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First Impressions: Mark 8:27-38

September 8, 2009

The reading from Mark gives preachers a lot of material to work with this week.  The three main sections describe the confession of Peter (verses 27-30), the prediction of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, death and resurrection (31-33), and his discussion with the crowds about carrying a cross and following Jesus (34-38).  Each of these sections is rich with preachable material.

8:27-30 The theme of these verses is confession.  At this point in Mark, Jesus still sought to keep his true identity secret from the masses, but he was interested in his disciples’ point of view.  While the people seemed to believe Jesus was one of several dead religious figures returned to life, Peter labeled him the Messiah.

M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock suggest that Mark was purposely setting the confession of Jesus as Christ over and against a confession of faith in the Roman Emperor.  They tell us that Mark’s community was likely centered in the area of Caesarea Philippi, which also figured prominently in the Jewish revolt of the middle of the First Century.  It was also a city where the Emperor was particularly honored, it having been renamed after Tiberius Caesar (The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 144-45.).

You might consider preaching this concept of confession, especially in contrast to other “powers” that seek allegiance in our lives.  Jesus as Messiah, as “the Messiah” (v. 29, my emphasis), comes to us from God and is the only one who can legitimately claim such allegiance.  Yet, to what other powers (that do not come from God and may include nonhuman entities such as drugs and alcohol, a preoccupation with acquiring, self-centeredness, certain relationships and a host of others) do we allow to reign free in our lives?  What does it mean to confess Jesus over against all other powers?  Although for Mark and his first readers, this may have meant complete rejection of the other powers, for us the contrast may not be so stark.  Perhaps it means that when Jesus is truly Lord and Messiah all other things can take their proper place in our lives.  We can welcome their presence in our lives when they are life giving and holy, but when they are not, we must turn them out.

31-33 These verses illustrate the consequences of confessing Jesus as Messiah.  Peter must submit himself and follow Jesus’ lead, rather than vice versa.  “The issue is, who is in charge.  To say ‘Christ’ to someone is to give up the right to define what ‘Christ’ means” (Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark [Louisville: John Knox, 1983], 153.).  A preacher might survey some of the various sentimental or superstitious images of Christ we have created.  Ultimately, these—as well as our more theologically correct images—are incomplete.  Usually, they say more about what we would like Jesus to be than who Jesus really is.  Even the Gospels do not show us the same picture of Jesus.

How do we “get behind” Jesus so he can lead?  What does that look like in our daily lives?  What does that look like for the life of the Church?  Specific illustrations would go a long way to answering those questions.

34-38 The conversation here is opened up to a wider audience.  Jesus spoke to the crowds as well as the disciples.  This is more commentary on confessing Jesus as Christ and following him.  Perhaps this is the illustration for 31-33: pick up the cross.  Your cross, as one of my colleagues likes to say, isn’t your annoying brother-in-law.  Your cross isn’t even a chronic health condition.  The cross is something we choose.  We have the option of picking it up or not.  The irony is that the cross is not something anyone would want to pick up.  It is, on the surface, distasteful.  Yet at the same time, it is life giving.  The cross—which Mark’s reader’s would have understood in a more real way than modern Christians—is a way of life that puts the self’s primary desires and motivations aside.  Somehow, by doing that , we actually experience more true life than if that had been our goal to begin with.

I think what Jesus means is that our base instincts about what makes a good life are not to be trusted.  There is a higher kind of living—a higher calling—based upon living for others after the manner of Jesus.  Jesus’ manner of living meant taking up a cross of self-sacrifice for the sake of others.  We follow Jesus by imitating his type of life.

Church development expert Ken Callahan likes to make the connection between these verses and the Church.  Any local church that seeks to save its own life by preoccupying itself with membership and maintenance is actually accelerating its descent into death and decay.  Churches who give themselves away by sharing their time, money and resources in mission to others discover the true life of the Gospel.  This is an extremely helpful reflection for churches, especially for those of mainline denominations.

I am thinking that I will try to find stories of people who have picked up crosses and have found their lives in the process.  I prefer to tell such stories about people who are local rather than the usual suspects—Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Bonhoeffer.  Do you have any examples among your people?

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