Joining the Song

The gospel of Mark was written to be listenened to in its entirety in one setting. It was written to be read aloud in the assembly from beginning to end. Mark’s story is just the right length, about 70-80 minutes, for an audience to be drawn into the life of Jesus as participants in the unfolding of his ministry.

In a rapid and urgent sequence of events listeners witness Jesus driving out demons, touching lepers and healing them, forgiving sins, baffling the authorities, telling stories of God’s reign, feeding thousands with just a few scraps of food, restoring a little girl to life by taking her hand and saying, Talitha cum, little girl, get up – and when the waves beat into the boat that evening on the stormy sea and he rebuked the wind, everyone asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Everyone asked.

We have followed Mark as our guide into the life of Jesus since the first days of Advent, we have watched and listened, wondered and questioned – and now, about halfway through the story, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” We tell him what we’ve heard along the way, “Some say, the Baptist, others, Elijah or one of the prophets.” But Jesus isn’t interested in what people think or say. He asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and the answers we give inevitably determine who we are as his followers. If we think of him as a wisdom teacher, we will think of ourselves as students. If we think of him as a miracle worker, we will think of ourselves as journeying from one spectacular moment to the next. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us, and Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Which is to say, you are not another one of many wisdom teachers and miracle workers who have come before and gone, not another healer, master, prophet, or preacher – you’re the one. You’re the Messiah.

We’re now at a turning point in the course of the story. We’re near Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod’s son, Philipp, a city surrounding a splendid temple dedicated to the worship of the emperor of Rome, the real power behind the power of Herod the Great and his sons. “You are the Messiah,” Peter says to Jesus, and we wonder if he’s saying, “You’re the one anointed by God for the final battle. You’re the one anointed by God to restore the kingdom to Israel.” The air is charged with expectation in the villages around Caesarea Philippi and Mark continues to tell the story.

Jesus 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.

Peter can’t hear the good news in the new teaching; too much talk of suffering, rejection, and death – he misses the word of resurrection.  Peter can’t face the way laid out by Jesus and so he takes him aside and rebukes him; he stops following and gets in the way; he stops listening and gives voice to the powers that oppose the coming of God’s reign in the person and the way of Jesus. Does he want to follow a Messiah who marches on, from triumph to triumph, until all is well and God’s people live in peace on God’s land? Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We’re at a turning point in the course of the story. This is the point where we begin to grasp that identifying Jesus as God’s Messiah doesn’t mean that we get to press him into the mold of our hopes and desires. Getting behind him, we surrender our expectations to him and his way of suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our kingdom dreams; he himself is the kingdom in whom even our dreams are converted to the way of the cross. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our visions of salvation, he himself is God’s salvation who transforms our entire imagination to the way of the cross.

We don’t press him into the mold of our hopes but rather are invited ourselves to be remade in his image. He says,

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.

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and identifying him as God’s Messiah inevitably determines our identity as his followers. When we let go of our ideas what a proper Messiah is supposed to be and do, we also let go of our ideas of ourselves. He calls us to let go of what we think we know and need, to let go of what we fear – and to find life with him.

“The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “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.”[1]

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, 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.

“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,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He knew self-denial had nothing to do with blending into the background so as to become invisible. He knew that love of God and neighbor meant speaking the truth without fear under the dark fog of the Nazi empire and even sinning bravely by conspiring to murder Hitler. “The cross is neither misfortune nor harsh fate,” he wrote. “Instead, it is that suffering which comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ.” He didn’t know at the time he wrote these words that he would be executed by the Nazis for his allegiance to Jesus, the Messiah of God. But the cross is not limited to the possibility of a martyr’s death. The cross is the reality at the heart of being a disciple; it marks the place where our old life comes to an end and our 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.”[2] Following Jesus, we die to our anxious self-absorption and live ever more fully in the community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

Last Thursday night, I stood with a group of fellow students in the parking lot outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. We were near the end of a pilgrimage through cities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, honoring the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and trying to comprehend the shameful failure of too many white churches to recognize that struggle as a matter of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the gospel of reconciliation. We were standing in the cold parking lot, listening again to a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple. He had led a march that day protesting low pay and cruel work conditions for black garbage collectors in Memphis. Dr. King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended; he had been living with death threats for years. That night he ended his speech, saying,

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Andrew Young said the next day was one of King’s happiest. Surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement, he laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner. Then he stepped onto the balcony outside his room, checking the weather to decide whether to bring a coat. Ben Branch, a musician who often led singing at protest gatherings, asked King what he would like him to play at a rally later that night, and he asked for Precious Lord. Moments later, he was fatally shot.

There we stould under the balcony in the cold parking lot, mourning the death of America’s prophet who gave his life for the sake of the gospel. In silence we prayed for the nation still torn by racism and that we would have the courage to live in Christ’s community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

One of us started singing, Precious Lord, take my hand …, and we joined the song.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 175

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 86-88.