Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

These verses are crucial for understanding the Gospel according to Mark as a whole and for fathoming what it means to be Christian.

September 16, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 8:27-38

These verses are crucial for understanding the Gospel according to Mark as a whole and for fathoming what it means to be Christian.

The Passage in Context

Almost exactly at the book’s midpoint, this passage initiates a major shift in Mark’s plot. The word Christ has not appeared since the Gospel’s opening verse. We have had seven-plus chapters of Jesus’ ministry, questions asked about his true identity and authority, secrets told and disclosure promised, and demonic powers identifying Jesus as God’s Son. Readers have been given no indication that death awaits Jesus, although if you know the book’s ending maybe you see foreshadowing in his baptism (1:9-11), the opposition he encounters (3:6), and John’s execution (6:14-29).

Suddenly Jesus is near Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman setting and once the limit of ancient Israel’s northward extension. Here he pops the question: “Who do people say that I am?” Now he wants to discuss his reputation, here at this borderland?

Before the scene ends, Jesus announces, for the first of multiple times, his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He also — finally! — starts to tell his disciples and others just what he wants from them. Already he has beckoned some to follow and appointed apostles (3:13-19a), but now he describes what following means: it’s self-denial and cross-bearing. Now we see where this road of discipleship will lead: in losing one’s life, and ironically thus to save it. Following will also make a particular kind of statement, since crosses figure in the equation. It’s going to get messy.

“Who Do People Say That I Am?”

When people offer John, Elijah, or one of the prophets as responses to Jesus’ question, they give sensible answers. Much of Jesus’ ministry has clearly evoked these figures’ legacy through his calls to repentance, healings, and meals served in the wilderness.

Yet Peter’s claim, “You are the Christ,” makes an astounding statement. So far, Jesus hasn’t done anything that looks particularly “Christ”-like. The few intertestamental Jewish texts that mention “the Christ” paint a very different picture. This means Peter’s comment is anticipatory. Peter cannot be saying, “The stuff you’re doing, Jesus, reminds me of those obscure references we find in some writings about a uniquely anointed — that is, divinely authorized — deliverer.” No, by calling Jesus “the Christ,” at this point in the story, Peter declares, “I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.”

No wonder Peter lays into Jesus in verse 32. Suffering? Rejection? Killed? Wasn’t Jesus paying attention when Peter said he was the Christ? Everything Jesus describes in verse 31 would appear to disqualify him from being that person. Good thing Peter is there to straighten him out and show him the path the Christ is supposed to follow.

Peter gets the title right, but the meaning wrong. His confession uses technically accurate language, but he cannot yet see what this language entails.

Not only does Jesus’ identity include his eventual death and resurrection; it will finally be defined by those things.

And so Jesus — just like the Gospel author — embarks on a project of recasting who “the Christ” is and what he will do. Jesus won’t wield power over others; instead, powerful and cynical people will have their way with him.

“If Any Want to Become My Followers…”

It’s precisely at this point, as Jesus speaks about his fate, when he starts making public statements about following him. In verse 34 he addresses “the crowd with his disciples,” and he invites “any” who want to follow him.

Whispered discussions about Jesus’ identity result in an open invitation to participate. Mark’s Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.

It is crucial to view Jesus’ invitation (verses 34-38) in connection with what he has just revealed about himself. The imperatives “let them deny themselves” and “let them take up their cross” risk becoming trite aphorisms if we forget they are about following this guy, the one who has just described his fate.1

Self-denial and cross-bearing describe what it means to follow Jesus. These important ideas could be the focus of a whole sermon. I have explored them elsewhere,
for those who desire more detail. Jesus’ portrait of discipleship is anything but attractive or easy.

Self-denial (a notion John Calvin said constitutes “the sum of the Christian life”2) is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us. A person in Jesus’ culture was defined by those to whom he belonged — usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus (who himself denies conventional understandings of who he must be; see Mark 3:31-35); they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus’ followers. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.

Self-denial does not mean seeking or embracing abuse for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue. Jesus has spent over seven chapters alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever he encounters it; how could he be endorsing these things here? Do not allow this text to perpetuate or excuse victimization. The kind of suffering Jesus acknowledges as a reality in this passage (verse 35) is a particular kind: persecution resulting from following him. Self-denial and redefinition come with their risks.

Likewise, cross-bearing means much more than patience or obedience. It means death. It means the resignation of one’s reputation and life. Crosses imply rejection; those who bore crosses in the Roman imperial world were publicly declaring that their society or their leaders had denied them. Those who follow Jesus, associating with this vividly rejected Christ, take on an identity and a way of living that pose threats to the world’s corrosive ideologies and idolatries.

Christology and Discipleship

Say it exactly like this in a sermon and people may fall asleep, but it’s nevertheless true: Mark’s Gospel considers Christology and discipleship in an integrated fashion. That is, as Jesus discloses more and more about his identity and fate in this and subsequent passages, he also describes what it means to participate with him. Knowledge about Jesus’ identity is useless if it remains abstract; this Christ calls followers to journey with him. Following Jesus is not a wandering voyage; it points a particular direction, ending up at crucifixion and resurrection.

Want to learn who Jesus really is? Follow him. Remember, it’s a way open to “any.”

What’s the proper response to the truth that he is God’s Anointed? Following him.

What does it mean to follow him, to truly participate in the kingdom he proclaims and the work to which he calls us? It means to expect the same consequences he faced in life and in death. Mark’s view of discipleship is hardly rosy. Presumably Mark’s original readers understood the costs much better than you or I.

Mark’s view on Jesus and his followers also refuses to promise full clarity. Peter’s confusion about Jesus’ fate and authority reminds us of how difficult — how weird — it is to embrace a suffering Christ. We would rather define Jesus according to our own priorities. Following Jesus, with its self-denial and cross-bearing, becomes a lived, enfleshed means of orienting us to who Jesus is and how he becomes known.

Again, Mark 8:34-38 offers an extremely difficult description of what we call Christian discipleship. Mark’s Gospel seems aware of this. Remember, this book concludes with no one still following Jesus, at least in a literal sense. Everyone has fled him by then. But Jesus never denies his followers, even the would-be ones who are bedeviled by so many distractions and competing commitments.

1The plurals (“them,” etc.) in Jesus’ speech in verse 34 are attempts at gender-inclusive translation. In Greek, these are singular; that is, Jesus addresses each individual.
2Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 7.