Following the Crucified One—Mark 8:31—9:9

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

It is the crucified Christ who sends us out to his sisters and brothers who are being crucified by the powers-that-be every day. Are we willing to do what Jesus requires and die in the process? Or will we deny Jesus in order to save ourselves?

31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ 9 1And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

In Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence” (Chinmoku), the young Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues travels to Japan to assist the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor, a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira, has committed apostasy.

The novel relates the trials of Christians in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians") that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion, and the increasing hardship suffered by Rodrigues. As he and his companion arrive in Japan in 1639, they find the local Christian population driven underground. To ferret out hidden Christians, security officials force suspected Christians to trample on a fumi-e, a carved image of Christ. Those who refuse are imprisoned and killed by anazuri, i.e. being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled.

When Rodrigues is captured along with his companion, he begins to realize that there is no glory in martyrdom, only brutality and cruelty. Prior to his arrival, the authorities had been attempting to force priests to renounce their faith by torturing them. Now they torture other Christians as the priests look on, telling the priests that all they must do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.

Rodrigues has been brought up with an image of Christ that is noble, serene, strong, unearthly, and heroic; his Christ is full of the qualities he aspires to possess and live. Yet Rodrigues’ prayer is one-way communication; his Christ is silent.

At the climactic moment, Rodrigues hears the moans of those who have recanted but continue to be tormented until he tramples the image of Christ. As the fumi-e is brought to his cell, with the instruction to trample the image, Rodrigues realizes that the Christ image is quite different from his own: this Christ is dirty and distorted, chipped and unseemly. He refuses to trample the image, even as he feels the pain of those he could save.

The heroic Christ of his childhood and seminary training remains silent. He is convinced that however trampled-upon and distorted this image of Christ, he cannot trample it. Rodrigues is in agony. Suddenly the silence of God is broken and a voice from the image says, “Trample, Rodrigues, trample,—it is for this that I have come.”

In Endō’s novel, Rodrigues, the priest, discovers that the Christ he grew up with is silent, that the God he knows has no voice; it is not until he himself is plagued with doubt and uncertainty that God speaks, and God’s words are shocking: “Trample, Rodrigues, trample.” In Mark 8, Simon, Son of John, the boldest of Jesus’ disciples, has a similarly shocking experience with his image of Christ.

The Gospel text assigned for Lent II is part of a larger unit (Mark 8:27—9:1), which begins with Peter’s confession and ends with Jesus’ issuing a new call to discipleship. As Mark gets to the second half of his Gospel, he makes a sharp narrative turn, signified by two geographical sites: ‘Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way he asked …’ (8: 27a).

The first of these sites is Caesarea-Philippi, a major Hellenistic city far north of what could still be considered Palestine, rebuilt by Herod Philip and named by him Caesarea. Against this imperial site Mark introduces the site for authentic discipleship: “on the way”. It is this “way” of discipleship that will be at the root of the conflict of the second half of Mark.

As he has Jesus interrogate the disciples, Mark is addressing the question to us as well: ‘… and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”’ (8:27b-29).

With Peter’s confession begins what a colleague has called “one of the loudest scenes” in the Bible. The disciples are troubled when Jesus tells Peter to remain quiet about his confession, but they grow angry as they hear Jesus lay out his mission: ‘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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him’ (verses 31-32). The disciples must be glad that Peter has called Jesus the title that in their minds and hearts is connected with power, and they agree when Peter does his best to stop Jesus’ talk about suffering. Perhaps Peter grabbed Jesus by the shoulder and shouted, “Cut it out, Jesus. When I called you Messiah, all our political dreams were behind that title. No suffering, you hear? Listen to us, we know the way, just follow us!”

When Jesus calls Peter “Satan”, the phrasing is so similar to that used in the temptation story of Matthew and Luke, that it’s almost like Mark is giving us his version of that story here. ‘But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”’ (verse 33). Mark’s message is that Jesus is guarding against the temptation to abandon the Way of the Kingdom to follow another “way”, an easier way, a false way; thus Mark’s whole gospel pivots on the question: Which Jesus will you follow—the suffering Jesus who travels the Way of the Kingdom, or the glorious, triumphant Jesus whom the disciples want him to be?

Unlike at the beginning when he had said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:16ff), Jesus’ new call to discipleship comes with dire warnings: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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?” (verses 33-37).

Jesus lists three requirements for this journey of confrontation: denying self, taking up the cross, and following. The gospel was written for a community that understood being hauled up before the courts and, like Peter, being asked (later in the Passion story), under threat of death, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” The temptation is to deny Jesus in order to save our own lives. Jesus tells the disciples, “If you confess me, you deny yourself—because you will be put to death for it! And yet that is actually the way to save your life!”

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. …Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (8:38—9:1).

Ched Myers, by identifying similarities to the Book of Daniel, has shown that this section needs to be read as apocalyptic narrative:

In the story world of Mark, the “relations of power” in the [apocalyptic courtroom] myth [in Daniel 7] appear to be reversed. It is the Human One in 8:31 who, in his inevitable conflict with the powers, becomes a defendant in their court, where he is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In this sense, Mark’s Human One has more affinity with the persecuted saints of Daniel. But in the saying of 8:38f., the Human One again appears as true judge, who comes “with the angels” … to receive the kingdom. In all of this, Mark has reproduced the “bifurcation” of reality effected by Daniel’s myth. In Daniel, the prophet “sees” … oppressive rulers who appear to be prevailing in the historical moment. But if the prophet looks more deeply …, he sees the Human One establishing justice. Thus in Mark, the Human One represents at once both defendant and prosecutor—depending upon which court, “earthly” or “heavenly”, is being considered. [Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988/2008), 248-249]

Despite the dire warnings, the disciples of Jesus have always been tempted to walk away from the Way, hoping they could make Jesus follow their way. Beginning with Peter—who, just a few verses from now, wants to build “huts” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, and later denies knowing Jesus three times, people have been squeamish about the Way of the Kingdom. Luther’s contrast between the “theology of glory” (theologia gloriae) and the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis) comes to mind.

The theology of glory is built on assumptions about the way a god is expected to act in the world; it is the easy way of Peter. The theology of the cross, on the other side, is grounded in God’s self-revelation in the weakness of suffering and death; it is the Way of the Kingdom. The theology of glory confirms what people want in a god; the theology of the cross contradicts everything that people imagine that God should be.

A theology of the cross claims that there is a difference between church and Christendom, faith and certainty, hope and optimism, love and infatuation. This may not be a welcome message for many of our congregations, but it will ensure that we worship an image of God that is not silent. In Endō’s novel, the triumphing Christ of Christendom that Rodrigues believed in could only function as a model by which he would be judged. As he discovers the real Christ in the midst of his agony, the silence is broken. He has found the Christ upon whom the sufferer can cast the burden of his suffering.

Since our dominant culture prefers winning, might and success, a theology of the cross will make us look silly. A theology of the cross shows us our God as one who suffers in solidarity and compassion. “Nur der leidende Gott kann helfen”, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from prison dated July 16, 1944: “Only the suffering God is able to help”.

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” writes Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2). Only when God sheds his glory to join us in our shame, leaves heaven to enter our hells, abandons strength and power in order to join us, embraces us, holds us, loves us, and redeems us, have we met God rather than a god of our own making.

A crucified Christ is good news to a bruised and broken people, in fact, good news to us all. It is the crucified Christ who sends us out to his sisters and brothers who are being crucified by the powers-that-be every day. Are we willing to do what Jesus requires and die in the process? Or will we deny Jesus in order to save ourselves?


Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

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