Second Sunday in Lent
“On the way he asked his disciples…” (Mark 8:27). On the way. Not before they left Bethsaida. Not after they arrived at their destination, but in transit. On the way.
Where were they going? Caesarea Philippi, originally known as Paneas, in honor of the sacred grotto or cave of the Greek god Pan, located there. Today, you can stand in the grotto and peer down deep into the blackness of the cave, believed to be the entrance to Hades, gateway to the underworld. Centuries before Jesus, the place was associated with the worship of the Baalim, the ancient gods of the Semitic people. Nearby, Herod the Great (d. 4 BC) built an enormous temple, an Augusteum, to honor the divinity of Caesar Augustus (63 BC–19 AD). In Jesus’ time this was a Gentile region, therefore an unclean place, a transgressive place. There were temples to many gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon there; not one for Yahweh. After Herod’s death, the Roman Senate divided the kingdom into four smaller kingdoms, with one kingdom given to each of Herod’s sons. The city of Paneas was rebuilt by Herod Philip (d. 34 BC) and renamed by him Caesarea, Caesarea Philippi.
That’s where they’re heading. That’s where Jesus is taking them. Beyond—beyond the familiar, beyond their comfort zones, beyond the religiously and socially acceptable (from a Jewish perspective), to this secular place, this profane place, this unclean, unsure, uncertain, deeply disturbing place, to talk about suffering.
And on the way…. As they journey from one place to the next, from the known to the unknown, in this in-between place, this threshold place, this liminal place between origin and destination, Jesus asks them two questions. Liminal places—from the Latin, limen, meaning “threshold”—are by nature unsettling (or can be). At least the Romans thought they were. That’s why Romans often marked the thresholds of their homes with oil or had little shrines near the doorways of their homes or sought the blessing of a god whenever arriving or leaving home. Doorways, thresholds, places of transition are holy, but they also trigger anxiety in us. These places on the way, these liminal places, where people are in transit—think of airports or train stations or bus stations—are often places where all kinds of things get stirred in us. There’s a reason why you find chapels or prayer rooms in these places. For, who knows what will happen when we leave home? A liminal place is often a good place to talk about serious things, to consider ultimate concerns.
“And on the way [Jesus] asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’” Away from the crowds pressing in on them, away from the Jewish community, away from tradition and culture, outside the bounds of convention, out there in the country, on the road, they’re free to talk. You can imagine the disciples walking at a comfortable pace with Jesus, perhaps a little nervous, filling the time and silence with small talk or chatter, passing the time, not sure where he’s taking them. You can imagine Jesus saying, perhaps in a moment of extended silence, “So, what’s the word on the street? What are you hearing? What are people saying about me?” “Some think you’re John the Baptist. Can you believe that, Jesus? Some even say you’re Elijah. Isn’t that crazy? A lot of people say you’re one of the prophets, but not sure which one.”
Some more silence. Then Jesus stops and turns and asks, “But who you do say that I am? What about you?” Peter, always quick with the mouth, often without thinking, blurts out, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus “sternly ordered them” not to say a word about this to anyone.
Jesus takes advantage of this teachable moment in this liminal space out there beyond convention and begins to share how the “Son of Man,” meaning himself, “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” (Mk. 8:31-32). Jesus says all of this “quite openly,” Mark tells us. There’s nothing to hide, it’s out there for all of them to hear. But it was too much for Peter, who has his own agenda. So he took Jesus aside and asked, “What, are you crazy? What are you doing? You can’t say stuff like this, Jesus. Are trying to get us killed?”
Jesus turns away from Peter, looks at the rest of the disciples, and rebukes him—without looking at him—“Get behind me, Satan! [Get out of my sight.] For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk. 8:33).
And then, remarkably, Jesus turns away from the disciples and calls out to the crowd looking on, “If any want to become my followers”—implying that some of the disciples obviously don’t want to be his followers—“let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). And we know what comes next, these searing words of call and judgment and warning, “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?” (Mk. 8:35-38).
This is one of the most significant passages in Mark’s Gospel. It’s the central, pivotal text in Mark; everything turns on what Jesus says on the way to Caesarea Philippi. It’s essentially an invitation to discipleship, “If any want to become my followers….” Jesus wants to know from us: How serious are you? Do you really want to walk with me? Do you really want to follow in my steps?
You. Not everyone else. You. For, as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said and knew and struggled and suffered in his courageous life, “The crowd is untruth.” In other words, “The crowd is a lie.” Kierkegaard was deeply suspicious of crowds, the so-called wisdom of the collective, what everyone thinks or believes (including the collective known as the church). Kierkegaard knew that the majority is often wrong. (And I tend to agree.) We need to pull ourselves away from the crowd, pull ourselves out from the collective.
What about you? Away from the crowd, when you’re not here in worship, who is Jesus to you? What do you say? Not what your spouse thinks or your family or your parents. Not what your church school teachers taught you (despite how well meaning they were and are). Not what your pastors believe. Not what the church believes. At one point—or many—we must answer this question for ourselves—existentially, personally, individually, from the heart, from the soul, from the depths. Not what you think you ought to believe. Not what you think the Bible says you need to believe. Not what you think you’re supposed to confess when you stand to recite the creed. What do you think? Who is Jesus to you? And if you still desire to be a follower, a disciple, a student of the Crucified, are you willing to walk with him? Are you willing to suffer the cost of your answer? For the way of Jesus will inevitably lead toward suffering. Some Christians think that because Jesus suffered for them, they don’t have to. Yes, we know of Jesus’ suffering, sure. But to be his follower means we too are called to suffer.
Mark 8:31 is the first time we hear reference to Jesus “undergoing great suffering.” Then Jesus elaborates further with talk about taking up a cross, of putting something to “death” in order to take up something else, losing in order to find. This same message of suffering is echoed in Mark 9:31 and again in 10:33-34. To be a follower of the crucified inevitably means that we participate in and share in and experience a particular kind of suffering.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) extraordinary book The Cost of Discipleship, written in 1937 during the oppression of the church by the Nazi regime, we’re given a deep, challenging theological wrestling with what it means to be a follower of Christ. The German title was Nachfolge, meaning “the act of following.” Bonhoeffer makes a distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Grace, “costly grace,” as Bonhoeffer said, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus….” It is costly because it requires something of us. It costs us. It places a burden and a demand upon our lives. That’s why Bonhoeffer could say, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like [Martin] Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time….” We can’t run from the cross.
There was a time when you would never find a cross in a Presbyterian church—that seemed too “Catholic,” I guess. Thankfully, those days are over. We have a cross here in our sanctuary, a beautiful Celtic cross, modelled after the standing cross of St. John, found on Iona (I wear the same cross most Sundays). It’s not a crucifix, it’s an “empty” cross (as my mother would have said), empty of the suffering Christ; it’s a symbol of resurrection. Nevertheless, we must remember that a cross is a symbol of extreme suffering. It’s critical for us to remember that the Christian life is always “cruciform,” as Mike Gorman reminds us, because Christ’s life was cruciform, that is, it took the form of cross, it took the form of suffering. If we walk with Christ then we will, inevitably, be confronted with suffering. Christians are people of pathos.
Now we must be extremely careful when speaking about suffering. To be honest, I’m a little uneasy talking about suffering, in fear that it might be misheard. I’m not talking about glorying in suffering, nor self-flagellation, of forcing ourselves to suffer. We must be careful about talking too glibly about “taking up a cross,” or unnecessarily suffering, enduring something when one shouldn’t because we think “it’s our cross to bear.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I am all too aware of the extreme suffering we experience. I also know that we can cause others to suffer, even people we say we love. We have a way of making crosses for people. Talking about suffering is difficult, extremely complicated. For some, Jesus’ teaching here in Mark 8 might sound especially confusing, even masochistic, for shouldn’t we be working to alleviate human suffering, shouldn’t we be getting rid of the crosses? Haven’t we had enough crosses? You might be saying, I have suffered enough in life, I’m suffering now, I don’t need more suffering. I don’t want to hear about a cross.
In the Acts of John, a Gnostic text that dates from the 2nd century, we find the Hymn of Jesus. The English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) set it to music in 1917, probably in response to the Battle of the Somme the previous year. In this extraordinary text, Jesus says these words, “If ye know how to suffer, ye would know how to suffer no more. Learn to suffer and ye shall overcome.” There is deep, profound psychological and theological wisdom here. (And don't call the church police on me for citing a Gnostic text.) These words have been with me for decades. Out of my own experience, I have found them to be true. But I would never, ever say this to someone in the throes of suffering. Still, it’s an insight I know, personally, existentially, to be true.
After being at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zürich the past three weeks, I’m reminded of something that psychiatrist C. G. Jung (1875-1961) found to be true. He said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Sometimes we suffer more because we resist facing what we know at some level we must suffer through and experience in order to grow, in order to have a meaningful, enriching, purposeful life; we resist suffering through what needs to be faced, confronted, accepted—not unlike Peter. We could say that this is resisting “the cross,” resisting the legitimate suffering that is required for discipleship. Personal transformation, growth, healing, and development, growing in grace and gratitude, heeding the call and purpose of our lives—in other words, following Jesus—inevitably entail some form of suffering.
This is heavy, I know. It’s tough to talk about, especially in a sermon. This text is demanding. Suffering takes many forms. One size does not fit all. What Jesus is talking about is the kind of suffering that will almost, inevitably result whenever we align our lives with God’s vision for humanity and the world. Whenever the selfish, ego-centric part of us, with its fearful, small agenda is forced to yield to God’s larger, life-giving, redemptive, and expansive vision for our lives, that yielding, of giving up one life for another, is a crucifixion, it’s the way of the cross, it’s an act of suffering. Bonhoeffer is again helpful here. Writing from Tegel Prison in Berlin, 18 July 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard Bethge, “Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”
Isn’t that what Jesus was doing? He shared in the suffering of God in the world. The suffering of God occurs when God sees and experiences the suffering of God’s people. Jesus shows that when we align ourselves with God’s hopes and dreams for humanity, when we mourn with God, we share in the suffering of God in the world. Through the sharing of suffering, when we suffer in this way, we are moved by the suffering of the world. We suffer in order to reduce the suffering of God’s people.
Where is God suffering today? Look around! Everywhere! To follow Jesus means we enter into those suffering places and not run from them—not all of them, but some. A Christian shares in the suffering of God’s people. Our capacity to care, our capacity for greater compassion (which means to suffer with someone) is deepened, not lessened; it’s intensified. As people of pathos, we find ourselves caring even more, entering more deeply into life, freer to share in the tears and griefs of God’s people, freer to enter into the wounds and the pain and injustice of God’s people. We might be called to suffer more, summoned to fight and resist and protest—whatever it takes to tends to the wounds of God’s people, to bind them up, and heal them, and offer liberation. This is the way of the cross.
-Georges Rouault (1873-1958), Christ in Agony (1939).
-St. John's Cross, Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland.
 Søren Kierkegaard, “The Single Individual”: Two “Notes” Concerning Myself as an Author, 1846-1847, published posthumously in 1859.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 47.
 Bonhoeffer, 48.
 Bonhoeffer, 99.
 See Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
 C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 11 – Psychology of Religion: West and East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), §129.