The Hard Teaching

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About half-way through the gospel, Jesus asks the big question. For eight chapters, the good news of God has been proclaimed, demons have been driven out, many sick have been healed, lepers touched and declared clean, sins forgiven, authorities baffled, stories told, the wind rebuked, a girl restored to life, and thousands fed.

We have come this far with him. Following him we have watched and listened, wondered, questioned – and now he turns around and asks the twelve trying to keep up with him, “Who do people say that I am?”

They tell him what they have heard along the way, “Some say, the Baptist, others, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Easy answers for them, there’s plenty of speculation coming through the grapevine.

Then Jesus asks the big question, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”

Half-way through the gospel, the disciples think they know who this man is they are following. But then a curious sequence of conversations begins. Three times Jesus speaks of his impending suffering and death, and three times the disciples completely miss the point.

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.

They didn’t want to hear about suffering. Having called Jesus God’s Messiah – and Jesus didn’t object – Peter and the others had begun to map out the rest of the journey to Jerusalem, and the death of a suffering messiah apparently didn’t fit in the picture. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to save God’s people from suffering? That thought may well have been the moment when Peter quit following, came up beside Jesus, and gave voice to Satan.

It is no subtle irony that the one who just confessed Jesus to be God’s Messiah now opposed the coming of God’s reign in the person of Jesus. It doesn’t matter if his motivation was concern for his friend’s well-being or if he thought there was a better, simpler way from the hills of Galilee to the throne in Jerusalem. Like all of us, Peter wanted a messiah who would fulfill his hopes and expectations. He thought he knew who Jesus was and wanted to make sure the Messiah stayed on the path to triumphant fulfillment.

Half-way through the gospel, we begin to learn that to call Jesus God’s Messiah means to let go of our wonderfully detailed job descriptions for him. When we call Jesus God’s Messiah and follow him, we don’t press him into the mold of our hopes for a good life; instead we let him shape our expectations.

The second conversation took place a little further down the road to Jerusalem, when Jesus again taught the disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again (Mark 9:31).” They didn’t understand what he was saying; instead they argued with one another who was the greatest.

Again a little further down the road, Jesus took aside the twelve and again told them what was to happen to him in Jerusalem; and two of them, James and John, who had been with him from the first days on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory (Mark 10:33-37).”

Three times Jesus talks about being rejected, condemned, and killed, but the disciples only dream about triumph, greatness, and seats of honor.

What is so hard for us to hear and understand is that to say to Jesus, ‘You are the Christ’ is to let Jesus define what ‘Christ’ means. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our kingdom dreams; he himself is the kingdom in whom our dreams are renewed. He is not the fulfillment of our visions of salvation; he himself is God’s salvation who transforms our vision. He is not the fulfillment of our desire for this and that and the other; he is the body given to God’s desire for us, he is the one who goes ahead of us that we might follow him.

Half-way through the gospel, we come to a fork in the road and hear the hard teaching. We are utterly free to say yes or no.

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 will lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

You know this had to be the moment when the numbers of followers started to decline drastically. Self-denial has never been terribly attractive, and the only loss most of us want to hear about has to do with weight. Jesus tells us to let go not only of our ideas what a proper messiah is supposed to be and do, but also of our notions of ourselves. He calls us to let go of what we think we know and need and what we fear – and to find life with him.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the last paragraph of his book Mere Christianity, “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (…) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for [Christ]. (…) Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”

The call to self-denial is not a call to pious exercises of denying oneself the pleasures of life. The call to discipleship is the call to let go completely of our concern with ourselves and our obsessive compulsion to secure our own life, prominence, likability, and even afterlife. The call to discipleship is the call to turn our eyes and attention away from ourselves and toward the One who is going ahead of us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his beautiful reflection on the life of discipleship,

“Self-denial means knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself. It means no longer seeing oneself, only him who is going ahead (…). Self-denial says only: he is going ahead; hold fast to him (p. 86).”

But self-denial has nothing to do with blending into the background so as to become invisible. Bonhoeffer knew very well that as a disciple of Jesus Christ he had to oppose the Nazi government and resist its murderous campaign against the Jews of Germany and Europe. He knew that love of God and neighbor meant speaking the truth without fear and even conspiring to murder the tyrant – but he didn’t know that from his own experience yet when he wrote,

“The cross is neither misfortune nor harsh fate. Instead, it is that suffering which comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ (p. 86).”

When Jesus calls you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him, he may be talking about the possibility of your losing your life as a martyr. But the cross is never just the exceptional end to an otherwise quiet life of discipleship. The cross is the reality at the heart of discipleship; it marks the place where your old life comes to an end and your new life begins.

Again Bonhoeffer,
“The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. (…) The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death (p. 87). (…) Jesus’ every command calls us to die with all our wishes and desires (p. 88).”

Half-way between Galilee and Jerusalem, we are faced with the hard teaching that Jesus is not our kind of Messiah and that the life we work so hard to protect and secure is the life we will lose. But in this very place we also begin to see, as in a sketch, the way of the cross as the way to life in fullness. Following Jesus, we are set free from anxious self-absorption, free to acknowledge and rejoice in the covenant of love God has established with us and between us.

A few years ago I heard a song about a disciple’s new identity, a song created by slaves, men and women from Africa, robbed of their freedom, their homes, their land, their families, their language – and eventually their names. No longer free, they were given new names by their masters who lived with the idolatrous illusion that they were their owners. But then these men and women, far away from home, far away from hope, encountered Jesus and they began to talk about the life their masters could not touch – and in freedom they made that life their own, refusing to surrender to the religion of their masters. This is their song:

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If he changed my name
Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If he changed my name
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If he changed my name
Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If he changed my name
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If he changed my name

Certainly not a song of rebellion, but a revolutionary song nevertheless. The dignity of their new identity, their new name, gave these men and women the courage to hope. They knew that Jesus was no stranger to the depth of their suffering and that God had heard their cries. They were no longer prisoners of their broken past, but disciples of Jesus, God’s people.

They entered the new life on a vastly different path than most of us – but we do indeed all sing this song,

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right,
if he changed my name.
It is no longer I who live,
but Christ who lives in me.
Jesus told me that the world would be ‘gainst me
if he changed my name.
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
if he changed my name.
It is no longer I who live,
but Christ who lives in me.