We know that “gospel” means “good news.” It’s also the name of a kind of literature that is not a biography or a piece of journalism, but rather the telling of a story that conveys “good news.” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the four gospels that are in our Bible, but we also know that there were many “gospels” in the ancient world that did not make it into our Bible–the gospel of Thomas, for example, the gospel of Judas, the gospel of Mary, the gospel of the Good Shepherd, to name just a few.
This passage from Mark’s gospel which David just read for us is the heart of Mark’s gospel, so important that we hear echoes of it at least two more times. “The Son of Humanity 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.” Wow! That’s the good news?! Spare me the bad news, right? Jesus doesn’t–spare them, that is. He goes on to say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
How can this be good news? Suffering, rejection, death on a cross–sounds like everything I would want to avoid, and, if I’m honest, do try to avoid. The disciples have endured a lot of bad press over the centuries for being dense, for not getting it, for wimping out at the end, but let’s be honest–would we do any differently? Death as a central part of the path to glory is something of a deal-breaker, isn’t it? For us it is, but we know that for many people in the world even today, death as a martyr–or witness–is exactly the way to glory.
The disciples believed, as one commentator writes, that the “secret to life was strength and power, rather than vulnerability and love.” (David Lose, inthemeantime, 2/23/15) We do to, don’t we? So they–and most people I know–saw Jesus’ miracles as signs of his strength and power, rather than manifestations of love. But when you think about any miracle that Jesus is said to have performed–the many healings, raising a mother’s only son from the dead, casting out demons, even walking across the water to be with the disciples–are they not at root manifestations of love first, rather than displays of power, for power’s sake?
Our culture reinforces the notion that the “secret” or the essence of life is power and strength, rather than vulnerability and love. Advertisements convince us that we are inadequate, not powerful or strong enough, without buying a certain product or service. Of course, “power and strength” are described in terms of wealth, or a certain definition of beauty, or body type, or sex appeal, or success in the workplace, but what all of these are going for is power and strength. We are told in many and varied ways that the way to happiness is to have or buy or be this thing and, oddly, to sacrifice our health and our relationships to get this “thing”–this amount of money or success or celebrity. We might want to notice what that way of life is sometimes called–”the rat race.” I’m miserable now, but someday it’s all going to be worth it. Alas, we know that all too often, that someday never arrives, and if it does, it’s never as glorious as we had imagined. There’s always more that we think would make us happy. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Jesus asked. “Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
If you saw the movie “Selma” or watched last Sunday’s Academy Awards and heard John Legend and Common sing their song, “Glory,” you know the kind of glory they’re singing about. In the background is the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from Selma to Montgomery, full of confrontation and suffering and sacrifice, even death; but we also know, don’t we? that we experience “glory–and, for that matter [as one writer puts it] power and strength and security–in those moments when we surrender our claim to power and strength and security and glory in order to serve others.” [Lose, ibid.] The middle and high school class here experience that in their monthly service at the Kitchen Cupboard–it’s dirty and sometimes tedious work, but as they talk about the people who come to the Kitchen Cupboard each week, who find a clean and orderly place prepared for them as they seek to feed themselves and their families– over and over it is this service that the students say is the most meaningful part of their time together.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” “Each and every time we make ourselves vulnerable to the needs of those around us,” as one pastor says, “each time we give ourselves in love to another, each time we get out of our own way and seek not what we want but what the world needs, we come alive, we are uplifted, we experience the glory of God made manifest.” [Lose] Have you not experienced that? Do you not know that to be true in your experience as a parent or a partner, when you have responded to the need of another, when you’ve done some random act of kindness or senseless beauty? I hope so. This really is good news.
And this doesn’t mean becoming a doormat to anyone who would walk over you. You do matter; who you are matters. The self Jesus calls us to deny or lose is “our inauthentic, self-interested, narrow, and defensive self,” as Bruce Epperly puts it. [Adventurous Lectionary, 3/1/15] We are not to deny our genuine needs or to see ourselves as unworthy of love, respect, and dignity. These are not instructions for the battered wife to simply submit to her abusive husband or for the oppressed to accept their lot in life. “Our compassion,” Epperly says, “may lead to greater pain as we identify with the pain of others and sacrifice what once were ‘necessities’ for the greater good of the whole. But the abundant life that emerges is more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ibid.)
This passage at the heart of Mark’s gospel is, as David Lose puts it, “the Gospel’s theory of everything–the more we give, the more we receive; the more we seek to be a friend, the more friends we discover; and the more we love, the more we are loved.” [Lose, op cit.] Or, as the late Leonard Nimoy, known to many as Mr. Spock, said, “The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have.” Death becomes part of a life of giving and receiving, of mutual accountability and interdependency. The self we give up is the isolated, self-serving, unassailable individual. Intimacy, support, vulnerability, love, and community are the nature of the life we take on. We cannot be our true Selves apart from relationship and community. That is our very nature, created, as we are, in God’s image, which is also essentially relationship and community–that’s what the Trinity is about.
The cross is the location and symbol of God’s commitment to be in intimate relationship with us, in our life and in our death. Take up your cross–take up relationship with God. That relationship is as intimate as the cells of your body, and as we are invited to take and eat the bread, take and eat the wine of this meal, we are invited into an unbreakable relationship with God, a relationship that even death cannot break. This is gospel. This is good news. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark