Who of us, honestly, would not respond like Peter did to Jesus’ assertion that the “Son of Man,” the “Fully Human One,” the Messiah, must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, priests, and scribes, and be killed? Would we even have heard that final phrase–“and after three days rise again”? After all, Peter has just identified Jesus–this man he had dropped everything else to follow, this one who had healed so many, done such amazing, wonderful things, this one who had taught them about what God is like–“you, Jesus,” Peter had just said, “are the Messiah.”
But when Jesus said that he would have to undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed, Peter couldn’t believe that that’s what God wanted, what God would allow. And so he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. “But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”
Then Jesus said to the crowd, –to the crowd, of all things, as if this would make them want to follow him,– “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. 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?”
It’s one of the most important–and difficult–passages in all of Scripture. If this is at the heart of the gospel, how is this “good news”?
The word that Mark uses for “life” here is psyche, which is “the animating principle of life, soul, self, the center of personal identity.” (Paul Nancarrow, Process and Faith website, 3/4/12) It is more than the difference between live and dead tissue. It is the “whole sense of being a person.”– For 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. — So, “the more one tries to protect one’s selfhood,” as one theologian writes, “the less a person one becomes, but the more one gives over one’s selfhood to Jesus and the gospel, the more a person one becomes.” (Nancarrow)
“Life is suffering,” the Buddha said. And, further, “that suffering is caused by our holding on to the finite, self-interested self, rather than opening to the Great Self.” (Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary, 3/4/12) Jesus understood that. “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life [–who want to cling to the finite, self-interested self] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it, [will find the Great Self].”
But, as one preacher puts it, “Suffering is one of the reasons many in our culture question the reality of God.” (Tom Are, Jr. In Journal for Preachers, Lent 2012, p. 40) The suffering of innocents, say prominent agnostics like Richard Dawkins, makes belief in God unreasonable, if not impossible. What kind of good God allows that?
The great suffering that Jesus promised he would go through was, first of all, a choice, and secondly, suffering itself was never the point. Rather it was the consequence, the result, of faithful love. “Such love will not make our lives more comfortable,” this preacher writes, “but it will make us human.” (Are, ibid.) We are not to go looking for suffering to engage in; in fact, we are to eliminate and avoid needless suffering. Still, if life is suffering, we should not be surprised or feel singled out when it happens to us. And we should not let our fear of suffering keep us from the journey to our Great Self, as the Buddha put it, our journey to God, as Jesus put it.
The wise Quaker writer Parker Palmer “believes that fear is a contemporary cultural trait at work in every area of our common life,” even though we don’t like to acknowledge it. “Many people consider fear a shameful sign of inadequacy.” (Mitzi Minor, The Power of Mark’s Story, p. 68) But another writes, “feeling weak and vulnerable in the world is not neurotic; it’s realistic. Human beings are weak and vulnerable.” (Edward Thornton, cited in Minor, op cit., p. 69) Isn’t that what shocked us and grabbed us on 9/11? How weak and vulnerable we were to people who wished to do us harm? We had thought we were invulnerable, so strong.
“If we give [fear] appropriate attention, fear is actually quite healthy for us.” We want our children to be afraid of crossing the street without looking both ways. If there’s a critical issue that is coming between us and someone we love or know and work with, we may be afraid of raising it and ruining our relationship. However, as one professor says, “Too little attention to my fear might lead me to raise the issue carelessly. Too much fear might cause me not to raise it at all.” (Minor, op cit., p. 69)
It is in fact our response to fear that determines whether it will help us or harm us on our spiritual journeys, which the story of Jesus and many other good stories tell us will include suffering. We know about the fight or flight response to a perceived danger. Fear of suffering may cause us to flee–to abandon the journey, to flee from the Mystery, to retreat back into our carefully circumscribed, safe little worlds, our tightly held beliefs and formulations and traditions. Or we may fight–we may replace mystery with mastery, engaging in a power struggle with whatever we fear, firmly clutching to our ego control, trying to predict and control the world. That was certainly the response to our fear that we chose after 9/11. If the only choices to fear are fight or flight, then, by God, we will fight.
Both of these responses, however, actually hinder our spiritual journeys. They don’t allow us to open ourselves to receive whatever God is doing in the world, to see through the illusions all around us, or to follow Jesus wherever he is going ‘on the way.’” One author puts it this bluntly, “When fear prevails in a decision-making process you are seeing the face of evil.” (Thornton, in Minor, p. 71) “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says to Peter.
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it.” So much of our culture is about pumping up our sense of self, isn’t it? Buy this make-up–you’re worth it. Building up children’s self-esteem is the by-word in education, though too often at the cost of accountability or honesty. On the other hand, we also know that for some segments of our population–for those on the margins, for illegal aliens, for racial minorities, for women, often–the problem is not building up too great a sense of self but the negation of self. You don’t matter at all. You are disposable. You are a category, not a human being. That is not what Jesus had in mind when he talked about “denying self.”
“The American dream,” someone has said, “is being able to do what you want, buy what you want, whenever you want it.” It’s all about you, or me, or actually our little selves. But “the opposite of self-centeredness is being authentically human, as God created us to be.” (Minor, p. 87) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” “The spiritual journey,” said German theologian Dorothee Soelle, “takes us to the furthest point of self-emptying (the cross) so we can experience the deepest self-confirmation.” (Cited by minor, p. 87)
“In the cross of Christ I glory,” the hymn says. It’s a tough one to sing. We, like Peter, can’t believe that new life and glory must pass through the cross, through suffering. That’s not how we think a loving, compassionate God should work. But we, like Peter, have more to learn about this God and the life we are promised. We do not get the God we want, but we do get the God we need; which is “the God who sheds glory to join us in our shame,” writes one preacher, “the God who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth; the God who abandons strength–at least strength as we imagine it–so that God can join us, embrace us, hold onto us, and love and redeem us at our places of weakness. This God will understand our disappointments [our fears, our doubts]…Moreover, this God will meet us in [the places of our weakness and fear and suffering] and teach us anew and again that it is at the places of our brokenness that we sense, meet, and are most fully enveloped by God’s strong love.” (David Lose, workingpreacher.com, 3/4/12) That is the God we need, if not the God we want.
There is another response to the fear that we will experience on our spiritual journeys– and the story of Jesus and others assure us that fear is part of the package. “I am not afraid,” Luke Skywalker says to master Yoda. “Ah, but you will be,” Yoda assures him. “You will be.” The word for fear or be afraid occurs 13 times in Mark’s gospel, and usually it’s connected to the word faith. Instead of fleeing or fighting, we might acknowledge our fear and keep going anyway. Fear is the emotion described in many encounters with the Holy–“Woe is me!” the prophet Isaiah cried when he came into the Presence.” “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs says. The great German philosopher Rudolph Otto wrote about the “awful, dreadful, fascinating attraction we feel during an experience of tremendous mystery, the mysterium tremendum. “ (Minor, p. 77) That fear is appropriate, wise, to be expected.
We can acknowledge our fear–of suffering, of shame, of loss, of the Holy–and go on, trusting, believing. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. 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?”
In the light and love and terrible, awesome Presence of God, our small selves stand exposed, ragged. But “be not afraid!” Have fear, but don’t become your fear. If we can loosen our grip, unclench our fists, and let go into that light, love, and Presence, we will find our Greater Self, who we truly are. We become part of the one loaf, the bread of life, part of the one cup of blessing. So let us go on. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark