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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Baptism, Temptation, Ministry

Reflection on the Lectionary Gospel Text for February 22, 2015: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So ends Mark’s introduction to his Gospel (1:1–15). Since I have covered the basic flow of Mark’s introduction elsewhere (http://wp.me/pkPXF-oV), I will begin here by noting that the first half of the introduction dealt with John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord. Now, beginning with v. 9, Mark turns his attention to the hero of his story, Jesus.

The briefness of some of Mark’s stories is startling not only because as readers we want to know more but also because of how much each mini-story contains. These stories, if they be called stories, are more like terse summaries. Tense, packed summaries, to be sure.

I have outline the flow of the stories in our text today as: Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry. There is a certain rhythm or flow here that is true of all who dare follow Jesus. Jesus is the prototype (model, exemplar) of all those who would follow him. Baptism, temptation, and ministry outlines the process through which God’s Spirit remakes and reshapes us into the image of Christ. While there is reason to read them in this order, the experience of baptism, temptation and ministry will be revisited often in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism. While Mark has already made a connection between the forgiveness of our sins and baptism, here, in this text about Jesus’ baptism, the focus is more on appointment and identity. Jesus is the chosen anointed one. Instead of the oil that was pour on the head of kings and prophets to recognize their calling, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. John has already clued us that Jesus would also be the one who would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. So in the same way God had anointed Jesus, Jesus would anoint others.

Sometimes when I baptize people, I say something like this: “Based on your confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When you rise from these waters, you can be sure of two things: your sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit has come to live within you.” The certainty of these words rest in the example of Jesus. All of us who accept the invitation to follow Jesus can be assured of God’s acceptance and God’s approval: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Soon, as with Jesus, so with us, our resolve will be tested. Through temptation we prove how deeply we believe the Gospel.

Temptation. Mark’s temptation story is so brief, particularly when compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s. Still Mark give enough to evoke the story of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The evocative words are wilderness (or desert), forty days, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

Mark point to the divine role that temptation plays in the process: the Spirit of God “drove” or “cast” (ἐκβάλλω) Jesus into the wilderness. Interesting word choice on Mark’s part. This is the word that is often used in the stories about Jesus “casting out” demons. When Matthew and Luke retold this story (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1), they softened the verb to “lead” instead of “cast.”

However, there are times in our lives as followers of Jesus, when we feel as if we have been thrown where we do not want to be. One should not minimize the reality of dark times those who chose to follow Jesus will experience but we, in time, learn how to embrace these as part of the journey. Each time we conquer temptation, our credibility increases as disciples of Jesus, and we learn to minister to other with greater depth.

Ministry. While the acts of ministry are many, the basic shape of Christian ministry is proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ message was simple and straightforward: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” However, woven into the very fabric of the proclamation is exactly what each of us need to hear to stay focused.

The center of the Good News is that the Kingdom of God has come near (see http://wp.me/pkPXF-pS). The Kingdom of God is the basis of our authority to do ministry in the name of Jesus. Or, said another way, we do ministry as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

However, also woven into the proclamation of the Kingdom is the humbling, lest we think to highly of ourselves as representatives of God’s kingdom. The proper response to hearing, really hearing, the message of the Kingdom is to repent and believe the Good News. Whether a beginner or a more mature disciple, the call is the same: repent and believe. And when we get off track as we will: repent, believe, repeat.

To repent is more than stop doing bad things. Rather it is a willingness to throw the whole of oneself before God and to submit to God’s will. It is an implicit confession that our ways are wrongs and that God’s ways are right. As we enter the season of Lent, we have a designated time to allow God’s Spirit to recalibrate our lives and bring them into alignment with the priorities of God’s kingdom. When we have repented, then we can truly believe (trust) in the Good News–which is nothing short of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 1:1).

So the movement of Christian discipleship involves baptism, temptation, and ministry. This was the model of Jesus. So as it was with Jesus, so let it be with us.

This is Why I Came

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for Feb 8, 2015: Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Unlike what scholars once thought about Mark’s arrangement of materials, Mark is actually highly organized as the following outline illustrates for Mark 1:16–2:14.

1.16-20 Jesus Calls the Four Fishermen
1.21-28 Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Man
1.29-32 Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law
1.32-34 Summary of Jesus’s Healings
1.35-39 JESUS PRAYS, IDENTIFIES HIS MISSION: TO PREACH
1.40-45 Jesus Heals a Leper
2.1-12 Jesus Heals the Paralytic
2.13, 14 Jesus Calls Levi

Verses 35–39 is what I call a centerpiece text. Notice that at each extreme we have the calling of disciples, the calling of the four fishers and the calling of Levi. Between these calling stories, we have a series of healing stories, balanced with two on each side of the centerpiece. The centerpiece texts serve to orient the texts around them. One could get the impression without the centerpiece that Jesus was primary a healer, a miracle worker. However, with the centerpiece, we are pushed to see that Jesus was up to something more, something deeper.

In the text selected above, the first paragraph tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Once healed, she “ministers to” or “serves” them. In Mark’s use of minister/serve words (διακονέω and related words) more may be implied than just she went about her domestic duties. This notion first occurs earlier when throughout the temptation of Jesus, angels “were serving” him. The comment about serving occurs as the final thought in each story. That angels and Peter’s mother-in-law both participate in the act of service suggesting that service is highly valued in the Kingdom of God. This becomes clearer in Mark 10:43–45, where Jesus makes “service” a prominent trait of what it means to be his disciple.

… but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

A summary statement of Jesus’ ministry follows this story. Another will occur in Mark 3:7–12. These summaries allow Mark to compress the story, yet fill it out. This compression allows him to keep the story moving at breakneck speed.

At the end of this paragraph Mark notes that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Rather than being some kind of Messianic Secret motif, as earlier scholars theorized, Mark is cleverly showing that those from the “other world” clearly know who Jesus is. On the other hand, throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples seem not to know him at all. In his literary strategy, then, Mark is asking his readers if they know who Jesus is.

In the centerpiece text (vv.35–39), Mark carefully paints the scene: very early, still dark, deserted place, Jesus prays. This all sounds a bit like the ending of the story. Very early in the morning the women came to the tomb. And it is very dark when Jesus prayed in the Garden alone.

When Simon and the others find Jesus, they say,

Everyone is searching for you.

To which Jesus gives the unexpected reply,

Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do

Simon and the others supposed their need should set the agenda for Jesus’ ministry. However, Jesus’ kingdom vision was much bigger than their desires. This is not unlike what we find in churches today. Too easily churches become organizations that consume energy, talent, and finance for their own self-preservation. Jesus, rather, has an outward focus. Who else might benefit from the presence of the kingdom of God?

More central to this text, though, is that Jesus makes a purpose statement: I have come to proclaim the message! Though this centerpiece text is surround by miraculous healing stories, this text focuses Jesus’ central ministry task: preaching. More important than the healings is the Message. Jesus states clearly that he came to preach! It is in the message that the power of God is released. Said another way, the story of Jesus has the power to change lives. The story of Jesus is what invites us to participate in the kingdom of God.

Our text closes with a comment on how Jesus moved forward. He continued to do powerful works showing that the kingdom was here, but Mark notes that Jesus did what he said he came to do: proclaim the message.

As we seek to do good in the name of Jesus, let us to remember the centrality of proclaiming the message and not be afraid to do it somewhere else.

Follow Me

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 25, 2015: Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The hand-off is made: with John’s arrest the ministry of Jesus begins in earnest.

In his Gospel, Mark often gives very short summaries of the ministry of Jesus and here he summarizes the preaching of Jesus in short snippets:

The time is fulfilled!

The kingdom of God is near!

Repent!

Believe in the Good News!

By this point in the story, Mark has made it clear that the story of Jesus belongs to a much older story. He has cited a few OT passages to root Jesus in that much older story. In the final two verses of Mark’s introduction (vv. 14 and 15 above), Jesus announces an climax in that old story. The Time is Now! The old story has come a turning point, something new, yet old, is at hand. The long awaited arrival of God’s kingdom is here in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, as Mark shows us later, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see will perceive the coming kingdom.

Most who heard this talk of the Kingdom of God would hear Jesus calling for revolt against the Romans and new period of prosperity for the Jewish nation, like under the Maccabees or, better yet, like under Solomon. In short, for  contemporary ears, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God was nothing short of announcing the rise of a renewed independent and sovereign nation of Israel. However…

As the Gospel of Mark will play out, Jesus is up to a very different kind of revolution. This kind begins with the stinging call to “repent!” Normally we think of “believing” as coming before repenting, but I think Mark has his order right. One must repent before one can deeply believe the Gospel. When we remember that “believe” in the the NT is better translated “trust” sometimes, this order, repent first, and trust second, makes great sense. One must turn, or at least want to turn, before one can see or hear the Good News.

Mark next tells us the story about how Jesus called his first disciples. In a way, the story illustrates the type of response Jesus sought in announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God with its attendant call to repent and believe.

Whatever prior history Jesus had with these fishermen, Mark decided not to tell us that information. The impression made is that Jesus walks by, calls them to follow him, and they do … immediately! And this seems to be the perception  Mark is evoking. The call to discipleship is decisive, immediate, and costly.

The answer to the call requires a full body type of response to Jesus. One is either for him or against him, as Jesus will say in another place. But the call is not for the sake of self-improvement, self-aggrandizement, or self-promotion. Instead the call is to be of service to others. In the story of the call of the fishermen, fishers of fish become fishers of people. Disciples become conduits through which others become disciples.

But to become a disciple of Jesus is costly. It means leaving things behind–always–or it is not following Jesus. Simon and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when Jesus came upon them. They leave the net!

The other brothers, James and John, were mending their nets when Jesus came upon them. They leave their net-mending where they are. Yet they leave much more, they leave their father and his fishing business. In leaving, the disciples embody what Jesus will explain later:

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? (Mark 8:34–37 NRSV)

So for us who resist leaving things behind for the sake of the Kingdom of God,  hear again the call of the Gospel

The time is fulfilled!

The kingdom of God is near!

Repent!

Believe in the Good News!

Follow me!

What Just Happened?

Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015 (The Baptism of Our Lord): Mark 1:9–11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This reflection follows closely on the last one, “Then Came John,” where the text above was placed in the larger context of Mark’s introduction (1:1–15). Here I showed that the larger context has a loose chiastic (descending and ascending) rhythm or flow. This rhythm might be framed :

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

On one side of Holy Spirit is John’s story and on the other Jesus’. The last post treated John. This post will focus on the baptism of Jesus. Mark used John to introduce Jesus and I doubt that John would have disagreed.

Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short and sweet, but heavily packed. Certainly more than meets the eye is going on in this text so I would like to point out of few of these items.

One might miss the echo from the Old Testament (OT) in modern translations with “in those days,” which the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible captured in it’s more literal and fuller sense, “And it came to pass in those days…” The KJV uses this phrase 396 times to communicate that something’s about to happen! Additionally, by using this way of speaking, Mark continued the much larger story that started in the OT. Mark pick up this story earlier with “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

And so it came to pass…

While John appeared in the desert (Mark 1:4), Jesus came from Nazareth. Mark seems to make nothing of Jesus coming from Nazareth here. Perhaps he expected his earliest hearer to get the import. Jesus came from a no-place. Percy Walker once called Covington, Louisiana where he spent his last years as a no-place, that is, when compared to nearby New Orleans. New Orleans was, for Walker, a real place. In the same way, in Jesus’ world, Nazareth was a no-place. Jerusalem was a real place. Yet, the careful listener will note that up to this point in Mark’s story, Jerusalem is only mentioned in reference to people come from there to be baptized by John. The real action takes place in the desert, a non-place, a desert-ed place. In contrast, Jesus will be baptized in a named place, the Jordan river, a very significant place in the story of ancient Israel who cross the Jordan when they entered the Promise Land. One might say, “where it all began.” As if Mark envisions Jesus as marking a new exodus.

I believe that Mark’s passive construction, “and he was baptized by John,” intentionally echos the earlier text where all the people (also) came to John and “and they were baptized by him.” It’s subtle, but in a way, Mark is saying Jesus is one of the people, he’s one of us. Again, Mark’s way of telling the story does not spell things out but rather he leaves these connections for the listener to make.

After baptizing Jesus, John must have thought, “What just happened?” The other gospels find the lack of an explanation unbearable and so Matthew and Luke provide more story, but not Mark. Mark allows the narrative to explain what happened.

As Jesus arose out of the water, he saw the heavens ripped open (σχίζω). That Mark seeks to suggest contact with or access to God become clear at the end of his story when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was also ripped open (Mark 15:38). It’s the only times he uses the word “ripped open,” and both contexts implies open access to God. More pointedly, God showed up.

Mark is not overly concerned as later Christians would be about Trinitarian nuances. He is more than willing to speak of Jesus as if he is God (see v. 3 where the text refers to YHWH in the original OT context), but here Jesus stands with humanity. Now that access to heaven is open, the Spirit of God as a dove descends on him. Nice word play here. As Jesus arose (ἀναβαίνω), the spirit descended (καταβαίνω). In this way, Jesus himself is baptized in the Spirit or Presence of God, though John earlier in the text had predicted that he would be the one that would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit. But first things first.

Out of thin air came the voice, the Word of God: “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I delight.” However, these words are not original with this event. Again, our clues for understanding the deeper significance of these words is the OT. In same way that the earlier citation of the OT was a composite of Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi, God’s commendation of Jesus is a blending of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

“I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7 NRSV).

and

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).

The Psalms text is a coronation psalm celebrating the enthronement of a new king. On that day the new king was declared to be God’s son. In a similar way, baptism marks a new relationship with God. Additionally baptism is often presented in the bible as a new beginning, even, new birth. Here at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the two are brought together: new birth, new beginning. From another angle, it marks that God is doing something new in the baptized.

In the text from Isaiah, the messiah is portrayed as a suffering servant. This one is chosen (beloved?) and upheld or sustained by God. God is pleased with his servant and has put his Spirit on him. This text fits well the story Mark is telling.

However, tension remains between these two visions of God’s messiah. In the Psalms text, the messiah is a conquering warlord who will make the world right by force, but in Isaiah, the suffering servant wouldn’t hurt a flea, wouldn’t even bend a reed in the wind.

So what just happened? Through baptism, Jesus has been invited to struggle through two competing images of what it means to be the Messiah. Is the Messiah a conquering king or a suffering servant? Which one would ultimately be the way of God for him?

Mark’s gospel invites use to struggle with the same dynamic. Which one will ultimately be the way of God for us?

Leaving Something Behind

Following Jesus always require that we leave something behind. Some things to be left behind are obvious such as sins, bad attitudes, and selfish ways; some are less obvious like dispositions, privilege, or the need for power.

Last week I was with a small country church that was reflecting on the Gospel of Mark’s version of the “Rich, Young Ruler.” At the climatic turn in the story, Jesus calls for the man to sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor and then follow him.

Jesus did not require every disciple to sell their possessions so it seems that Jesus could tell that this particular man’s possession had a strangle-hold on him. The man’s response to Jesus validates this, as Mark narrates, “… he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22 NRSV).

Later, Peter will respond to Jesus’ teaching about the difficulty the rich have in entering the kingdom of God with “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). While, somewhat self-serving, Peter did leave something behind to follow Jesus. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark several people left things behind to follow Jesus.

At the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus called his first disciples, Peter and Andrew, they responded by “leaving their nets and following Jesus.” Likewise, when the next set of brothers, James and John, were summoned, they “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-20). The cost of following Jesus, it appears, means leaving something behind.

This does not appear to be an isolated theme in the Gospel of Mark. When Mark tells of the calling of Levi, a tax collector (Mark 2:13-14), Mark notices that Levi “got up and followed Jesus,” even though at the time he was on the job. Levi left working for the imperial government to serve the kingdom of God.

The healed demoniac was willing to leave his home and friends to follow Jesus. Here, against the normal flow of things, Jesus refused to let the man follow him personally, but calls on him to tell “what the Lord has done for you” among his own family and friends (Mark 5:1-20). This is how most of us will follow Jesus today.

Later in the Markan narrative, the blind man named Bartimaeus will seek healing from Jesus (10:46-52). In coming to Jesus, he will throw off his cloak, leaving it behind. Once Bartimaeus had received his sight, he “followed Jesus on the way.”

In a turning point moment in the Passion Narrative (Mark 11-16), when Jesus is arrested, Mark, sadly, no doubt, notes that the remaining eleven disciples deserted Jesus and fled (14:50). Almost ironically, the word deserted in the Greek is the same word for leaving something behind used in the stories about the calling of the disciples mentioned above. The left all to follow Jesus and now the left all to abandon Jesus.

Immediately following this announcement of desertion on the part of Jesus’ disciples, Mark tells the curious story of a young man who was following Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest (14:51-52). Oddly, it seems, the young man was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The soldiers grabbed him but “he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” This story, whatever its meaning, serves as an anti-discipleship story: here is how not to follow Jesus, so to speak.

So, consistently, throughout the Gospel, Mark illustrates that to follow Jesus one must leave something behind. Mark’s story of Jesus then raises two pertinent questions:

  • What are you willing to leave behind for Jesus?
  • What are not unwilling to give up for Jesus?

Discipleship is lived out between those two questions, don’t you think?