Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1 – 15:47
Who is this man, this Jesus? That’s the central question of Mark’s gospel. Throughout his telling of the story of the life of Christ, again and again we encounter questions about who he is. Maybe you remember the story in chapter four of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea of Galilee during a storm. When Christ calms the waters with only a few words, the disciples reply, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” [Mark 4:41]
Or how about chapter 8, after Jesus has performed a series of miracles, when he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?” Again, it seems the question is up for grabs. Jesus explains the fate that lies before him and Peter rebukes him for even uttering the words—they are just too absurd to be given into, it seems; Peter can’t believe them. Peter can’t believe Jesus could be called to be a suffering Messiah. [Mark 8:27-33]
Or how about later in chapters 10 on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus again tells the disciples about what is coming, and instead of understanding the gravity of his words and of who he is, James and John ask to sit at his right and left hand in heaven, sparking a fight among the disciples.
Once again it seems they can’t take in the truth that Jesus lays before them. [Mark 10:32-45]
Well, if the disciples didn’t get it, is it any wonder that we are all a bit confused? We want to understand who Jesus is; we want to embrace the promise that he offers. After all, we’re Christians. But I suspect that each of us harbors some doubt, and maybe even a little bit of skepticism about just who this Jesus is and what he really means for us.
This is faith work, not scientific “just the cold hard facts, please” work. We’ve all been schooled in the ways of science—remember learning about forming a hypothesis, testing it in an unbiased, fair way, and then assessing the results? We have all been taught that this is the way to analyze the world around us, the way to dissect things we want to understand.
We are all products of the Enlightenment, that cultural movement of 18th century Europe that promoted science and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition.[i] As children of this way of thinking, we have almost lost our ability to think in any other way: We want proof; we want to know beyond the shadow of a doubt.
For many of us, faith is simply not enough. We can no longer just believe; there has to be evidence to point us to an answer. And so, as we find ourselves once again pondering this great story of the Passion, and thinking about its meaning for our lives, we are perhaps more than just a little bit confused. We have been trained to analyze what is put before us with the head; and, to risk a trite phrase, this is a story that is meant to be understood with the heart and soul.
As we face the events of Holy Week, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that all those around Jesus seem to have the same doubts we have. They too, don’t really get it. And that’s really no accident; throughout the gospels, the disciples often stand in our place in the story. This is certainly the case in Mark. The disciples reflect us; they often say what the listener is thinking.
Today’s reading of the Passion illustrates the point. Peter denies Christ three times, just as Jesus said he would. Peter says at one point, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” He then cries because he thinks he has lied; but in actuality what he says is his own truth: despite all that he has seen and heard, he does not really know who Jesus is.
And the Jesus of Mark’s gospel often makes it difficult to understand who he is. When Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” it would have been a great moment for Jesus to explain. Instead, he says only, “You say so.” He obfuscates. It seems that Mark does not really want to tell us what to believe; perhaps he wants us to draw our own conclusion.
In fact, through almost all of Mark’s narrative no human calls Jesus the Son of God. The title of the book, the first verse of the gospel, declares he is the Son of God (1:1). The heavenly voice announces it at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and at the transfiguration (9:7), but still, the disciples don’t get it. But then finally, one person does—the very man who crucified Jesus, the Gentile, the Roman oppressor, the centurion. When he sees Jesus die, he recognizes him: “Truly this man was God’s son” (15:39).[ii]
We have already entered into the Passion of Christ with the Palm Sunday liturgy; now we will hear the story of the Passion through the voice of the gospel writer Mark. [We will read the story this year in the same way we did last year: Various members of our lector’s guild are taking different roles in the reading, but you have a role too: You will be playing Jesus. I invite you to experience the story through Jesus’ eyes, to think about what all of this might have meant to him. There is only one thing we need to practice: In Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus dies, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – but Mark gives it first in a Greek transliteration of Aramaic: Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?” Say that after me: Eli, Eli; lama sabacthani? OK – now you won’t be surprised when that comes up!
I hope you will worship with us throughout the beautiful services of Holy Week, and I hope you will find opportunities to recognize who Christ is and who he can be in your life. I invite you to listen not only with your ears, to see not only with your eyes, but to experience through your heart and soul the gift that comes to each of us through the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ. And on Easter, may we all be able to proclaim with joy the truth of Christ for ourselves and for the world around us. Amen.
[ii] Allen, Jr. O. Wesley, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/1/2012, accessed 3/31/2012.