Posted: February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 2B, 25.02.2017
Mark 8:31-38


This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a call to discipleship and it follows on to our last week’s attempt to find an alternative theology of Sin and evil. Last week I think I tried to suggest that self-deprecation and sacrifice and the doctrine of original sin were unhelpful when seeking a definition of sin for today and that acknowledging human limitation might be a better approach. Today we search the idea of suffering and we begin by saying that a call to follow Jesus is no easy thing. A response to the call requires intention, courage, determination and commitment, all those traditional things, and one of the things that makes this no easy matter is that over time and personal circumstance our understanding of what is easy or difficult has been to either a greater or a lesser degree part of our daily living. This says that mixed in with the call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross, and ultimately, death. The summary of what we hear in the call and in the stories of the calling can be heard in the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

One of the outcomes of a tradition based on sacrifice and atonement is that with our post-modern western ears we read things out of context, and in, this particular invitation to discipleship we hear it as a glorification of suffering, and a docility of character. Without an accurate critique of the patriarchal setting of the text we slide into assigning blame to women, and an encouragement of the role of victim. Discipleship becomes a life of perpetual suffering especially for women and that’s ok because that’s how it is for followers of Jesus. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not too distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was considered an imitation of ‘Christ’.

Now any thinking person has to see that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period. And this demands of us a teasing out of the text in an alternative way. Taking just two key themes in our text from Mark we find two issues. One is Suffering and the second is ‘The Cross’ but when we look carefully we see that Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. What he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering,
is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, suffering is a very real possibility when one challenges the status quo and for those who have chosen to follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution.

We need to remember here that the first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. We should not suffer at all is our expectation. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

It is no wonder that the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, even to sacrifice it for a cause, for it becomes an important survival skill! To be able to die in the cause of living with it. So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. What story do we need to deal with suffering today? What is it anyway?

A brief look at the cross or crucifixion, is a look at a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. The Iraq invasion could be claimed to be a good example of a preemptive strike poorly justified.

And let’s be clear the people of Jesus time would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That is 17th/18th century middle-class piety. Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. Or that “God has given him a heavy cross”. Or that “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”.

The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump. As Joanna Dewey has said on her website; “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.”

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Why not? Because all forms of violence destroy life. Suffering and the cross as symbol was not even considered until much later for ‘Christian’ congregations. That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, In Marks time God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What this claim is that the meaning of suffering and the cross are a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  (Joanne Dewey) And that is Ian Cairns says is “the all-absorbing commitment par excellence!” (Cairns 2004:123)

The call to discipleship that Mark is talking about was a tough call because one’s life could depend on it. It is still a tough call but today it is more a cerebral call to participate in a journey that is composed of questions rather than with answers. Application of an educated mind is vital. A call to live with questions that demands integrity, honesty and candour. It’s a call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy). This is a call where what one believes but its demand is that what one believes is vitally important as it leads to practice. When one extrapolates that, it is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Let’s be clear here; Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, and we have to do it together.

The challenges of discipleship for us today are tough not because we could face execution or banishment, it is tough because the human environment we live within is one where the answers are so complex and demand of us a more flexible understanding of order in what is now a collective systemic complexity. Our choices are greater than ever before in terms of what we do and how we do it, so much so that we cannot even contemplate including everything, if we ever could anyway, and this complexity and choice is going to become even more complex in the future. The challenge for us is that there is harmony, hope, peace and human enrichment in this scene if we want to look. The challenge and the blessing of discipleship is real and we cannot but find the sacred in this if we are to walk the Jesus Way.

One example of this complexity facing discipleship is what John Spong challenges the church with. He argues that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism We might see this happening in some places as the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, just as Christianity can claim of itself, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of a faithless response or as it is now called ‘false flag’ terrorism, which we can read more about on Facebook, in newspapers and many debates about the future if we are unfamiliar with the concept.

Spong affirms that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.” You will remember we spoke about that last week with that story about Mission in South America years ago when discovering a people who knew no fear about their living meant that fear had to be manufactured for the Christian mission of evangelization to even begin.

Spong also describes the problem with organization. Many churches still claim that there is something such as the true church, and along with that goes some ultimate authority. Many of us would accept that the idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for us. For us God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. Most of us would also say that using fear to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, has been part of our tradition and we are not comfortable with that.

Spong’s understanding of discipleship is that people need to accept responsibility for the world. If we simply leave global change in the hands of God, we remove our own responsibility and agency in this world. If we want to change the world, we have to do it. The Dalai Lama expressed this as well, arguing that it’s not enough to just pray. We must take responsibility for our planet.

One of the challenges we face is how we use the bible because we know we are dealing with texts that are very old, and when we consider what we do know about them and that there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, it becomes difficult to accept any one without question. Hence the challenge to live the questions as opposed to searching for answers.

Another point that is important for discipleship is hypocrisy. Many people claim ties to their faith yet know very little about its tenets, choosing rather to accept a popular leave it to God approach that denies critique and thus questions. This makes it easy to ignore the hard bits and choose the easy, not thinking approach, under the guise of an authentic supernatural faith. This is commonly seen within many so-called ‘spiritual’ movements as well, which can be seen as another form of religion in itself.

When it comes to religion, it is clear that we have to do your own research; we have to read the books and examine the teachings for ourselves. Use our own head and find what resonates with us instead of allowing ourselves to be indoctrinated and letting someone else do our thinking for us. The texts are open to interpretation and it’s up to us to find meaning in them and apply it to our life. I don’t think this is about whether there is a God or not because we can still believe in God and not be religious. What we are doing however is recognizing that Religion is a man-made construct. And, that has to be good!

We are also recognizing that Religions as organizations are going to have to change. New discoveries are constantly being made that are challenging long-held belief systems. We cannot grow if we refuse to have an open mind and accept new possibilities about the nature of reality, and it’s childish to hold on to old belief systems just because they are familiar. I want to leave it here with a quote that says; “It’s a mark of an educated person to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” And my adaption which is; that, it is the mark of a disciple to be seen to be humble, determined and committed to the building of a more complete humanity. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.

Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (Ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.


Article by Arjun Walia ‘Collective Evolution American Bishop Explains How Religion is Made-Up & Used to Control People

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