Everyone suffers. Some will attempt to flee. Those who are willing to interpret their necessary suffering as the spiritual task of relinquishment, who are willing to lose their lives (as they have made them) for Jesus’ sake, will receive a new, better, and—dare we say—resurrected life. The way through suffering is the way taken by any who would become a follower of Jesus. — Thomas R Steagald, (Homiletical Perspective, Mark 8.34–9.1), Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Kindle edition, loc. 8920
Last week, we read that Jesus started his ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist was arrested. Well, trouble wasn’t only blowing up for John. It was blowing up for Jesus too. If you read Mark from the beginning (two chapters a days takes you just over a week!), you’ll see Jesus
- preaches the good news of the kingdom of God coming near;
- heals the sick, and delivers those bound by evil;
- angers the authorities;
- feeds 5000 with some bread rolls and a few fish;
- is thought to be mad by his own family;
- angers the authorities;
- stills a storm on Galilee;
- teaches using parables.
Oh, and did I mention that he angers the authorities?
And so we come to today’s Gospel Reading, which shows that Jesus really was heading into trouble with the authorities:
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: ‘The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law.…’
‘The Son of Man must suffer…’ What do you mean by ‘must’, Jesus?
We heard last week that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus into the Judean wilderness. Is it God who is now making sure that Jesus ‘must’ suffer? Is Jesus a pawn in the hands of forces bigger than himself?
(If you play chess, you know what happens to pawns. They get sacrificed.)
What does ‘must’ mean?
Does God ‘need’ Jesus to suffer, to be killed in a way as barbaric as the cross? Or there another reason that Jesus ‘must’ suffer?
When I was a young Christian, I was taught that God couldn’t forgive us without the shedding of blood. A sacrifice needed to be made. It must happen because God says so! Now there is a strand of teaching in the Old Testament that has to do with priests and the Temple and blood sacrifices, but that’s not the whole story.
The prophets of the Old Testament had another perspective. Amos, for example. In 5.21–24, he proclaims the words of God:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being
of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The people Jesus was angering included the priests of the temple, the authorities in charge of the sacrificial system. They were angry because in their eyes Jesus was a prophet who squarely put God’s justice right out in front. They were afraid that the business of the temple would suffer.
Jesus spoke of justice in terms of love, love of God and love of neighbour going together hand in glove. This is how God’s justice is done, through love and mercy and compassion. Not out of punishment and condemnation. In fact, God’s justice looks an awful lot like mercy to us.
But Jesus ‘must’ suffer. Jesus ‘must’ be rejected by people in power. And soon, Jesus ‘must’ die.
Why must he die?
Sometimes, we use the word ‘must’ to mean ‘inevitable’. Usain Bolt is running so fast he must break his own world record!
She’s so bright, she must get into that Law course she wants!
The car is going so fast, it must crash on that tight bend!
It’s inevitable that these things will happen.
So why ‘must’ Jesus suffer? Because it is inevitable that someone who speaks and acts as he did would come to the attention of the authorities, and suffer the consequences.
The elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law aren’t going to take it lying down. And when the Romans find out, well who knows what might happen?
But Jesus is resolute. He must be a witness to the kingdom of God.
And the disciple is not greater than the Master. Jesus tells us
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Followers of Jesus shouldn’t expect an easy ride.
And Jesus also says
For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
When Jesus speaks of losing our lives for him and for the gospel, we have to understand hat sometimes that is literally true. But for most of us, it’s more about losing things along the way.
If we follow Jesus, we have to let things go, to give things up. Just as anyone carrying a cross on the way to their execution would.
- We step away from a lucrative job because they hear the call of God;
- or someone with power uses their position to make things better for powerless people;
- someone sets aside the desire to get their own back on a person who has hurt them. We call that forgiving those who sin against us;
- or someone who realises they’re in a spot because of their own actions takes responsibility for themselves rather than covering things up;
- or someone takes up an unpopular cause for the sake of the gospel. The church has to do that quite often, especially at a time when we are encouraged to vote mainly according to how things affect our hip pockets. When the church does that, it must come into conflict with the powers that be.
Being a follower of Jesus can be hard. It may mean choosing the road less travelled, the narrow way that leads to life. It may be hard to see others travelling the easy road, that broad way. But life—true life—comes as we take up the cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.