Dying and Living with Arms Open Wide…

Mark 8:31-38

It’s a small memory, this one, and fleeting, to be sure.  I remember it being when I was 6 or 7 when I would be playing with my sisters and neighborhood children in the side yard of our house on South 3rd Street.

And this surely is a sign of our sheltered life on a relatively quiet street in a safe neighborhood.  A time when there was always enough to eat and the adults in our household always treated one another with kindness.  Surely this is one sign of all of this, that we knew so little of death.

And yet, it was not as though we were unaware of it, for somehow it entered into our ‘play.’ Although here is where I recall so little. I remember nothing of the backdrop of the game.  Only that someone died in it.  And that we, that I, back in a time before television offered a dozen images a day of such as this, knew only one posture for death and that was of Jesus on the cross.  And so the one who died would lie on the ground, arms outstretched, imitating the only image of death we knew.

I think of that now as I spend time in these familiar words in Mark’s Gospel:

  • As we listen in as first Jesus asks the disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and as Peter responds with accuracy and one presumes, enthusiasm, that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the chosen One, the long awaited One.
  • And as Peter again quickly, and no doubt, speaking for all of the disciples, trips on his own profession of faith, rebukes Jesus as Jesus seeks to define just what it means to be “Messiah.”
  • And as Jesus puts Peter back in his place, behind Jesus, going on then to offer depth and meaning to what it means to follow the one who must suffer and die before any kind of victory would be known.

I think of that now and what a rare and rather wondrous thing that one’s only image of death would be that of Jesus. And yet, even then, a whole host of other things already competed with what ‘following Jesus’ prior to one’s actual death, as Jesus calls us to today would mean. So much so that all of us, all of the time, necessarily stand with Peter and the other disciples as we are reminded to get back in our place as follower, not leader, as disciples of the only one who would live the truth of God’s intent for us all in all of its fullness.

So it is that a few things stand out for me this time through:

  • That the word ‘rebuke’ is used so seldom in Mark’s Gospel. And that every other time we hear it, it is describing the tone Jesus uses in casting out demons or calming a storm. It is hard to imagine anyone speaking to Jesus in this way — as though the prophetic words of Jesus were also rooted in evil itself. It is hard to understand the audacity of Peter who presumed he somehow knew better than Jesus what was the best path forward from here. Until I look at myself, and see myself in the hearts of all the other disciples who, perhaps, were not saying it out loud, but were surely thinking it, and at least before they experienced the resurrection, living it, too. The fact that Jesus rebukes Peter in turn tells us how serious, how central, how pivotal is the understanding of his sacrifice and their discipleship.
  • And this. Jesus speaks of suffering and rejection and death at the hands of the authorities, but he also speaks of resurrection. Was it so that Peter, (like all of us), was raised to believe the only way to defeat that which offends was with violence, intelligence, street smarts, or something else? That Peter wanted the victory without the necessary suffering which preceded it?  For it is so that resurrection holds within itself the understanding that something is surely lost before anything is gained. There simply is no resurrection without death. And isn’t that something any human being would rather avoid?
  • And this, always this. This is not a call to bear one’s personal burdens well, although surely it would be expected in all those who follow Jesus. Rather, this is a call to a public suffering for the sake of mitigating or defeating anything or anyone which stands in the way of the Good News of Jesus being shared and received. More than this, I expect, this is a call to build a world where it is no longer necessary to ‘rebuke’ all those ways of being which tempt us and which call us to a way which does not bring healing and justice and hope. This is a call to live and die as Jesus did with arms outstretched to and for the whole wide world and all who inhabit it.

And for all of us every day: Whether this is the first time or the thousandth time we have witnessed this exchange between Peter and Jesus, it is ours to wonder how Jesus is also calling out that which keeps us from simply following him.

  • Is it because we truly think we know better than Jesus as Peter did, at least in that moment? Is it my arrogance or my self doubt or some convoluted combination of the two?
  • Is it that the world teaches us so many other lessons about how life is to be lived, about what matters more or most, about what is dependable, reliable, true?
  • Is it simply a desire to avoid suffering?

When I was 6 or 7 I had only one image for dying to inform the ‘play’ we shared in our back yard. It had us lying on our backs with our arms outstretched as though on a cross.

It seems to me that Jesus, though, throughout his life reminds us that this is to be the posture of our living first.

For it was with arms wide open, his heart wide open, vulnerable to the world, that he preached and taught, calmed the storm and fed the thousands, healed and exorcized all that which would possess us and lead us in any other way.

With arms wide open.

As we who pick up our own crosses and follow him are called to be and do as well.

  • What do you make of Peter rebuking Jesus now? Do you see yourself in him or the other disciples?  How is this so for you?
  • Why do you think Jesus responds so forcefully?  What is at stake here?  What is at stake for you?
  • What is the public witness, the very real dying, that is called for in this particular time to which we are called? How does it look it always has?  How is it different in a time like this?