Posted: February 24, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8:31-38


Why another sermon on Discipleship? Isn’t it obvious that discipleship is about sharing the Good News and that good news is what Jesus was making known in his lifetime? Yes of course it is but what does make known mean today? Is it about telling those who don’t know what to think, how to act, and what not to do> Is it about telling people they have to measure up and give up all they have and follow the path we think we should? Sure discipleship, can be seen simply as following Jesus, but what does follow mean and who is the Jesus we are following and another question is how do we do this thing called discipleship?

In technical English John D Caputo reminds of where we find ourselves when facing the call. He reminds us that we have to deal with the accusative if we are to respond to the call of the divine. He calls that divine the ‘Perhaps’ I call it the ‘Almost’ that is insisting we embrace the Good News and this means that God’s existence relies upon our engaging in discipleship to bring about God’s existence. God insists and we bring about existence. Discipleship then is a crucial activity for life. It is the act of making known, making real and creating the existence of the Good News. Caputo reminds us that we are faced with the accusative and that literally relates to the act of showing cause’.

Another situation we need to think about is that Jesus said that “God rains on both the righteous and the unrighteous” And Mark twain said that “The rain is famous for falling on the just and the unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors, I would drown him.

This suggests to me that discipleship is not about the recipients needs and rather about the life a follower of Jesus is called into and that demands that we need to get this Jesus guy sussed or at least as well as we can before talking about discipleship. Who is this guy that we are following: What is he saying and more importantly why?

When talking of Jesus as Itinerant Artisan and Sage” Charles W Hedrick said he was an

itinerant artisan who had a marketable skill related to a building trade of some sort. That

he was neither formally educated nor lettered beyond what training he may have received for his craft. Nevertheless, he had an uncommon knowledge of human behaviour based on shrewd observation of life in Galilean villages; and he was able to

recreate what he observed in memorable realistic secular narratives, which he recounted as audiences presented themselves to listen. His discourse was in the language of the secular world, and his ideas put him at odds with the prevailing religious

and secular powers, and even human self-interest. Because of his abilities, however, he came to be regarded as a wise man. Certainly, he was not a professional scribe or sage,

but in regarding him as wise he came to be included among those holy souls into whom the spirit of wisdom was thought to pass in every generation—men and women who became friends of God

What he gave is what we believe changed his world and will change ours for the better and that is simply the Good news that love, peace and justice are names for the good news. As Robert Miller wrote in the latest Fourth R Magazine; While “Few might imagine that those ancients listening to the words of Jesus would be as cynical as Mark Twain, and in fact many were, the religious significance of rain in the fraught relationship of God and Israel would have leapt to mind as Jesus spoke of it falling alike on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Many of Jesus listeners would have been thinking more along the lines of Twain’s management of such affairs, an found what Jesus had to say challenging. The social, political and military environment would have been the obvious target of his words. How do you maintain order without the simple clear black and white rules? How do you find justice without an enemy? Especially when God rains for both good and bad?

And let’s remember, he disregarded many religious boundaries of his own religious faith. He did not believe in some of the interpretations of scripture. He publicly associated and ate with sinners, he reached across the critical religious rules of his day. He ignored the prescribed handwashing, he prioritized interpersonal morality over Temple worship which place being in right relationship with people over that with God. He crossed the line between sacred and mundane and upset the special days rules. He was not saying they were wrong but that they were not the only way and, in his time, they were not working or not necessary because they stigmatized, separated off and created an environment of fear as opposed to love. Here we have a challenge to consider when we plan discipleship let alone a program of evangelism.

This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a tough call. It is a call to discipleship. And mixed in with that call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross. Death. But I guess the primary thing we hear in the story are the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Now, if read out of context, and with our post-modern western ears tuned in, this particular invitation to discipleship can be heard as a glorification of suffering, docility especially by women), and an encouragement to become a victim. 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 an imitation of ‘Christ’ So let me along with many today state in a stark categorical sense: that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period.

Two of Mark’s issues seem to be the place of suffering and the other is the Cross. Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. But 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, is a very real possibility. And something we need to bear in mind when being a disciple.

And for those who have chosen to be disciples and follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call to them is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution. Again, we might think about this as the outcome of good discipleship. Not in the sense of avoiding the persecution by confidence or strong persuasion but by humility of grace and peace. Remember here also that the Roman Theology is Victory first then peace and justice whereas I think Jesus was advocating peace and love as the instigators of justice.

The fact is that first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. 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! I view change different from my parents and my children and why not? 

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…a

“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)

No wonder the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, for it becomes an important survival skill! 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. Do you get a feel for discipleship from this? It is certainly not about telling anyone what we have and they need to live a better life. They already know that. Even today.

Now with Easter almost upon us we will have to deal with the story of the Cross, the crucifixion of the criminal by the ruling authority with the help of his peers.  The Cross.

Let’s be sure that the cross or crucifixion, was 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. We today watch with interest how governments impose mandate on vaccine consumption in order to protect their people. Will a health measure become a cultural rule by stealth? Those against vaccinations struggle with this point under the cover of fear of its efficacy. And one would have to say that rightly so because it is fraught with assumptions of justice based on compliance as opposed to freely chosen.

It is pretty obvious that the ancients would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That’s 17th/18th century middle-class piety.

Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. “God has given him a heavy cross”. “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 another overseas writer has said: “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.” (Joanna Dewey. LookSmart Web site, 2009)

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Violence destroys life. It is not even an installation of a symbol for the much later ‘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, God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What ‘Taking up thy cross’ seems to me to be a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, and as Joanne Dewey says: “in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  That is “the all-absorbing   par excellence!” as a good man I liked when training Ian Cairns wrote.  

It has to be noted that the call to discipleship back then was a tough call. Your life could depend on it. Whereas the call to discipleship now, while also being a tough call. it is a call to be on a journey, Recognising the place language and culture have, living with questions rather than with answers, and that means living with ambiguities, and uncertainty and because it is always good news that drives discipleship exploring what it means to be human in this age when cloning of all examples of life forms, robotics, artificial intelligence and life ruled by algorithms is with us. Theology, spirituality and discipleship cannot be out of date or it will disappear and the Jesus story will disappear.

And where that demands honesty and candor. At the core of discipleship is the call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy) or what one should believe, as important. 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.

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, together. That’s the challenge and the blessing of discipleship.  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.


Caputo J.D The insistence of God A theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

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