Proper 19: Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19 (or 19.1-6), or Wisdom 7.26-8.1; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-end
God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ALTHOUGH the lectionary omits Mark 8.1-26, it is worth reading before continuing from verse 27. The feeding of 4000 people — probably Gentiles — from seven loaves and a few fish (Mark 8.1-10), another encounter with the Pharisees (Mark 8.11-13), and a blind man’s miraculous healing (Mark 8.22-26) provide motifs that will be significant in the next stage of the Gospel account.
Jesus now begins to prepare the disciples for the end to which his earthly ministry is heading. To grasp this, they will need to be generous in accepting that he offers salvation to the world, and not just to a small constituency. They will have to distinguish between the values of human powers, and the values of a new sort of life. Above all, they will need vision, both to protect themselves in hostile conditions, and to see profoundly what the message of Jesus means.
All of this is part of Mark’s preoccupation with identity, and now Jesus presses the disciples to commit themselves rather than shelter behind the general speculation that he is a returned John the Baptist or Elijah. It is Peter, the first to answer Jesus’s call to follow him, who is the first to acknowledge Jesus as “Messiah” (Mark 1.16-18, 8.29).
That title carries an immense weight of expectation. Matthew and Luke attach it to Jesus from an early stage in their narratives, establishing him as Saviour and King; this is its first appearance in Mark, and it allows the reader to imagine what it was like for Peter to realise that he knew something he did not know he knew.
The perfect moment of epiphany is shattered, however, as Jesus goes alarmingly off-message to introduce his coming death and the extraordinary idea that he will rise again (Mark 8.31). Peter acts, presumably to save Jesus from himself, knowing the dangers of incautious speech in the volatile climate of their world.
By the measure of that world, he acts wisely. But that is not the measure that Jesus is applying. He has in mind a gift of life, bought at great cost, because it is of infinite value. Any life parsimoniously hoarded in a hostile world is mean by comparison; and it is not proof against time. God’s life must not be confused with the poor imitation that might tempt someone who feared conflict and pain.
Statements such as this are, of course, easier to hear or write down than to live, no matter how sincerely they are believed. The experiences of Christians persecuted and tortured for their faith are evidence enough of that fact. Paul was frank about what following Jesus looked like to the world when he wrote to the Corinthians: “The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18).
Jesus persists in offering his dangerous invitation to the crowd, sparing nothing of what following him will mean. His challenge to them is to consider what they would lose by refusing (Mark 8.34-38).
Despite the careful distinctions between the foolish and the wise in the proverbs and illustrations provided by the ancient Near Eastern world and kept alive by generations, it must have been hard for the crowd to tell the difference when it came to the lives that Jesus was putting before them. Would it have seemed wayward and complacent to choose a safe and quiet place on earth (Proverbs 1.32)? Would Jesus’s words have seemed like the call of wisdom to a security better than the fickle world could offer (Proverbs 1.33), or like the irresponsible mischief-making of the undisciplined tongue (James 3.5-8)?
Those questions have confronted followers of Jesus from the earliest times. They confront us this week in two feasts. Holy Cross Day falls on 14 September, and calls us to celebrate the victory of the Cross, mindful always that it is a victory scarred by pain and degradation.
Then 15 September honours the third-century bishop and martyr, Cyprian of Carthage, who died in 258, a champion of the unity of the Church. His restoration of those penitents who had denied their faith under persecution recognised compassionately that following Jesus is a hard calling.