Week of Sunday September 13 – Pentecost 16
Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
“For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . but for Wales!” Robert Bolt A Man for all Seasons.
Also worth reading on this site: Who are you?
At the centre of this week's reading is the question of blindness. "Are you blind?" Mark asks us.
In Chapter 7 Jesus asks the disciples
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?... 21Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ …
The question is rhetorical. They are blind to what is happening. Then
22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ 24And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’25Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
In this central section of the gospel we will have the shocking news of the Messiah's impending death repeated three times, (Mark 8:31-33 9:30-32, 10:32-34) and then, just before entering Jerusalem at the final stage of the gospel another blind man will be healed and follow "Jesus on the way." (Mark 10:46-52)
What are we meant to see clearly as we are healed of our blindness?
Seeing the Messiah
Matt Skinner summarises Jesus' people's expectations about the Messiah.
Peter declares, "I think you're the one who will purify our society, re-establish Israel's supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness."
There was an undoubted military implication to such an understanding. Mark has carefully placed the conversation at Caesarea Philippi. The city was named after Caesar, and was the administrative centre of the Tetrarch Phillip, the son of Herod the Great. The text is clearly examining Jesus' messianic status in comparison with the imperial powers of the day.
But although Peter makes the leap from Jesus being only a forerunner to the messiah, such as Elijah or one of the prophets, and Jesus affirms this leap, he is blind to the true nature of the Messiah who will not be the great political conqueror:
… 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 text heightens the paradox we must overcome to escape Peter's (and our own) blindness, for it clearly associates "the Son of Man" with the Messiah. Son of Man alludes to Daniel 7. Jesus makes the connection explicit in Chapter 13: "Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory."
Daniel's vision in chapter 7 contained these lines:
I saw one like a human being (the Aramaic says like a son of man)
coming with the clouds of heaven...
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
How can such a one die, let alone be killed by the elders of the people? (Mark 8:31) Indeed, how is it that his power is not Imperial?
The heightened paradox, and the brutal dismissal of Peter's refusal to embrace it, make it clear that if we do not see what is going on here, if our eyes are not opened, then we are missing a critical understanding of Jesus. "Get behind me, Satan," is bad enough. But this refusal of Peter to see is identified by Jesus as "setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." It is defined as a completely wrong vision of life and its meaning. Jesus is not an imperial conqueror.
Carrying the Cross
The cross was an implement of imperial terror. Nominally for punishment of treason and other egregious crimes, its underlying purpose was to terrorise and deter. Not only was death on a cross slow and torturous, but the prisoner was made to carry the implement of their own execution through the watching and jeering crowds. The immediate purpose of this is obvious: if you do not submit to our rule, this will be you.
But underlying this is an imperial invitation to protection and solidarity. The cross offers the crowd a way to be, and a way to see themselves.
The crowd was invited to join the side of the oppressors, to define itself in terms of the oppressors, to follow them…The promise of the oppressor is solidarity. The promise is meaning, safety, and belonging… (Andrew Prior)
Join in, people!
Be on the winning side! Stand together against evil.
Protect the borders. Keep the country safe.
Be good: join the killing of the outsider…
The cross was a methodology for confirming who would be the scapegoat of the day.
To choose to carry a cross is to choose enter the arena of the mob. It is to follow a way which stands against the rule of empire, and against the givens of society. It is to submit oneself to being scapegoated and blamed for all manner of things as the terrorised populace seek safety in numbers. It is to step out of the safety of the group.
Therefore carrying the cross has nothing to do with the kind of self-denial which is too often used by churches and individuals to abuse and manipulate others.
Jesus is NOT saying that we have to give up this or that, or try to forget our normal human needs, or live some ascetic life. (We can choose to do those things, for various reasons, but that’s a topic for another day.) “Deny yourself” is not about self-abnegation. In fact, it’s harder than that. (Bruce Writer)
Self-denial does not mean seeking or embracing abuse for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue. Jesus has spent over seven chapters alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever he encounters it; how could he be endorsing these things here? Do not allow this text to perpetuate or excuse victimization.
What is denial then?
The previous words come from Matt Skinner who also says
A person in Jesus' culture was defined by those to whom he belonged -- usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus (who himself denies conventional understandings of who he must be; see Mark 3:31-35); they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus' followers. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.
We belong, we seek to belong, and we invite others to belong. The cross is the invitation of the powerful to join them, and belong by excluding the outsiders. Or it is the choice to follow after Jesus, apart from the crowd.
There is an important constraint which applies to the new "family." If it does not in some way seek to dissolve the "us and them" of society it will inevitably become imperious; it will inevitably operate by scapegoat. It will cease to follow the insight of Jesus in Mark 7 that there are no 'dogs,' there are no outsiders; there are only people of God.
… the Greek word translated “deny” is the same one used to describe what Peter does with Jesus around that campfire… When asked, Peter said he didn’t know Jesus, had no connection with him.
In fact, these are the only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament: Peter denying Jesus, and Jesus saying we must deny ourselves …
To deny yourself [in the same way as] Peter denied Jesus is to set aside your own interests in order to ascertain God’s interests. It is to state that, in effect, you do not know You, and since you don’t know You, you also have no idea what that You person would want. Thus, you are ready to do what God wants. (I've added the emphasis.)
It is no coincidence that the one who does not know Jesus near the end of the gospel is the one who begins the object lesson on discipleship at the centre of the gospel. Even now, even though he has confessed the Messiah, he does not know who the Messiah is.
There may be no forgetting.
Peter forgets Jesus.
Jesus’ arrest seems to have destroyed any possible future being with Jesus, and Peter seems to have lost all memory of having been. He answers as if in a dream, like a man who does not really know where he is: “I do not know, I do not understand, what you are talking about." He may well not have understood. He is dispossessed and destitute, reduced to a vegetable like existence, controlled by elemental reflexes. He feels cold and turns to the fire. Elbowing one’s way to the fire and stretching hands toward it with the others is to act like one of them, as if one belongs with them….
[Peter is] deprived of his being with by the collapse of his universe...
So writes Rene Girard in chapter 12 of his book The Scapegoat. (He is reflecting on Mark 14:66-72) But when we step out of the body of the mob into the arena at their centre, there may be no going back. Mark takes us in to discipleship with our eyes wide open. Girard continues
The fire is much more than an ordinary background. The being with cannot become universal without losing its own value. That is why it is based on exclusions. The servant speaks only of the being with Jesus, but there is a second being with around the fire; this is what interests the servant girl, because it is hers; she knows how to defend its integrity; that is why she refuses Peter the right to warm himself by the fire….
There is no going back.
Denying ourselves is to enter the paradox of not knowing ourselves. It is to let go of who we are; that is who we have been, and enter a new being. In the context of this reading where he refers to "any [who] want to become my followers"; that is, any who want to be with me, we step out of the crowd and become a target.
And like Jesus, we may be fundamentally alone at this time. At his crucifixion he is abandoned by everyone. He even loses the sense of God— my God, my God, why have you abandoned me! At that moment, even Jesus loses faith.
As I read Girard's twelfth chapter I see that Peter in the courtyard is in the same is in the same existential place as the women at the tomb, and the same place as Jesus on the cross. Everything is lost and gone. There is no going back. There is only trust in a resurrection.
It is not that Peter denies Jesus that is the point of the story in this reading. It is that we will all be here. We will each face a time when all is lost and there is no going back, and our discipleship may hasten that time. What will we hold on to then? Who will we be?
Why would you do this?
Why would you choose a cross!?
This is where the paradox of losing and saving life opens new truth for us. It is where we escape the "trite aphorism" (Skinner) of carrying our cross, or the abusive demands for self-abnegation of too much popular piety. But it is where the cross we are called to carry becomes good news rather than a crushing burden, or a gloomy gospel that can only lead to suffering.
Our unavoidable reality is that life itself is burdensome. We all carry the burden of being alive. When our eyes are opened to this, life is terrifying. Life and consciousness mean we die.
What do we do when we have seen this, or when we realise this terror has been driving us unconsciously?
Neurotic death anxiety … is a major factor in our day-to-day lives. According to Becker, [The author of The Denial of Death] neurotic anxiety lies at the very basis of what we typically call “self-esteem.” We build up existential fortresses against the fear of death by pursuing cultural achievements, whether major or small. … These achievements are avenues or pathways created within our cultural framework (what Becker called a “cultural hero system”) whereby each of us has the choice to engage those avenues in order to create our own sense of immortality. (Kyle Roberts)
We live with the burden of proving ourselves to ourselves; specifically, of convincing ourselves we will not die. (And sometimes we live in a reality which is so terrible that death seems our only escape.)
I find people sceptical of this analysis of our being, but as Roberts says, "the basic intuition of this theory … has been demonstrated time and again by research under the rubric of Terror Management Theory." (TMT)
All people carry this burden of the terror of life. The rich and the powerful, who on the surface may appear free of it, are often rich and powerful, and cling to their status so ferociously, precisely because they have trusted that riches and power will lessen the burden of life, that they will stave off the anxiety of death, at least for a while. In such a seeing, there is also no going back. But even the rich must die.
Even the Messiah must die. Jesus must die, he is human. This is how life is. Mark asks if we will do the same. Will we accept our dying? Will we step, with Jesus, out of the cycle of violence and acquisition which struggles to cheat death? And therefore court the inevitable persecution from, and perhaps death by, the powers terrorised by our refusal to fear? Or will we deny him, even forget him?
Could it be that by dying to life, by stepping out of the safety of the crowd, that we lose the burden of life, and find life as it is really meant to be? In our western context most of us are free, most of the time, from what the Terror Management Theorists call basic anxiety; the fear that we may not be alive tomorrow. Our anxiety is neurotic anxiety. It is the burden which drives us into unnecessary debt. It fuels envy and anger. It enslaves us. Could we see the words of Matthew 6 as a reality rather than a rather impractical and foolish hyperbole?
… do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…
How shall we live?
Is he telling us we cannot have life if we will not face death? Is he saying that if we will not forget ourselves we will not find ourselves? Sometimes I can see this and sometimes I forget.
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