He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And then comes the hard part, the part about forfeiting our lives, about being ashamed or causing shame, and about losing, it sounds like, everything.
Or is it? Is it, that is, hard, or is it just realistic?
There is a claim at the heart of Christianity that the way of Jesus is different from the way of the world. One is about what you can get, earn, claim as your own, establish through your own efforts and therefore keep with satisfaction. The other is about what you can give, lose, share, and receive from the grace and goodness of another in gratitude.
Each promises life. But it is a different kind of life. Which, Jesus says here, will you choose?
There are two pieces of information – really possibilities – about the community of faith for whom Mark is writing his Gospel that may be helpful here. The first is that a lot of biblical scholars think that Mark’s congregation has recently gone through a period of turbulence, even suffering. Perhaps it’s because of persecution, or perhaps it’s the utter chaos the ensued after the Romans entered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. In either case, some of the community, scholars think, have fled their earlier beliefs, abandoning their confession of faith in Jesus. If this is true, perhaps this is Mark’s call to those who remain to stay true to the Way they had once confessed.
The second possibility is that some of the folks who abandoned their confession are now returning, and part of why Mark writes is to help them integrate into the community by reminding everyone – those who fled and those who stayed – of both the call to discipleship and the faithfulness of the One they follow. If this is the case, perhaps Mark sets the bar high in this part of the story because we are, indeed, called to be followers not of the world or our own desires but of Christ. And yet as the story moves one we will see that not one of the disciples, not even Peter who first confesses Jesus as Messiah, proves able to keep the faith. Yet all who return are restored and invited to a play a part in God’s coming kingdom.
Is this a hard word? Yes, but it is hard precisely because it is realistic. It is realistic about the choice before us and the need to keep the faith. And it is ultimately realistic about our inability to keep faith perfectly our consequent need, indeed, for a messiah who has come precisely to keep faith even with and for the faithless, a messiah who was willing to lose everything that we might gain all.
Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Dear God, knowing our weakness and vulnerability, let us look with compassion and encouragement on all those who similarly struggle. In Jesus name, Amen.