Commentary, Mark 8:27-38, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
"All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing."
"Preaching the Anti-King," David Lose, Working Preacher, 2012.
"To 'deny yourself and take up your cross' invites us into what the cross can also mean -- not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships."
General Resources for Sunday's Lessons
|Countryside of Caesarea Philippi|
Not in easy words, O God, but in selfless deeds is the faith we profess made real and the love our Master commanded made present. Give us the strength to take up the cross and wisdom to follow where Christ leads, losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.
There is no shortage of theological and New Testament scholarship on this passage. In bible studies across the church for decades past and decades hence, I imagine, people are quick to pick up "their cross." But we might pause to ask again what exactly is it we are picking up? For whom do we pick it up? And, what is the real cost to our manner of living. For it is in this passage that we see the prism of discipleship so sharply focused and our keen shadow of sin so quickly to be at work to hide it.
Not unlike many passages in the Gospel of Mark a healing is followed by an important teaching. Jesus has healed a blind man suggesting a kingly power. We have already been at work trying to understand who Jesus is:
1:27 "What is this? A new teaching with authority!"
4:41 "Who then is this? -- For even the wind and the sea obey him!"
6:2 "Where does this man get these things form?" (Marcus, Mark, vol 2, 61)
Part of what we begin to understand is that Mark is intent on telling us who Jesus is so that we might recognize him in our own life. In our passage today Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them who do people say that I am. And they respond. It is not a particularly unique question. Though as a friend of mine (the Rev. Lisa Hines) reminded me the culture in which Jesus lives is one where the community defines the person. Thus we might remember the endless adjectives that describe the people in the Jesus narrative. The syrophoenician woman is but one example. People are constantly named by their community. So then Jesus is also named by the community.
Peter offers a glimpse into the reality of who Jesus is: The Messiah. Jesus is recognized by the community for his work, his power, his teaching. He is named by his community as the Messiah.
But we are reminded of Isaiah 55:8 as we ponder the meaning of this title and its work of suffering, death, and resurrection. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways." (Marcus, 614) And it is here that is the difficulty.
I know myself, so I am going to claim the reality that I am the one who constantly is choosing my cross. It is indeed mine. And, because it is so, it is rarely Jesus'.
To follow this messiah means a suffering and death not of our own choosing. If we are to make our pilgrim journey with this God then the crossroads of our redemption will rarely be found in the comfortable setting in which I choose to make my stand. Rather, the edge of my discipleship is always an edge more often chosen by God and revealed by others. If I am to truly make know the Good News of God in Christ then I must be also willing to realize and act out of a complete giving up of my self. And, I should add, "myself" is not too keen on that idea.
Scholars point to John Chrysostom's meditation on discipleship:
He that is denying another...should he see him either beaten, or bound, or led to execution, or whatever he may suffer, does not stand by him, does not help him, is not moved, feels nothing for him, as being once for all alienated from him...[In the same way, the disciple of Jesus should] have nothing to do with himself, but give himself up to all dangers and conflicts; and let him so feel, as though another were suffering at all. (Marcus translation, 625)
We are to give up ourselves completely to this work. And, we are to see in our lives the areas of failure, shame, pain, and suffering as moments on the edge of this new life of discipleship. We are to see that at the very edge of our life, in the regions we dare not go, lest it cost too much - that it is this abyss where lies redemption.
Are we willing to allow the Messiah Jesus to save the world? Even the world we don't like? The political party we don't like? The candidate we don't like? The person in our family who drives us crazy...does Jesus save them? Can we see the prostitute as someone saved by God? Can we see the homeless person as someone saved by God? Who is on your list of the people God does not save? I have a list too. It is true. And, in giving up myself to the cross I find that I must in some very strange way live on the edge of a life where God is at work saving those I am most likely estranged from.
Is it not true in the Gospel? Does Jesus in Mark's Gospel not save all kinds of sinners, demon possessed, unclean, bleeding, dying, unfaithful people? Is this not the edge of the world in which we live.
In some way I guess, for the Christian who reads this passage today, we are encouraged to look up and out of our safe community and wonder...am I at the crossroads? Am I picking up Jesus' Cross of Grace? Am I standing on the edge?
Or, have I chosen the safe road, the road well traveled? Have I chosen the safe Messiah who is safely kept in the church? Have I chosen a Messiah that requires very little change of me; and certainly one that would not dare to invite me to soil myself in the service of others?
So, we might ask on this Sunday, who is your Messiah and what is his cross like? Maybe, just maybe the Messiah the church and her good and saintly people have chosen is not quite dangerous enough for the Jesus of today's Gospel.
"The preacher encountering this text might be forgiven for the sudden urge to suggest, in lieu of the sermon, that the congregation engage in a time of silent prayer."
Commentary, James 3:1-12, Sandra Hack Polaski, Preaching This Week,WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.
"James is right. The tongue is a fire, its flames spreading wherever it can find a source of fuel."
"Sticks, Stones, and the Power of Words," Eric D. Barreto, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012.
"We are called to refuse the form of power that is practiced in the ideologies that set nature on fire all around us. The deceitful words of those in power, the words of blessing and cursing from the same mouth, these the words we are called to reject."
"Setting Nature on Fire," Halden Doerge, The Ekklesia Project, 2009.
I think a lot of preachers will avoid this Sunday. The truth is that it is a good Sunday to preach and to ponder the power invested in the teacher and preacher within the Christian community.
I think a lot of time the preacher wishes to exonerate his or herself from the high calling and expectations of such leadership. It is true that priests and pastors are just other human beings. But at the same time they are given certain powers and authorities and their actions affect these powers and authorities in many ways. Here lies James' point.
When a priest, for instance harms someone in word or in deed, their action has an effect upon the community. A married male priest cannot sleep with a woman who is not his wife and expect that such an act does not directly impact the way in which people see marriage or the words that he says during a marriage service. It does not mean that the priest or woman are not forgiven by God or loved by God. It does mean that their actions have consequences within the Christian community.
Another example is the priest who speaks of God's love and mercy and grace for a select few but multiplies hate and violence against a minority or someone different than themselves. The Christian who ignites violence against blacks, immigrants, or the GLBT community is not someone who is speaking the commandment of God to love neighbor and welcome the stranger.
These are extreme examples but it is to say that there are areas of our ministry that are directly impacted by areas of our life, our conduct, and our words.
James says look preachers you can't go acting out or teaching things that are not true. He says basically a teacher of God who goes off on their own and starts making stuff up or speaking outside of the provinces of God's own decrees is not only not a teacher but a person whose tongue is like fire and can enflame the whole community. God intends to us not to kill or make violence on others. God intends us to be faithful to one another. God intends us not to abuse one another. God intends for us to share what we have. God intends for us to create just structures for the common good. God intends for us to embrace the person who is different than us. God's mercy is abundant as is God's love.
James is clear that the preacher and his tongue are a dangerous thing: It can be used for good and for evil: we honour God with it, but we also curse fellow humans (“made in the likeness of God”, v.9). It should only be used for good. In nature, any one “spring” (v. 11) only produces good or bad water. Fig trees and grapevines only yield what God has intended – so we should only speak good. The devil (“salt water”, v. 12) only yields evil. (This is blogger Chris Haslaam's synopsis.)
What goes for the preacher goes for the follower of Jesus. What we say can have profound damages. In 2015 a pastor's spouse took a picture of another woman in the congregation. She then posted the picture on her facebook page and asked if what the woman was wearing was appropriate for church. The picture and the survey went viral on the internet getting thousands of views, shares, and comments. Most of them were negative and shamed the church going woman for wearing what they thought was an inappropriate dress. The damage was done. A woman who came to church to hear about God's love, unconditional acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness, was publicly shamed by the community's leadership. This is the kind of act which springs forth from the tongue, has global consequences, reveals to those who suspect the church of mean spiritedness, and harms another human being. It is the kind of act that James is saying isn't appropriate - most of all not from the leadership of God's community.