So, our first question needs to be, “Why would the lectionary give us two passages from the Gospel of Mark for this Sunday?” The RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) says for this Sunday, the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, the Gospel text is Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9. What is that about? Plus, we just had the second one a few weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, where it belongs! They just seem like wildly different moments in the life of Jesus, so we can’t help but wonder why they were paired together. Of course, you’ll point out, they aren’t paired, they’re alternates. This or that. Not this and that. Unless.
What if they were paired? What if we took a quick look at both and tried to see what might pop up? I know that in one, you have Jesus proclaiming a terrible death to come and with it a difficult life for many who would follow. And in the other, we have a special-effects-laden mountaintop moment with a blessing and an instruction. Not the same mood at all, really. Is it?
One thing we might pull out of the juxtaposition of the two is vindication for Peter, who normally gets a bad rap in this scene. Actually, Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter says to rebuke Jesus. But that phrase – rebuke Jesus – is condemnation all by itself. You can’t help but wonder what Peter said to his Lord when he pulled him aside after all this suffering and rejection talk. I think we might have a clue if we back up a few verses. This is the famous, “Who do you say that I am” text that we’ve all preached before. (And it is worth preaching again and again.) It is an important moment for those who would be disciples of Jesus Christ. An important question to answer.
Peter gets it right. And he gets a gold star for his efforts. “You are the Messiah!” Right, Peter. Right. Well, in Mark’s version of the story, Peter doesn’t get a gold star. In fact, all that happens is that Jesus says, “Don’t spread it around. Keep it to yourself.” And that’s a rabbit trail we can’t follow right now. But it needs following, to be sure.
“Jesus speaks to them sternly,” says Mark. Then our text begins for this week. After the “sternly” bit. After the stare from Jesus’ piercing eyes. No wonder they are on the defensive. No wonder Peter pulls him aside after all that and rebukes him. We don’t know what he said because Mark doesn’t seem to care. But I’ll bet it started with, “You’re the Messiah!” It has to do with mindset. Or maybe it’s about vision. What did Peter see when he heard the word “Messiah”? What do we see? And how does suffering and dying fit into that image? It fit into Jesus’ own understanding of what he was there to do.
We would much prefer the alternate reading. Let’s go back up on that mountain. Let’s go watch the light brighten and the clothes begin to shine. That’s the Messiah that we can get excited about following. Maybe that’s why the lectionary preparers gave us an out. Maybe they have said to us that if we can handle these harsh words – stern words – from Jesus, then we can climb up the mountain again and sit with Peter and John and James with our mouths hanging open as the light show takes place and the voice thunders from the clouds. It’s tempting, isn’t it? We like our messiahs up on pedestals. Unassailable, unaffected, unbroken by the powers that be.
Resist that temptation, however. And here’s why. Nowhere in Mark, chapter 9, does it say that what happened to Jesus on that mountain is going to happen to us. But here in Mark, chapter 8, he not only said it is a possibility, but he also says we ought to choose it. Pick up that cross. Enter into that suffering; embrace the brokenness. This is one of those “meaning of life” texts. Did you hear it? Or did you turn away because it is too hard? Too stern? Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake, for the sake of the gospel, will save it. What are you willing to lose your life for?
This isn’t necessarily a risk-yourself-unto-death kind of call. It might be that. It has been that for many people, and still is today. But that’s not the only way to read that verse. What are you willing to lose yourself doing? You know what that’s like. You know what it is to be so focused, so wrapped up in something or someone that you don’t notice the passing of time, you don’t notice that you are hungry or sleepy or exhausted. You don’t notice anything but that thing, that activity, that person. You’ve lost yourself. We can’t live that way always. But when we find something for which we are willing to lose ourselves, we are on our way to the kingdom that Jesus talks about.
And what if that thing was the gospel? Not the words on the page or in the book. But the life of fully living those words. What if loving one another as we have been loved became something we invested our whole self into? What if the whole church decided to do this? What transformation could take place in our community? It boggles the mind, frankly.