“Then he began to teach them…”
It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it, to find these words at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel. The fact that they occur here is a sign to us of an important shift in emphasis. Up to this point, the accent has been on Jesus’ power and authority; from now on, the emphasis will be on his rejection and death. Up to this point the gospel has witnessed to Jesus’ messiahship; now it will begin to explain its meaning.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. He said all this quite openly.”
Peter has rightly confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but when Jesus begins to teach him what this means he recoils at the idea. Peter instinctively rejects the notion of a suffering Christ, and presumes to take Jesus aside and rebuke him, as one would take aside a child to correct him. But Jesus will not be patronized. “Get behind me, Satan!” He recognizes as a temptation the suggestion that God’s Anointed One can avoid the suffering, rejection and death that will come to him if he remains faithful to God’s way. He rejects the notion that God’s rule should offer him power without pain and glory without humiliation. Perhaps he himself has wrestled with this temptation. It is our temptation, too, to think that path to new life will not require us to die to self.
Jesus begins to teach his disciples this,
that when they cling to their ego-driven ways they will find death, not life;
that they will begin to find the true life when they let go of their need to control and possess;
that the way to self-fulfillment is the way of self-denial.
What is true for him is true for them as well, so he begins to teach them what it means to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow (him)” (v. 34). He begins to teach them what it means to be a disciple of his, a follower of his.
Jesus shows Peter the rightful place of a disciple. “Get behind me.” “Follow me.” Disciples are not to guide, protect or possess Jesus; they are not to dictate how it should be for him. They are to follow him, they are to come after him. Disciples are learners who follow Jesus; they are followers who learn from him. What they must learn above all is to follow Jesus in his obedience to the will of God, though it means suffering and death to their own preferred way.
The world entices us with promises of self-fulfillment. Self-fulfillment, it says, comes through achievement, success, riches, power, sex, the control of one’s own destiny. Jesus speaks of self-fulfillment, too, but in a very different way. Self-fulfillment, he says, comes through letting go, relinquishing our need to control and define, to manipulate and possess. Self-fulfillment comes through laying down our lives in obedience to God’s deepest yearnings for us. This is why we look to the One who “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified” and we pray “that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it no one other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, p.99). It is because he alone can begin to teach us this life-giving way.
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