This passage is the pivotal moment in St Mark’s gospel. After this Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and the teaching is all about humility, the necessity for suffering and the way of the cross. In the Alpha Course members are offered an opportunity to explore the meaning of life. St Mark is not interested in discussing the meaning of life because he knows the secret of life. That’s why he calls his book gospel. The secret is that the meaning of life is to be found by following Jesus. Following Jesus means embracing death on the cross in his cause. This is extraordinary.
It’s particularly extraordinary when we consider how Jesus has been portrayed up to this point. Jesus has come across to us as a superhuman hero. He casts out demons. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He subdues the storm. He walks on water. Twice, not once but twice he multiplies bread to feed large crowds. These are the actions of a wonder worker or a King.
And now it is this man who says to his disciples. If any man would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. We would do well to dwell on the sheer awfulness of what is being proposed. The cross was a method of public execution in which the victim is humiliated and subjected to extreme physical torment in full view of friends and neighbours. Naked of course. For the pious there’s the additional difficulty that to die in this way is to be accursed of God. It says so in the Bible.
So for Mark the meaning of life is death freely embraced as the ultimate act of self-denial. In this way the powers of death and evil are defeated. Some New Testament writers interpret Jesus’ death on the cross as an act of love. Paul does, John does, most preachers do but Mark doesn’t. Mark simply wants to say that the way of the cross is simply the way of obedience to the will of God. Discipleship requires following that way regardless of cost or consequences.
This is a very stark message indeed. Too much for Peter at the time, too much for the other disciples, too much for us? Yes certainly. And Mark wants to push it into our faces. He wants to challenge and embarrass us. He wants to turn the world upside down. But if we go along with him we’ll see that actually there’s good news here after all.
The New Testament proposes that you and I should live after the pattern of the cross. Mark emphasises it most strongly but each of the New Testament writers put the cross at the centre of the faith. The cross of Jesus defines the way in which we should live. We live no longer for ourselves but for others and for God. Christianity is not a way of making something of yourself in the eyes of the world-to profess Christ is not to be compared with joining the Rotary Club –it’s a way of self denial-self giving love.
What would it mean to live after the pattern of the cross? Jesus’ death is consistently interpreted in the New Testament as an act of self-giving love. To be Jesus’ disciples is to obey his call to bear the cross and thus to be like him.
Yes it is true that the death of Jesus carries with it the promise of resurrection but the power of resurrection lies in God’s hands not ours. Our calling is thus to follow Jesus without worrying about the results-cash value if you like. Follow Jesus and leave the results to God.
And how are we to do this? How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our lives are so different from those of Mark’s first hearers-caught in the crossfire of a vicious war between Roman oppressors and Zealot terrorists. For them to resist the oppressor’s power of death even at the cost of ones own life made some sort of sense. But what sort of sense could it make for us. How do we live after the way of the cross?
The passages that follow in Mark’s gospel give us a clue. Here we find teaching against ambition, against the danger of riches, against worldly status, for wives against husbands, for children against adults, for the weak and powerless against the strong and the powerful.
How might this be applied to one area that troubles us a great deal-the question of divorce and remarriage. To follow the pattern of the cross suggests to us that marriage is a costly vocation patterned upon the costly love of Christ upon the cross. It is hard and the commitment to costly love should outlast the sentiment that drew the partners together in the first place. It involves the renunciation of power, which is why the New Testaments’ teaching against divorce is a teaching against the misuse of power by husbands against wives. Indeed in Matthew’s gospel the disciples, all men of course, respond by saying:
“Well if that’s the case it would be better not to marry at all!”
Today that’s one precept from the New Testament that’s been taken very seriously indeed.
All this does sound very stern-quite unappealing and unattractive. But that would be a false inference. The secret of the universe is self-giving love-self denial-self offering. We thrive on this both as givers and receivers. We find the meaning of our lives not in what we got but in what we gave.
Finally here are two verses from a wedding hymn. Remember the New Testament proposes the cross as the pattern for the love that there ought to be between husband and wife.
Now Jesus lived and gave his love
To make our life and loving new
So celebrate with him today,
And drink the joy he offers you
That makes the simple moment shine
And changes water into wine.
And Jesus died to live again
So praise the love that come what may
Can bring the dawn and clear the skies
And waits to wipe all tears away
And let us hope for what shall be
Believing where we cannot see.
Often we cannot see, our view is darkened. But the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who saw Jesus die saw clearly:
“Truly, he said, this man was the Son of God”