Learning to Live in God’s Economy- Rediscovering the Way of the Cross in Mark 8

“And (Jesus) asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.”
– Mark 8:29-30

There is an interesting dynamic that surfaces for modern readers of Mark’s Gospel, as we encounter his words from the outside looking in. We have, after all, the benefit of this outside perspective, of being made privy to the answer to this question in the opening words of the Gospel- “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”. Thus it is easy to kind of sit back and simply watch the mystery of this statement unfold through the characters we find in the Gospel. It is riveting stuff actually, sit on the edge of your seat kind of stuff even, where we can watch others wrestle with their faith from the safety of our couches.

But every once in a while I arrive at a verse (like this one) that awakens me to the idea that I am far less removed from these words than I realize; that they are as much for me as they were for Mark’s original audience. I (we) are a part of this story. Suddenly I find myself shifting even closer to the edge of my seat.

From Confession to Rebuke (Mark 8:27-38)
The closing passage in Mark chapter 8 brings us face to face with a glaring contrast- the clear and concise nature of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Son of God, and the rebuke of Peter’s subsequent (and apparent) resistance to what this confession actually means in light of his own journey in following Jesus.

Mark has just finished providing us with a stark reminder of the Gospel Way, the Way in which we have been called to follow as Jesus continues to travel the straight path set before us. In the sending of the disciples, we encounter two complimentary parables (the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000) that outline the nature of how this movement is supposed to work. It begins with God’s provision for His (Jewish) people in the 5,000 (the forgiven life), and then moves outward to God’s vision and provision for the (gentile) world in the 4,000 (the forgiving life).
*See my previous post for more on this thought.

Which brings us to this closing passage, a sort of entry point into the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Gospel, the Way to the cross. It is a Way in which Jesus must,

“suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
– Mark 8:31

It is a Way which leads immediately to resistance (in this passage), a resistance that Jesus goes on to rebuke (Get behind me Satan!), by declaring that Peter is setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God (vs. 33).

Two questions arise in me as I read this passage:
1. What is it about the Way of Jesus that Peter was resisting?
There are some culturally relevant answers available to us as readers. According to the prophetic words that we find in the book of Daniel, the Jewish culture would have sensed a contradiction between Jesus’ specific reference to a single resurrection and the teaching of an expected general resurrection of God’s people. As a culture built around certain Messianic expectations, Jesus’ Messianic methods easily could have been met with a certain degree of skepticism.

However, I think these cultural expectations become that much more interesting and applicable when seen in light of Jesus’ immediate and personal response to Peter’s resistance. It is a resistance that Jesus seems to apply to “anyone” (vs. 34), and Jesus’ answer here reveals something incredibly specific, incredibly intimate about the human tendency to resist His call to follow Him. Here is Jesus’ response:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, and the gospel’s, will save it.”
– Mark 8:34

So this is The Way that Peter is resisting:
We follow “after” Jesus, not before– Jesus goes first, and we are called to follow Him on the straight path. In doing so we must give up our need to control the way this path “should” travel.

We must deny ourselves: This is the idea of repentance that we find in Chapter 1, the turning in a new direction. We are called to reorient our line of sight towards the saving work of Jesus and the Gospel, and in doing so we must submit our own idea of what it means to belong in the Kingdom of God (and what it says about us and others) to Jesus and His purposes.

We must take up our cross: In a bit of foretelling (or foreshadowing), Jesus offers us the image of the cross. The cross, here, means letting go of our self-determination and exchanging it for a sense of dependence on the work of Jesus in going before us on the straight path. The cross we take up is both a symbol of what Jesus has done in our lives (the forgiven life), and a picture of what we carry with us as we enter on the Gospel Way (the truth that this forgiveness declares about us and others). As Paul understands it in Galatians 2:20, it is about the process of being “crucified with Christ”, of seeing past our own efforts and towards the Kingdom work that God is already doing.

We must follow Jesus: The call to “follow me” reminds us that faith is not stagnant but active. It is a movement, a movement that brings us out of the truth of the forgiven life and pushes us into the Way of the forgiving life. It is a faith that calls us to get out of the boat and to trust that we have something to offer to the world through the work that Jesus has already done in us.

So what does Peter resist? According to Jesus, he is resisting the Gospel’s call to shift his sights from looking inwards to looking outwards. What he resists has much to do with his ability to see past himself (deny “himself”, take up “his” cross, save “his” life, lose “his” life) and to actively participate in the work that Jesus is doing in the world at large.

Which brings me to my second question:
2. What is it about the Way of Jesus that I resist?
I am currently (for Lent) spending some time working my way through N.T. Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began”. Wright is one of my personal hero’s of the faith, and his work on the new perspective (of Paul) and in reshaping our understanding of the Cross (away from the problems of penal substitution and towards the more scripturally faithful idea of the Kingdom of God come near) has been transformative for the way I have come to understand God in the midst of my own faith journey.

This latest book is sort of a summary of the ideas he has been formulating elsewhere, and they are ideas that I find myself continuing to wrestle with as I encounter some of Mark’s more difficult passages. Here, the ending of Mark 8 is no exception as the difficult insider/outsider language of Mark 4 resurfaces. This time we are presented with a contrasting picture of the “world” and the “soul”, or the idea that two opposing actions can lead to two differing results between life and death (of being ashamed of Jesus and Jesus being ashamed of us).

Here is the thing. I cannot help but tend to read this passage through the lens of the old penal substitution paradigm that has become so ingrained in me over the years, a perspective which, according to Wright, has been built on this idea that the forgiven life has everything to do with appeasing God’s great anger towards us (and/or our sin) and that requires the punishment of death (which Jesus accepts in our place). It is a view, whether we recognize it or not, that moves from a negative to a negative, and often does so at the expense of the greater (more positive) Gospel vision of the Kingdom. And so, I cannot help but arrive at this passage about shame (and the failure that leads to shame) that closes chapter 8 with a great sense of fear and resistance. I cannot help but resist the helplessness and hopelessness that I feel when I measure the seeming expectation of this Gospel (of Christ’s substitutionary work) with the fruit of my own example (personal failure). And so, I find myself moving back and forth between two lines of thought- if this is what the passage means, that I must be ashamed (condemned to death) because of my lack of fruit, I will either become like the disciples and resist Jesus’ words by trying to control it for my own sake (it cannot work this way, Jesus), or I will reject (resist) the call of the Gospel altogether.

And yet, as I sit down to read over this passage again, as I pray for a fresh set of eyes, I am struck with the idea that it is in the midst of my own resistance that Jesus is speaking directly to me, and it is in the midst of this Gospel message that Jesus is exposing my resistance for what it actually is- an inability to follow Jesus without inhibition.

Discovering My Motivation
I cannot escape the fact that, in this passage, faith is participatory, not stagnant. But the bigger question that I find here is, what is motivating me to enter into this new Way of living. Here is what I know. Faith, as a picture of the forgiven life that Mark has been building up to this point, is not a get out of jail free card. To view it this way is to make little out of the muchness that we find in this new Way of life. At the same time, faith cannot be about proving our worth on the Way of Jesus. This methodology works against the call to deny ourselves, and to view it this way is simply to elevate ourselves above others while also condemning ourselves to the picture of shame that closes chapter 8 at the same time (thus the complex this creates).

And so how do I reconcile these two ideas without simply getting lost in the temptation to resist it? Here I have found the following verse to be helpful:
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul.”
Mark 8:36-37

There is a question that this verse pre-supposes. It is a question of worth, or more specifically, the question of what my life is worth. What is a man’s soul (life) worth? In vs. 36 Jesus declares it is worth more than the world. So what can man give in return for his life? We cannot possibly gain enough to measure up to the price that Jesus declares our life to be worth.

Understanding this economic exchange or parallel helped to reorient my perspective on what it is that I am resisting. When I read this through my old paradigm of penal substitution theology, the Way of Jesus becomes a picture of Jesus paying the price for my sin through the rejection and death that He (willingly and purposefully) suffers. He payed a debt that I owed. The truth of my resistance to this idea of Jesus and the cross is that, in order to follow him in this same Way, I am required to respond to this “debt” by living a “profitable” life in exchange. And yet, as this verse exposes, I cannot possibly earn enough to measure up to what is declared to be priceless. But, in the eyes of Jesus’ substitutionary work, this is the model I am called to follow and to imitate, and so I find myself without hope and feeling stuck in an economic system based on the haves and the have not’s, the divide between the rich and the poor (in faith).

When I read this verse through a different paradigm, however, the paradigm of Jesus’ restorative work in the promise of the Kingdom come near, what I find is a verse that actually begins to reshape my motivation for following Jesus into something far more hopeful. At this point in perspective, the word “loss” takes precedence over “profit” in God’s Kingdom economy. Jesus’ suffering and death become a positive investment in God’s restorative work (the forgiven life), an investment that is not so much about atoning for our sins, but rather about entering into the affects of sin in our world along with us. And we enter into God’s restorative work (the forgiving life) by learning to give out of the muchness that the Way of Jesus declares us to have in a less than perfect world, in the midst of our less than perfect lives.

When I consider this fresh perspective on the new economic order of God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ own path of rejection, suffering and death finds new roots. The cross is not a payment for our sins, or the appeasement of an angry God. This simply does not fit with the picture we find here of God’s new economic order. In the cross we find a positive investment in the work of God’s promised restoration (the Kingdom come near), and for Jesus this investment is us. We, His priceless sons and daughters of God, are the fruits of His Kingdom work.

And so, when we enter into the Way of Jesus, when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, what we are doing is accepting the truth that we are seen as priceless in God’s new economic order. And when we follow (as we are called to do as equal participants in this Kingdom work), what we are doing is declaring others to be equally priceless in this Kingdom as well.

Exchanging Shame to the Forgiven and Forgiving Way of Life 
Here is what really stuck out for me when it comes to my own tendency to resist the person and work of Jesus in my own life. When I resist my old idea of the cross, when I see it as simply a debt that I must repay (but can never repay), it inevitably brings me shame. I will also inevitably put this same degree of shame on others as well. Not only will (and do) I find myself consistently looking to compare my own fruit to the fruit of others around me, but I am forever tempted to judge the fruit of others as less in order to keep my own profitability quota up. It’s a nasty circle and one that thankfully Jesus’ helps to call us out of on the way to the cross.

I recently submitted a devotional for the Lenten Reader (2017). It is a set of devotionals made up of submissions from people across the Covenant Church of Canada that is intended to lead us through Lent, a period of reflection and preparation for approaching the cross. My submission happened to fall on today (March 4th), and I couldn’t help but see some parallels to Mark chapter 8. And so in closing I would like to include this devotional here. It is based on a reflection of Psalm 22, and has much to say about reorienting our perspective on this idea of shame and of embracing the work of Jesus not as a debt, but an investment.

Psalm 22

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
– Psalm 22:22; Hebrews 2:12

Often the most difficult part about experiencing hardship and failure in life is making sense of that space in-between God’s apparent silence and the promise of His presence.

As the Psalmist writes, God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” because “In you our fathers trusted… they trusted and were not put to shame (vs. 3-5).” In contrast, the Psalmist’s inability to see God in the midst of his own suffering, his inability to see similar fruit, brings him shame. He finds himself no more than a “worm”, “scorned” and “despised” (vs. 6), far from God’s saving grace (vs1).
And yet, the strength that eventually allows the Psalmist declare, “Yet you (God) are he… ”, comes in the midst of the bulls, the drought, and the preying dogs (vs. 9). It is a strength that he gains not by his own worldly idea of success, but by lifting his eyes upwards and outwards towards a God who has heard his cries in the silence, who is not far from his pain. It is a demonstration of faith that leads the Psalmist to pray, not simply to be delivered from his trials, but for his trials to “tell of God’s name” and to “praise God’s name” in the midst of his family and his community, not on own strength, but on a strength that comes from God (vs25).

Recognizing that Jesus, the founder of our salvation, was “made perfect through suffering”, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reflects that the Psalmist need not be “ashamed”, because just as Jesus tasted suffering on behalf of “all” so does our suffering unite us with the one through whom all things exist (Hebrews 2:5-13). The Psalmist can find freedom in not having to compare the fruitfulness of his ministry to the fruit of his fathers, because in the cross Jesus declares us all to be equally worthy of being called His children. As Jesus shares in the cry of the Psalmist, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”, He demonstrates just how far God is willing to go to meet us in the space in-between, and reminds us that it is okay to sit in these difficult spaces, to wrestle with the silence. We are also reminded that God has “left nothing outside his control”, and it is because of this that we can trust in the promise that God is up to something far greater than our limited perspective can see in these difficult spaces in-between, and join the Psalmist in saying “He has not hidden his face from (the afflicted), but has heard their cries”, Praise be to God.

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