Discipleship: Whose Agenda?

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Text for March 1, 2015: Mark 8:31-38

31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.”

34 He 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”

As we have noted the Gospel of Mark is a highly structured narrative. I outline Mark 8:27 to 10:52 this way:

Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah.” (8.27-30)
FIRST PASSION PREDICTION [see 3.6 and 3.19 for early hints] (8.31, 32)
Peter Attempts to “Correct” Jesus (8.33)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (8.34-9.1)
The Transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9.2-13)
The Disciples Unable to Exoricise a Demon (9.14-29)
SECOND PASSION PREDICTION (9.30-32 )
Disciples Argue over “Who’s the Greatest?” Object Lesson: A Little Child (9.33-37)
The Disciples Prohibit an “outsider” from casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9.38)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (9.39-50)
Jesus Uses Marriage as Example of Discipleship [may look back to 6.14-29] (10.1-12)
Jesus Accepts Little Children (10.13-16)
The Rich Young Man does not accept Jesus (10.17-23)
The Disciples, through Peter, claim to have accepted Jesus (10.24-31)
THIRD PASSION PREDICTION (10.32-34)
The Request of James and John (10.35-45)
The Request of Barimaeus (10.46-5)

The structural framework of the larger context of our text consists of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering. Three times with increasing clarity Jesus states that he will go to Jerusalem and DIE! Each time the disciples will misunderstand or misdirect the conversation in way that moves the topic away from a Messiah who will die. And each time Jesus will pull them back to the true nature of discipleship.

It’s as if Jesus had said that he had cancer, and his disciples do all they can to avoid the topic. The comedy of it all is seen in the disciples’s misfires that occur directly after Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die. In the text above, after the first prediction, Peter, who just announced that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), now takes the position of leader to rebuke Jesus for his silly thought. After the second prediction, the disciples shift to the more important topic of who is the greatest among them. Then after the third prediction, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in God’s kingdom. Clearly someone is not listening.

These examples and others in the larger context suggest that the disciples struggle with who is really in charge. As a disciple of Jesus, whose agenda wins? When Peter rebuked Jesus, he came back with some of the strongest words of his ministry: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To have Jesus call you “Satan” had to sting. Jesus’s next comment explains the harsh remark and also clarifies what is at stake in not listening carefully to Jesus. In short, Jesus accused Peter of being interested in human things, not God’s things. Or, said another way, Peter is more interested in what he wants than what his Lord wants.

The rebuke of Peter sets up one of the basic teachings of Jesus on discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow in the way of Jesus. What happens to the Jesus will also be the way of his true disciples.

Being led to crucifixion is the language Jesus chose for conveying the cost and nature of discipleship. However, the first step is the hardest. Jesus begins with “Deny yourself.” Here Jesus is not inviting us to take Lent more seriously, nor is he telling us to quit doing bad things. Rather, Jesus is going for the heart of the issue: we must say no to our agenda and be willing to take on God’s. To deny yourself here refers to setting aside a mere human perspective, and taking on the divine perspective. It’s answering the question of “Who is Lord of your life?”

Once we have denied ourselves, that is, decided we are not the center of the universe, then following Jesus is the next move. However, to follow Jesus is to follow Jesus in taking up the cross. The cross here is not our personal troubles or persistent challenges. Though, to be sure, those issues can be deeply connected to our personal experience of being a disciple of Jesus. The cross envisioned here is the cross intimately tied to the Mission of God. Jesus is still modeling what he started in the first chapter of Mark. He is still proclaiming the “Good News of God.” “The Kingdom of God has come near!” Repent, and Believe the Good News.” The paradox of the kingdom is that the path to God is the way of the cross.

The Kingdom of God works with a reverse kind of logic: those who seek to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for Jesus’s sake will save it. What hangs in the balance is our very life! If this is not so, then the logic of the Kingdom fails.

So what happens if you gain the whole world but you miss the call of Jesus? The logic of the Kingdom is that you have gained nothing. So as the logic of the Kingdom would have it, there is something quite shameful about this cross Jesus has invited us to carry. So much so, that Jesus warned his audience: “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.”

These words, often read in isolation of the text to which they belong, are a continuing comment on the call to follow Jesus. Jesus understands that the way of discipleship will be hard, that it may even be something that causes us shame, but yet . . .

If anyone wishes to be my disciples . . .

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