There are many opinions about who Jesus is. There are many assumptions reigning among both believers and unbelievers. There are powerful expectations among everyone who reads this story, just as there were among these most intimate followers. And so, this question--the heart of the Gospel of Mark--is pivotal for our evangelistic study. We are called to give account for what we have witnessed to this point. Has Jesus reshaped our expectations, or do they strive to reshape him? Peter answers as many of us might: you are the Christ. But the question behind the question is: do you understand who the Christ is? Like the blind man of the previous story, Peter sees enough to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but he does not yet see fully. His confession is right, but he does not understand what it means. This is the genius of Mark’s work for the Christians who had accepted Jesus but needed to understand more fully what following this particular Messiah would entail. Like Peter, many Christians throughout history have proclaimed Jesus as Christ, Son of God, only to enlist him in the service of their own agendas. Likewise, I find the evangelistic genius of Mark to be its ability to call the would-be follower to authentic discipleship, making clear from the start what it means to accept Jesus as Christ.
Thus, Jesus begins straightaway a curriculum of redefinition. He says: that’s right Peter, and I’m going to suffer humiliation and death. Peter, who has just proclaimed Jesus king, ironically presumes to chide him. He has a firm idea about what the true Messiah will do, and it does not entail getting beaten by the powers that be. Rejection and death is clearly defeat, and it is the path that every false Christ travels to prove his falsehood. God’s chosen king cannot be beaten. Don’t talk like that, says Peter. We will be mighty and victorious over Rome. We will not be defeated, they will! That road is the one that tempts Jesus--the easier way--so Peter has taken the role of Satan, suggesting that suffering and death is unnecessary. There is another, better way to glory. But that, says Jesus, is too human a viewpoint. We need to see things as God does.
So he began to teach them. “If anyone wants to follower after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The cross has become an innocuous symbol, a piece of jewelry or wall art, in much of today’s world. We must once more try to feel as these first century Jews would have felt at hearing these words. It is a graphic, coarse, tactless things to say. Jesus is pulling no punches now. To follow him is to accept not only defeat but public humiliation, torture, and death at the hands of Rome. The cross is their PR tool, to make certain that everyone knows what happens to those who buck Roman rule. While many want to pull the Christian notion of “taking up the cross” in a more generalized, metaphorical direction--as we must do eventually--Jesus grounds his point in the gruesome, tactile reality of his day. He doesn’t say his followers need to be less selfish. He says that, if they make the decision to follow him, they must voluntarily sit in the electric chair.
Jesus is teaching them (and us) what it really means to say that he is Messiah and therefore what it really means to follow him. This costly way makes sense, from God’s point of view, because the kingdoms of the world have it all upside down. Somehow, in the kingdom of God, life lost is life gained, and life guarded is life lost. The twelve thrive on visions of glory and honor, of winning against an empire whose borders constitute “the whole world.” That vision, says Jesus, means death. If, however, they are willing to kill that lust for power and success in the service of Jesus and his kingdom message, they will find true life. And he comes right to the point. The issue is shame. Many renditions of the crucifixion have focused on physical pain and death. But the apostles, like so many others, would be willing to die. To die fighting is nothing unexpected. But to accept the cross, to voluntarily take up the cross, is shameful. This will be very clear in Mark’s account of the crucifixion. As a matter of cultural values, humiliation and shame are the ultimate loss.
There are many church traditions that presume to be the “true” way and condemn other supposed Christians as false. Those judgements, though perhaps well-meaning, are often made in the spirit of Rome, not in the spirit of the cross--they are ultimately self-glorifying power plays. Yet, that is not to say we have no basis for speaking of a true Christianity; it’s just that the description will probably bring us under judgement as well. But Jesus is clear, and his criterion is the only one I feel comfortable adopting. There is no Christianity without the cross. It is a false disciple who claims to follow Jesus but does not deny self and take up the cross. It is an empty confession that proclaims Jesus as Son of God without following him through shame and death. This is a point that must not be soft peddled in an evangelistic study, for it is the substance of conversion. We can follow this Messiah or none at all.
All of this makes up the first instance of a three-part movement that Mark will repeat twice more. The movement includes (1) Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, (2) the disciples failing to understand, and (3) Jesus teaching in order to redefine his identity as Messiah and theirs as followers: prediction-misunderstanding-redefinition. The structure and repetition signals the point of the whole section found between the inclusio mentioned previously. Therefore, it will be helpful to understand the stories intermingled with the three movements as related to this main point, clarifying what it means to take up the cross.
What follows immediately, however, is an important moment for the undoubtedly confused Peter and company. It is the second instance of God’s direct affirmation of Jesus’ identity, paralleling his baptism. Just when the apostles are disoriented by Jesus’ prediction and paradoxical teaching, God says once more, “This is my beloved Son,” appropriately adding, “Listen to him.” It may seem like he’s lost it, but listen to him. He really is the one you’ve been waiting for.
Jesus swears them to secrecy until after he raises from the dead, which prompts them to wonder what he means by “raise from the dead.” They do not take him literally--an effect of his parables, no doubt, and an indication of how they heard his prediction. In their confusion, they turn to one of the known debates about the restoration of Israel--that is, the coming of the kingdom. Isn’t Elijah supposed to come beforehand? Jesus take the opportunity to press them on the most important point. “Elijah, having come, restores all things. So how is it written about the Son of Man that he should suffer and be treated with contempt?” He is still trying to reorient them to God’s strange plan. He affirms that Elijah has come. As the opening of the book suggests (and other Gospels confirm), John the Baptist was Elijah. But he points beyond Elijah’s mere presence beforehand to his demise as the best indication of what it means to participate in God’s restoration. In the same way, the Son of Man will also suffer and be despised. He really wants them to get it!
The final part of this subsection sets up a scene reminiscent of Moses’ return from receiving the Ten Commandments. He comes down the mountain to find a rather chaotic situation. The disciples who remained behind have been unable to cast out a demon, and some scribes have injected themselves into the situation as well, causing an argument. It’s a mess. The story culminates with another representation of the half-sight of the disciples. The father of the demon-possessed boy, doubting Jesus’ own ability to make his son well, cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” This is the prayer of everyone seeking the second touch. If we, alongside the disciples, struggle to accept Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice and humility but long to stay the course nonetheless, these are words for us. This is a wonderful prayer to pray in an evangelistic study.
Lastly, we may note the lesson the disciples learn through this ordeal. Jesus’ explanation of their inability to defeat the demon is that “this kind can’t come out except by prayer.” Now, we could enter into speculations about types of demons or styles of exorcisms, but I see a much simpler implication here. The disciples weren’t praying! They were attempting to use power bestowed on them by Jesus as their own. The problem was that they were unable, without thought for what God was able to do. Even if there is some sort of demonic hierarchy they had to understand, the fact that they did not turn to God the moment their usual m.o. failed says a great deal. Thus, it seems as though a basic part of their reorientation in the upside down kingdom of God will be the recognition that the power is his.