Some Really Good News?

Michael Aune—September 16, 2009

Mark 8:27–38

When was the last time you heard really good news? Was it when you got that job you had always wanted? Was it when someone really special told you that they loved you? Was it when you hit the jackpot and won the lottery? Was it when you received your letter of acceptance to PLTS?

Now, what about this? Is this good news—“the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel”? Or, how about this—“You are the Christ”? Or, “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”? Is this good news?

Perhaps you’re wondering whether I am trying something like the Sunday school lesson that Prof. Jacobson likes to tell about in her Christian Ed. Classes—where a pastor was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children. He started, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly. “This thing lives in trees and eats nuts…” No hands went up. “And it is gray and has a long bushy tail…” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited…” Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I *know* the answer must be Jesus…but it sure sounds like a squirrel!” So, in a similar vein—the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise—and, oh, by the way, “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”—Well, that surely sounds like bad news to us, but we know that the right answer must be “good news.”

Well, ok, if the right answer is “good news,” then what? To be able to answer that question, we need to consider for a moment what Mark is up to—not only in this reading for this morning but also in his entire account of Jesus’ ministry. Just prior to the verses we have heard is yet another series of questions that reveal the ongoing cluelessness of the disciples—their utter incomprehension—of who Jesus is. Jesus would keep on saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?” This question—“do you not understand?”—gives rise to this part of Mark’s gospel—from now until the end of chapter 10 and the healing of blind Bartimaeus. But we can continue until the end of chapter 15 as well. What we have here over all is a pretty grim account of Jesus of Nazareth—an account that goes increasingly downhill to Jerusalem—where he will be the object of rejection, incomprehension, and humiliation culminating in the most shameful form of death—state murder.

How does all this qualify as good news? What, if anything, could we say that Jesus’ death accomplished or changed? Why does there need to be an intimate connection between knowing the true nature of Christian discipleship and understanding correctly Jesus’ person and work? These questions, I think, intensify the questions raised by the preachers of the past two weeks—Dean Heuer and President Anderson—questions about our identity as disciples—questions about disciples bearing fruit And this morning, we get the really big question—“Who do people say that I am?”

This question of who Jesus is has been with Christians from the very beginning. In this text, he is checking up on the local buzz it seems. What are people saying about me? Who do they say that I am? But this is a great deal more than “buzz” about someone who seems very much like one of the ancient prophets. “Buzz” gave way immediately to fights, debates, controversies over the question—“who do you say that I am?” For example, we read in 1 John: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” And then there are the great Christological controversies of the fourth century and following. Listen, for instance, to the 12th anathema directed by Cyril of Alexandria to Nestorius: “If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh, becoming the first-born from the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.” Don’t beat around the bush—tell us what you really think– not, how might you feel about that? Not even those theologians could totally resolve the question of who Jesus is either.

But that’s actually a good thing. This question—“Who do people say that I am?”—dare not go away. It is the question at the heart of the Christian faith, extending from Peter on the road in today’s reading to the centurion at the cross—“Truly this man was God’s Son!”—and, finally to us. The reason that it’s a good thing that this question of who Jesus is extends finally to us as well is that, as someone has said—“The church is not fully alive unless being forced to confess (and debate) Christology, the nature of Christ’s person.”

So, here we are—it’s the second week of the new semester—and we couldn’t have a better question confronting us—“who do you say that I am?” A deceptively simple question—or is it? For along with this question, especially in the Gospel of Mark, is also raised the question of the disciples. As one interpreter has observed, “In Mark, more than any of the other gospels, Jesus is everywhere in the company of his disciples.” However, they are more than mere bystanders and, at times, even participate actively in Jesus’ demonstration of God’s dominion, God’s own rule, breaking into the human sphere. But they are also “doofus” disciples who don’t really “get it”—although in today’s Gospel reading, Peter seems to “get it.” His response, his confession is the first correct human statement about Jesus’ identity in this entire gospel. However, the operative word is “seems” because only six or so verses later he rebukes Jesus right after the so-called first passion prediction—when Jesus explains that the Son of Man must suffer. What audacity! The Greek word here is επιτιμαω— the same word to refer to silencing demons. The implication here is that Peter may have fallen into the same trap as Jesus’ relatives, thinking he’s nuts and thus needs to be exorcised. But Jesus reacts swiftly, even calling Peter “Satan”—if there ever was one.

So, what’s going on here—both in this text and in the Gospel of Mark as a whole? Why is our author so eager, so committed to intimately linking Christology and discipleship? That is, why does an understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission go together with understanding the identity and mission of those who would follow him—who would be his disciples? Maybe it’s all quite obvious. Doh! Of course, Christology and discipleship go together! We follow this Jesus—right? Ah, but which Jesus? And, how so?

These are the questions. Some will answer that he is some challenging, enigmatic teacher who is a moral exemplar or sage for the ages—a spirit person who is peculiarly in touch with God—and so our “discipleship”—if we can call it that—doesn’t look a whole lot different from being on the correct side of the great issues of the day—or, fostering a particular political agenda that accentuates the human potential for an ideal social world community—or, being gracious, compassionate, loving, kind, egalitarian, just, peaceful. But does one need to be a disciple of Jesus Christ to be all those things? That’s a central question—some interpreters might say—the central question or questions—in the Gospel of Mark: which Jesus—the challenging, enigmatic spirit Jesus who is in touch with God… and what kind of discipleship—one that looks curiously like the progressive wing of a particular social or political group.

But here’s the deal—if your understanding of the person and work of Jesus is screwed-up, so is your understanding of what it means to follow him. The gospel of Mark often suggests big-time problems with both the Christology and the model of discipleship practiced by the twelve. In fact, some scholars have argued that this Gospel is actually a vendetta against the disciples who have a totally screwed-up Christology that regarded Jesus as a prophet, sage, teacher, divine miracle worker who performed signs and wonders, divine visitations and interventions. Totally missed in this view of Jesus’ identity and mission is a corresponding understanding of discipleship—of what it means to follow him—that it is a difficult and dangerous venture rooted in a tough message—of losing one’s life—of losing one’s whole way of thinking about the world—of cross-bearing as the complete and whole life—that life that carries forward the program of Jesus’ purpose and destiny—giving advance notice of that world-altering schema— the in-breaking of the rule of God.

And it’s not clear in Mark whether the disciples even finally “get it.” More salient is their incomprehension, their misunderstanding, their failure of discipleship—their failure to engage in the mission of Jesus. Well, that’s really great news, isn’t it—to be presented a quick overview of a screwed-up Christology and discipleship failure and we’re only into the second week of the semester. There goes that first dimension of leadership excellence or the invitation to come and share your life with us. You have got to be kidding. This is not very appealing—not appealing at all!

What we have before us this morning is the heart of Mark’s good news for disciples in dangerous times—salvation born of suffering and endurance—a cross-bearing life that proves to be the complete and whole life. Here is the connection of discipleship with the identity of Jesus. What’s that you say? Haven’t the disciples been pretty oblivious to who he is even in the presence of obvious clues? If anyone “gets it,” it’s the demons—or the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross. Here throughout Mark’s gospel are all these exorcisms, healings, signs and wonders—the supposedly obvious clues and the disciples have no clue. Yet, what’s so weird is that when they get a clue—such as in today’s reading—“You are the Christ”—then they’re told to tell no one. What’s up with that?

For the second evangelist, Mark, it’s like this—Jesus’ identity becomes clear not through all the exorcisms, healings, and other wonders he had done back in Galilee. No, it will become clear through his dying. The Roman centurion knew that when he stood at the foot of the cross and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” But this death accomplished something. It revealed something about Jesus, but it also uncovered God—not as we thought or as we might wish. As Luther argued in the Heidelberg Disputation—“…true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” And this is what Jesus has been telling the disciples for a good while now in Mark’s gospel—eight chapters worth and there will be more.

Now what possible comfort or good news can this be? Is this the old con game of glorifying violence or teaching an image of an angry God who needs the satiation of bloodshed? Is it telling the battered and the abused and the suffering that things are good for them—that these cross-shaped burdens must be borne patiently?

No! No! and No! There is nothing in any legitimate reading of Jesus’ passion and death that justifies abuse, oppression, or anything else that traitors, priests, governors, screaming crowds, or brutal executioners perpetrate in this world. It’s actually going to get worse than this in Mark’s Gospel—because the moment will come when God seems utterly and completely absent. The darkness of our lives—of our diseases—of our sins will overwhelm us and finally kill us.

And so I come full circle in this sermon—ending up where I began, posing the questions of when was the last time we really heard good news? Mark doesn’t seem to be very helpful here. We don’t even get a practical program or practical advice for ridding the world of hunger, disease, oppression—those things we demand that our messiahs do for us. Also, what Mark has to say about Christology and discipleship—and thereby his call to finding life only through losing it, doesn’t sit well with the wealthy, oppressors or justice-drunk theologians of prosperity and liberation.

Maybe this is all too much—and I have painted myself into the proverbial homiletical corner—where it’s not a snappy sermon starter I need—but a snappy sermon “ender. “ Could it be this? You and I tend to assume that faith is—oh, let’s say—about being forgiven or being accepted—something nice like that. But what if, finally, the object and focus of faith is simply Jesus Christ himself—true God and true human being—God in the flesh—the one who is out and about in this world—“on the loose,” as some interpreters have said. In the end, faith is not about what we limited, modern, post-modern, hyper-modern people might do to follow Jesus. Rather, it’s about having our limited, modern, post-modern, hyper-modern lives changed by him. We can teach and learn no more comforting and challenging good news than this—that in Jesus we see who God really is. What a claim! Those confessors of the Formula of Concord got it right—“— take comfort and rejoice without ceasing in this, that in Christ our flesh and blood have been raised so high, to the right hand of the majesty and almighty power of God.” Finally, some really good news!