takes hold. The loss of Jesus’ life is the gaining of ours. His forfeit is our profit. To those who would stake their lives with his, the return is a life that can stare death in the face and laugh.
We can only know this life (his and ours) by faith. Mark’s call to discipleship is ultimately a call to faith, to trust the Son of God with all that we are despite our misunderstandings and naïveté. Our faith is rooted in what Jesus will do on that hill outside Jerusalem. And what he will do even more miraculously three days later.