Mark brings us to the midpoint of his narrative at a key moment in the structure of his gospel. It is a deeply significant transition point. The key is not in this week’s passage, but in the immediately preceding pericope. The narrative, like Jesus, changes direction. From a series of “journeys” in the Galilee with narrative sites of sea, boat and wilderness, centred upon his home in Capernaum, Jesus begins a new journey.
It is a journey from the margins of Palestine to its centre. Starting in the far north of Mark’s narrative “world” (Caesarea Philippi), he slowly winds his way south, back down through Galilee (making one last stop at Capernaum, 9:33) and on into Judea (10:1). Yet it is not until the third cycle of the book that Mark reveals the destination: Jerusalem (10:32).
Why bother with geography? The answer is because Mark doesn’t just give us an outline of Jesus’ missionary itinerary! Mark’s gospel is a story about discipleship – about following Jesus. Like Luke, he uses the artificial narrative construction of a journey. Places and journeys are important because they indicate direction and purpose. The first half of the story is set around the Galilee – on the margins. Here we find an eager receptiveness to Jesus and his message (albeit with opposition, but this comes from the “outside” – particularly from Jerusalem and the Temple). Now Jesus is changing direction and focus. He is beginning a new journey whose destination is Jerusalem. The journey towards Jerusalem is the narrative symbol for the new emphasis – the Way of the Cross. In 8:27b Mark tells us that they were “on the way” (en te hodo) – the way to Jerusalem and the Way of the Cross.
The challenge to discipleship
The phrase introduces an “edge” to the narrative. This narrative journey will disclose increasingly who Jesus is (the one who must suffer) and intensifying conflict and direct confrontation with the powers ranged against him. Yet the focus is on the disciples. How will they react to “The Way”? Will they understand? Will they “see” and “hear” what Jesus is telling them? Most importantly, will they follow, or will the Way of the Cross prove (literally) a step too far?
There is a clear narrative pattern to “the way”. It occurs again in 9:31 and 10: 32-34, and in each case – as here – the pattern is repeated: Jesus tells the disciples that “the way” is the way of suffering and death; the disciples resist this; Jesus then teaches them further about discipleship and what it means to follow him.
That is why the change of direction results immediately in Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” This is not only the midpoint of the story, but also the narrative fulcrum around which the whole gospel pivots. Who do you believe Jesus is? Which Jesus will you follow – the Jesus who travels the Way of the Cross, or the glorious, triumphant Jesus whom the disciples desperately want him to be? Or will it be a Jesus of your own making?
If you want to become my followers …
Peter’s confession – “You are the Messiah” – is followed immediately by the first of the passion predictions. “It is necessary (dei) for the Son of Man to undergo great suffering … etc”, says Jesus. The stress here is on the inevitability of what will happen. Jesus is not talking here about predestination. This is not a story about Jesus following a divine “script”, in which he, the Romans and the Jewish authorities are actors whose lines are already mapped out for them. It is a divine script only on the sense that the message of God’s Kingdom must necessarily provoke the opposition of the powers – those whose final ability to coerce and maintain privilege resides in their power to kill. Jesus is saying, “I want you to have your eyes wide open. This is not about a messianic gravy train on which you have special seats! This is going to end in blood and tears: mine – and yours (if you choose to take this particular ride)”.
This is not what the disciples want to hear! Peter’s immediate reaction is to rebuke Jesus. He’s saying, in effect, “Listen, Jesus, when I said ‘Messiah’, this is not what I meant! Being the Messiah has nothing to do with failure, suffering and death! It’s about being the king – about success and power and sovereignty. So let’s have no more of this talk about suffering and death. Stick with us, Jesus – we’ll show you the way!”
Now it’s Jesus’ turn to rebuke Peter. And he could not be more shockingly harsh. “Get behind me, Satan!” We’re immediately back in the wilderness of temptation, where Jesus has wrestled with Satan and the wild beasts. Although Mark does not detail the temptations, it is clear from this exchange that their substance has always been the same: to abandon the Way of the Kingdom that is Good News for the poor and Bad News for the powerful, and follow another “way” – a way that will bring glory to Jesus and one which the powers can absorb, contain and control. That this alternative exercised the strongest pull on Jesus, and had to be resisted with every ounce of his strength, becomes clear in the Gethsemane narrative.
Jesus’ own resistance to the Way of the Cross
Mark makes one thing absolutely clear in his gospel: Jesus has a deep, abiding horror of the Way of the Cross. There is a dangerous tendency in Christian theology and spirituality to think that it was somehow less horrific than it really was. After all (the reasoning goes), if Jesus was divine, it must have been a lot easier for him than for us mere human beings! Mark tells us the opposite. Jesus’ relationship to his Father was not a comfort to him as far as the cross was concerned. It made things worse. It threatened his whole sense of identity as Son. That is why he pleads with his Father as a child in Gethsemane for another Way (14:34-36), and dies screaming in bewildered despair to the God he believed had abandoned him (15:34).
Nor was resurrection any comfort. Although he tells the disciples “openly” and repeatedly that the Son of Man must suffer, die and on the third day rise again, there is no sense that Jesus drew sustenance from that. In fact, the clear implication seems to be that Jesus did not himself understand quite what rising from the dead might mean – because if he did, he would not have experienced the cross as abandonment by God, but as a necessary step along the “way” to resurrection.
The way of trust (Psalm 22: 23-31)
For all the horror he feels at the prospect of the cross, the point is that Jesus trusts God. It is God’s will that is done in going to the cross, despite Jesus’ own, very contrary wishes! Yet trusting God sometimes means leaping into the abyss. It means trusting that what we do is God’s will, and abandoning ourselves to it without the awareness of God’s comforting presence. Jesus, as we have noted, dies in Mark’s gospel screaming in agonised horror, brokenness and doubt: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He echoes the words of Psalm 22:1 – a psalm that has, for obvious reasons, been closely linked with Jesus’ Passion. Some exegetes would have us believe that Mark gives us the opening verse of this psalm to tell us that Jesus, on the cross, recited Psalm 22. In other words, we’re to read the cry of abandonment as, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me … etc”. There is no warrant for this whatsoever! The attraction for it is clear: the psalm begins with the cry of abandonment by Yahweh and Yahweh’s failure to hear and respond to the psalmist’s predicament (1-2). The public ridicule to which the psalmist is exposed (vv 6-8) echoes the taunting of the crowds at the foot of the cross. Most importantly, the psalm ends with the psalmist’s faith in Yahweh intact! In other words, if Jesus recited the psalm, we are watching a painful process of moving from the feeling of abandonment by Yahweh to trust and a rediscovery of Yahweh’s presence; we aren’t left with abandonment as the last word!
But the gospel does not give us that sort of get-out clause! It echoes the most extreme instance of the sense of being abandoned utterly by God. I want to make the point strongly that we ought to see in this the depth of Jesus’ trust: he went through with it, despite the fact that he got no comfort from God! Jesus had to do that in a way that we seldom have to.
In that sense, he mirrors the trust of the psalmist in this week’s reading (vv 23-31). Here the psalmist reflects on the faithfulness of Yahweh in the past: Yahweh did not turn away from the plight of the people, nor was Yahweh deaf to their cries (v24).
This is the public testimony of Israel’s faith, recited in worship (v25). This is the story Israel tells to makes sense both of itself and its God. Yahweh is the one who has special care for the very least (v26). There is no one who is outside Yahweh’s care – not even the poorest, most despised and most insignificant member of the People of Yahweh. For this reason, Yahweh is the God and King of all the earth (v27) – because no one escapes Yahweh’s care.
This is a psalm that reflects the universalism of the Covenant: Yahweh is the only God, and Lord of all creation; therefore the whole earth belongs to Yahweh and Yahweh will ultimately be worshipped as God by the whole earth (v29). Against all the claims of the other deities, Israelite faith asserts that Yahweh holds all life in the divine hand: we are born by Yahweh’s will; we die at Yahweh’s will and are held in Yahweh’s hand.
Here is something we long to see reflected in Mark’s Easter story. We long to see Jesus reflect “Psalm 22 faith” on the cross – to move from brokenness to the ringing affirmations of vv 29-31. We don’t find this. Jesus has to face the cross with a sense of stark aloneness and abandonment. This doesn’t denigrate Jesus’ faith, though: it shows us the depth of trust and the cost of faithfully walking the Way of the Cross.
“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”
Jesus goes on to spell out what the Way of the Cross means for any would-be followers. It requires three things: denying self, taking up the cross, and following. There is no other way. If the Lenten journey means anything, it means discovering what this entails – just as it did for the disciples. It is not about giving up something that we like, or coping with a difficult situation at work, home or at church. That is to spiritualise and trivialise Jesus’ call. The gospel was written for a community that understood at first hand what persecution meant. It meant being hauled up before the courts and, like Peter, being asked, under threat of death, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” The temptation is to deny Jesus in order to save our own lives. Jesus tells the disciples, “If you confess me, you deny yourself – because you will be put to death for it! And yet that is actually the way to find (save) your life!”
To “take up the cross” means literally that! The journey Jesus has just begun is the journey of political confrontation. Ched Meyers suggests that the phrase “Take up your cross!” was in all likelihood a recruitment slogan for revolutionary groups – effectively “suicide squads” who were being asked to risk almost certain capture and crucifixion. There is nothing spiritualised or trivialised about Jesus’ call to discipleship here. The message of the Kingdom that he proclaims is necessarily the Way of the Cross because it is the promise and announcement and enactment of a new world order – God’s.
Note that this is a new call. In 1:16ff Jesus calls the first disciples, saying simply, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”. In other words, there are people who want to hear Jesus’ message, and he invites them to follow and be part of spreading Good News that is eagerly received. Now the direction changes. This is a new journey – a journey of confrontation. It bears a deadly cost. And as Jesus enters this new phase of his ministry, he does not say, “Follow me”, but warns the disciples about what is entailed and gives them the opportunity to back out. Lent is about facing the seriousness of discipleship, and wrestling seriously with the question about whether or not we are “up for it”.
The disciples, of course, don’t back out. Instead they decide to keep going – not to discover the Way of the Cross, not to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow, but to manipulate Jesus! They reckon that sheer weight of numbers (apart from anything else) and good sense will prevail: there is another way, and they will make sure Jesus follows their way – not vice versa!
Abraham – the example of faith (Genesis 17: 1-7/Romans 4: 13-25)
Romans 4 is Paul’s midrash on the Abraham story. He reflects on the narrative in Genesis 17 when God promised Abraham descendants. He does so in the context of defending himself against the charge by Jewish Christian opponents that his success among Gentiles is that he has made it too easy for them to become Christians, because he does not insist on them becoming Jews and obeying the Law. His doctrine of justification by faith, rather than through covenantal faithfulness, is cheap grace (or so the accusation goes).
Not so, says Paul. It has always been about faith! And to make his point, he goes back to Abraham – Abraham, the towering figure who, in Judaism, was traditionally venerated for his mighty deeds and endurance when tested. Paul offers a different reading about the significance of Abraham. What is fundamental, he says, is that Abraham was the one to whom God made promises – promises which were unconditional and which Abraham believed. Abraham believed God, says Paul – and that was reckoned to him as righteousness (4:3).
In other words, faith as response to the unconditional promises of God precedes covenant. Grace precedes Law. It is faith that lies at the heart of the response to God, rather than covenantal conditional obedience. Furthermore, argues Paul, Abraham was to be the father of many nations – a promise Paul saw fulfilled in the universalising of the gospel message and the inclusion of the Gentiles.
Now, if faith, which justifies, precedes law-keeping, it also deconstructs what is meant by terms like “righteousness” and “justification”. These terms belong in the context – the semantic range – of Law. They are legal terms. Paul’s opponents understand by “righteousness” a legal status, either achieved through covenantal faithfulness (“works of the Law”) or imputed by God to the unrighteous. That is also how much Christian exegesis of this key Pauline term has proceeded. But Paul is doing something very subtle here. If free promise precedes Law, and faith is the appropriate response, then the “righteousness” of God must be something different from something akin to the legal system! The New Testament scholar Ernst Kasemann argues that Paul understands “righteousness” in a new way – as “the triumphant saving faithfulness of God”. This is what it has always meant if Abraham was “justified” by faith! The “righteousness” of God is actually the Spirit-life – the saving Life – of God in Jesus Christ.
This makes it possible for Paul to put both Jews and non-Jews on the same level. Ultimately what matters for both is this faith. In our passage he links it to belief that God can do what seems impossible. In Abraham’s case it was about whether his aged wife could become pregnant. In the case of Gentiles it is whether people who are not part of Israel can be elevated to become God’s people. In the case of Jesus it is whether a dead Jesus can be raised to life. In the case of creation it whether something can be created out of nothing. By linking all these together as he does in this passage, Paul is making the claim that the basis of faith is the belief that God can do the seeming impossible in order to save. God the creator makes all these things possible. In relation to the issue at hand for Paul: God can elevate Gentiles to become the people of God – as long as they have this kind of faith. It is a way of speaking of God’s love. God can love the seeming unlovable and love them back to life.
Faith in the promises of Life
So much for Paul’s argument in Romans. How are we to read this and the story of Abraham in the context of this week’s Lectionary readings? Firstly, we need to note that “faith in the God who can do impossible things” is not the same as saying, “I believe in miracles”! Fundamentalists will insist that literal belief in miracles is essential for true faith. That is not what Paul is arguing. In each case, the “impossible” works of God are about bringing life where no life is possible! In the case of Abraham and Sarah, this is emphasised by the fact that Abraham twice falls on his face – once in worship, and the second time in hysterical laughter at the ridiculousness of the promise (Genesis 17:3, 17)! In other words, the promises, covenant and miracles are all linked to Yahweh’s passionate will to bring life and blessing.
We ought also to recognise the promise that is inherent in the call to discipleship. We stand on the resurrection side of Easter. Jesus, like Abraham, stood on the “not yet” side of God’s promises. Abraham is a pioneer of faith for us because he believed God when he could neither see nor imagine how the promises might be fulfilled! Jesus is the pioneer for our faith because he went through with the cross, without the comfort and assurance that God was with him! Despite the horror and the terror, Jesus did not look for another Way.
And we ought to note that, just as Jesus’ identity – being Son – would be defined by the way of the cross, so Abram and Sarai have their identities changed by God’s promises, and are given new names to symbolise this. We, too, are encouraged to find our identities – our “lives” – in embracing the Way of the Cross.
Taking Jesus on his terms
As we stand poised on the first steps of the Way of the Cross this Lent, we are challenged to take Jesus on his terms, and to resist the determination and temptation to remake Jesus into what we want him to be – to plan another Way for him that we find acceptable and controllable and which does not put our identity on the line. We are challenged to confront our own deep resistance to the Way of the Cross – and to the Jesus whom we profess to serve. We are faced with the awful possibility that the Jesus whom we follow is none other than a Jesus of our own construction and our own choosing – one whom we find comfortable, and who blesses our hopes and endeavours, our projects and our prejudices. This is the Jesus who follows after us – who has to deny who he is.
The Jesus we meet in Lent is the Jesus who refuses any way other than the cross. John 14 is John’s meditation upon these same events. Thomas asks the right question, which the disciples fail to see in Mark’s account: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus replies, “I am the Way – and the Truth and the Life!” (John 14:6)