The Way of Pain
On Mark 8: 27-38
Mark's gospel was written for Christians undergoing intense persecution. It was not written to convince anybody of Christ's divinity, or of the need to turn and follow him. It was written to people who had already begun to follow him, who had already encountered his risen presence in the midst of their community, and yet who were facing unimaginable suffering and fear. These words that we have heard come to us as a challenge in our relative comfort, but to the early hearers, I think they would have been more like reassurance.
The situation, as I understand it, was that the Roman Emperor Nero was scape-goating the Jewish followers of the Messiah Jesus for the burning down of much of Rome. His guards would go from house to house asking 'are you a Christ follower?' If the answer was yes, then they and their whole family would be killed by torture in the Circus Maximus, or used as human torches at one of Nero's parties. If the answer was no, then they would be forced to name somebody else who was a follower of the Messiah, to subject them to the same fate. What a way to drive fear, suspicion, and hate into a community supposed to be characterised by love, freedom and unity.
Into this situation, these words from Mark's gospel were written. Firstly, Jesus invites the disciples to confess him as the Messiah. Then, he talks about his own suffering and death, and rebukes Peter for suggesting that the Messiah could not or should not suffer in this way. And then he speaks to the crowd about how all those who would belong to him, would need to shoulder their own cross, and hold lightly to their own lives. We can see how this speaks to the dread and sorrow of these early Christians. Encouraged to go on confessing, and not denying, Jesus as the Anointed One. Reminded that the way of their Messiah was to walk knowingly toward his own torture and death. Reminded that those who follow him will also know sacrifice and suffering.
Christianity, as a path to walk rather than a collection of things to believe, takes its shape from the path that Jesus walked. Not always in the literal sense that we see this early community in Rome was forced to walk it. They had to drink from his cup most bitterly and completely. But it should not be said of Christians anywhere, at any time, that we deny or avoid suffering and pain.
I am often quick to equate being the beloved child of God with some sense that things will always turn out pleasantly for me. That when things don't go well, I wonder whether God is actually good, or cares for me on a personal level. The challenge for me is to receive all of the circumstances in my life - good or bad - as a place where God is meeting me and saving me, and where I can choose to imitate Jesus by saying 'your will be done.' I don't believe the bad stuff is directly chosen or purposed by God to teach me or correct me or bless others – but I believe that if I open my hands to it with acceptance, I can know the accompanying and presence of God in the midst of it – and I can find the way out of it out the other side. These verses from Mark suggest that Jesus, the dearly beloved Son, had a dark path to walk that he went on choosing and accepting not because God was making it happen that way, but because he knew that for him to live truly and be who he was, in the world that he had come to, then this is how things would turn out.
Our own paths will all take a turn into the valley of shadow and pain. Sometimes this will come about because of the chaos and brokenness of this world, the weakness of our bodies and minds, the cruelties of others. It will come upon us suddenly, and unchosen. Sometimes, though, we will glimpse it coming, knowing it to be the consequence of choosing to follow through on our calling with integrity. Sometimes we will be offered a cup that is full of bitterness, but where we know our truth lies in the drinking of it. Other times, that cup is best rejected, because choosing to suffer needlessly is not a genuine taking up of a cross. I think that only by walking closely with God in prayer and being accompanied by others who we invite to speak into our lives, is it possible to discern which is which.
Christian mystics have always affirmed that in some mysterious way, the suffering of the faithful beloved of God is somehow bound into the suffering of Jesus the Christ, and made meaningful, even redemptive, there. Which is not to glorify suffering or deny its horrible disfiguring reality when it takes us over. But to say that part of the life of faith is to learn to find and save our lives in the midst of pain willingly accepted. May God give us the grace to receive this hard teaching.