The structure of Mark's Gospel, from which this week's reading comes, is like a mountain. As we go up one side, we hear about the ministry of Jesus; the miracles, the healings, the feeding of thousands, the calling of the disciples. The top of the mountain is Peter's declaration, "You are the Christ," the first time it is stated exactly who Jesus is. And then, starting today, we come down the other side of the mountain toward the cross.
Before Peter's declaration, "You are the Christ," there must have been a good deal of speculation about who Jesus was, not just among the disciples, but among ordinary folk as well. All of his activities, separately and together with his disciples, had to have attracted the attention of many. Certainly we know the authorities took notice. Just who was this man, Jesus?
Of course, finding out exactly who Jesus was brought the disciples more than even they had bargained for. When Jesus told them that he was to be rejected, abused, and even murdered, Peter, perhaps fearing for his own life, rebuked Jesus. In his humanness, Peter could not imagine such a thing happening to a messiah. Perhaps in his own mind he had conjured up the great and powerful things that Jesus would do when his "messiahship" took hold. Perhaps he envisioned himself standing beside Jesus, one of the messiah's trusted assistants, sharing the glory. Surely suffering was not part of Peter's dream for Jesus, nor probably for himself or any of the other disciples. Reflect for a moment on just who that rag-tag band of disciples was, and then how shocking this revelation must have been to them.
And so Jesus had to continue his teaching to his disciples and others, revealing to them the true nature of his mission on earth and, by extension, their mission as well. Just as Jesus in his healing ministry gradually opened the eyes of the blind man at Bethsaida, so he gradually revealed to his disciples and others the nature and implications of his "messiahship." He would lead, they would follow; this was not to be a partnership of equals. They must be prepared to deny themselves, to abandon any thoughts of self-centeredness. They must be prepared to take up their cross, to perhaps face martyrdom. In those days it was a common practice under the Romans to literally carry the cross-beam of your own cross to the place of execution. Not a pretty thought to contemplate. And all for the sake of spreading abroad the good news of the kingdom of God, to attain true life in the age to come. Simply put, to trust in God and obey God's will, to accept loss and injury in the cause of Christ and his Gospel, and all the while refusing to spend all one's energies on preserving and enriching one's own life in this world. To follow Christ's example, to become more like him.
Joseph Girzone's books about a character called Joshua have enjoyed great popularity in recent years. In Joshua and the City, the main character, Joshua, a type of Jesus if you will, sets out to confront the many needs and injustices that face a large city, one that is given no name, but that could be any one of a number of cities right here in the United States. He takes on a huge project of urban renewal, without the bother of endless bureaucratic snafus, and overcomes seemingly insurmountable problems like poverty, racism, and AIDS. As he lives among the people, as he walks their streets and eats in their homes, lives are touched, relationships are healed, hearts are transformed, despair is replaced by hope. As they begin to accept the challenges he lays before them, they begin to change within themselves, and, in the process, with his love and support, they become more and more like the one who teaches them. They become more like Joshua.
Of course, fiction is one thing. Certainly we know from the stories of our own faith journeys that these changes do not come about as easily or as quickly as we can turn the pages of a book. We find out as we read on in Mark that even the disciples, in their humanity, had some difficulty in following Jesus to the cross. Some fell asleep when Jesus went to pray. Peter openly denied Jesus after his arrest, and some of the others went into hiding until after the resurrection and they had the opportunity to see him and be with him again. But ultimately they were changed, they went out and preached everywhere, doing the work they had been commissioned to do.
We are now at the Second Sunday in Lent. Let us remind ourselves that Jesus' message was not only for his disciples and followers then, but it continues to be a message for all those who would follow him. The Gospel is not simply a retelling of what happened at that time, it is intended to show people everywhere exactly what is involved and demanded whenever and wherever they recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ. But what we also need to keep in mind, the thing that makes it do-able, is that we are not alone in this. Because Jesus asks this of us, we have his promise that we will not have to do it alone. Be it our own suffering, our own trials, our own doubt, our own fears, there is nothing that Jesus has not seen, that he has not heard, nothing that would cause him to withdraw his love or his saving grace.
Consider Abraham. Each time that God called Abraham's name, he answered, "Yes Lord, here I am." Even when God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son, his trust in God never wavered. At the last minute his son was spared, and a ram was provided for the sacrifice. We cannot know the mind of Abraham. Perhaps he was confident all along that God would intervene and provide another sacrifice. But nevertheless, he never wavered, always faithful to the will of God as it was revealed to him.
And then there's a small five-year old boy whose sister had a rare and serious disease. Her only apparent chance at recovery appeared to be a transfusion from her brother, who had miraculously survived the same illness and now had the antibodies necessary to protect his sister. When the young boy was asked if he would do this, he considered it for a moment and then said, "yes," he would do it for his sister. As the transfusion progressed, he laid next to his sister, smiling. She was looking better all the time; a pink glow had returned to her cheeks. But all of a sudden, he looked up and asked, "Will I start to die right away?" This very young boy had gone into this, thinking that while he might be able to save his sister, his life might be the price: A step into the unknown for the love of another.
Thankfully, not all of us are called upon to face the life or death situations that confronted Abraham and that young boy. But we all do have to make choices all the time, some big, some very small, choices that reflect on our own discipleship, that each and all together give a telling picture of our commitment to Jesus. None of us can know what lies before us, or what will be asked of us in the days and even years ahead. What Jesus asks of each of us is that we follow him through our days, that we keep our eyes on the One who endured everything for us; that wherever life's path takes us, we let his love and his light be our guide.
How trusting and faithful are you? Can you do better? Let us try during this Lent to be the disciples Christ calls us to be, disciples who truly follow Jesus to the cross. Then truly nothing in this life can touch us for, as St. Paul says, "Whatever may happen, in Christ we prevail. Neither death nor life, neither things present nor things yet to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord." Thanks be to God! AMEN.