25 February 2018

People of Pathos

Mark 8:27-38
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.”[1] 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.”[2]  Grace, “costly grace,” as Bonhoeffer said, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus….”[3]  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….”[4]  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.[5] 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.”[6]  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.
[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Single Individual”: Two “Notes” Concerning Myself as an Author, 1846-1847, published posthumously in 1859.  
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 47.
[3] Bonhoeffer, 48.
[4] Bonhoeffer, 99.
[5] 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).
[6] C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 11 – Psychology of Religion: West and East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), §129.

04 February 2018


Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Are you tired? Stressed? Overworked? Fatigued? Anxious? Feeling overwhelmed?  If you are, you’re in good company.  The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophetic vision, these majestic, soaring, hopeful words which we know as Isaiah 40, were a people in exile. The Israelites were in Babylon, enslaved by an alien empire, far from home, living among alien gods and traditions.  They were a people who questioned God’s existence, doubted God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness. They felt confused and lost.  In fact, they even wondered whether God was the one who had done the losing, for at least, they knew where they were—in exile.  Where was God?  Isaiah asks, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God?’” (Is. 40:27).  In other words, the people are saying, thinking, God doesn’t see us. God has forgotten us. God doesn’t care.

The prophetic utterance that begins here in Isaiah 40, and continues through chapter 55—what scholars call Second Isaiah—was written to the Israelites while they were in exile.  Second Isaiah marks a radical shift in Israel’s consciousness of God, and the prophet wants the people to hear this new Word that was given to him.  He wants them to know what he knows to be true.  He calls them to remember, to recollect, to recall what they had forgotten about the true nature of God: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth” (Is. 40:21)? God is not like your false idols, the small gods of the Babylonians, all the things that you create and then invest with power and authority to give you comfort, assuage your anxiety, forget your pain, alleviate your suffering, your fear, your stress, to protect you.  No, the God of Abraham and Sarah (and the God of Jesus Christ) is not like that.  “To whom then will you compare me or who is my equal? says the Holy One” (Is. 40:25).

Yahweh is unlike any other god.  For, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  You—you in exile, you who are tired and confused, you who are exhausted, you who wonder where God is, wonder what God is doing, you who are weary and faint and wonder if you can take one more step—you!  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not grow faint or grow weary.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  Yahweh gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:28-31).

Are you tired? Stressed? Overworked? Anxious? Feeling overwhelmed? You’re in good company—because so were the people Jesus ministered to in the Galilee.  And Jesus was tired, too.  In Mark 1, we find the Israelites oppressed by another empire; this time it’s not Babylon, but Rome. They’re in exile in their home territory. And we know that Roman oppression in the Galilee was particularly brutal.  Take some time and read the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel, track the plot and activity of the Gospel, and you’ll notice just how much work Jesus does in a day.  In Mark 1:21, we have Jesus on the Sabbath in Capernaum: he taught in the synagogue, he performed an exorcism (during worship!) on a man with an unclean spirit who challenged his authority and his intention.  As soon as Jesus left the synagogue, he went to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, so Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up into health. And then we’re told, that same evening, all who were sick or possessed with demons were brought to Jesus. The entire town came to look on.  “And he cured many,” Mark tells us, note not all, “who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mk. 1:32-34).

Jesus is proclaiming and enacting his divine authority over the forces oppressing the people and making them sick.  In these stories of healing, including the exorcisms, we essentially have Jesus taking on the system, which is what it means to proclaim the “kingdom of God,”—taking on and judging and undermining the social, political, even religious systems that oppress and dehumanize God’s people and wear us down and make us sick and tired and hopeless.  So, if that’s how you feel, sick by the system, you’re in good company.

And it all got too much, even for Jesus.  The next morning, we’re told, in deepest darkness, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, to pray (Mk. 1:35).

If we hold together the Isaiah and Mark texts, we see that they share one common theme: God—and God alone—is the source of renewal in our lives.  Isaiah calls the people away from their false idols and alien gods, back to God, to trust God, God’s faithfulness, to hope in God, and when they do they will find their lives renewed, they will soar, and run, and walk. And even though Scripture uses antiquated language such as “idols,” don’t think for a minute that we don’t have idols today that we worship and adore and give power to over our lives, as if they were gods.  These gods are not going to give us what we need. They are not going to renew us and restore us and give us hope.  We need to return, again and again, to the source of our renewal.

That’s why it’s significant to see that Jesus—even Jesus—needed time to be renewed.  He had to pull himself away from the crowd, from the collective, from the people making heavy demands upon him.  He needed to be alone, in the dark, with God, in prayer.  In fact, this is the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry, especially in Mark’s Gospel: work is followed by prayer, which then allows him to get back to work.  We need prayer, all of us—and lots of it, all kinds of prayer (spoken or silent, in community or alone)—in order to do the work that is set before us.  I sometimes hear folks say, why should I pray, God already knows how I feel or what I need?  Jesus certainly never had that excuse.  Obviously, prayer was crucial, necessary for him.  How much more for all of us?  I’m reminded of what Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) once said about prayer, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes the pray-er,” that is, changes the one who prays. When we pray, with heart, with intention, pray in love, when we wrestle with God in prayer (with or without words), when we simply enter into the silence and seek to dwell in God’s presence, we are changed. 

And, you know, prayer is a pretty good remedy against the sin of idolatry, because in prayer we remember who we and whose we are, we remember that God is God, and that we aren’t.  And then in acknowledging our powerlessness, our weakness, our inadequacies, our shortcomings, our regrets, our fears, our anxieties, and our hopes, we throw ourselves upon the power and goodness of God, we “wait” on the Lord.  We lean into God’s presence, into God, we fall into “the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27), which are always there waiting to hold us, to strengthen and renew us, so that we, like Jesus, “shall mount with wings like eagles,” running and not weary, walking and not faint, committed to the work set before us. 

For, eventually, we will be found.  “Everyone is searching for you.” And without complaining, Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message [of God’s good news] there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38).  Let us go on.   “And Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mk. 1:39).   Let us go on.