Good Friday: what does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?

A reflection on Mark 10:32-45 this Good Friday

Monasterboice High Cross

As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.

Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.

The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with would mean in practice.

So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:

– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect

– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.

This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.

The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.

Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.

Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,

Until now.

Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.

Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.

How we are living them and who we are living them for?

If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.

And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.

Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”

Comments, as ever, welcome

Sundays in Mark (76) The end of the story

Tidying up our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Did Mark intend his Gospel to end so abruptly with the words ‘they were afraid’? Is there a lost ending? One that would have told the story of resurrection appearances and a response of joyful faith by the disciples in Galilee as hinted at in verse 7?

Or is that our assumption of what a proper gospel ending should be? (And the addition of the later ending shows others shared that assumption).

Or did Mark, in true Markan style, end as dramatically as he began? He sure has a consistent emphasis on themes of fear and astonishment. And these reactions are pretty well always in response to the astonishing authority, actions and power of Jesus.  Is Mark ending this way to draw attention to the revelation of the awesome power of God in raising his son from the dead?

There is, of course, no way to answer this definitively.

One thing is sure. The Gospel writer leaves all of us, the readers, confronted with the empty tomb and all that it signifies.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Sundays in Mark (75) He is Risen!

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

And we’re nearly there! I’ve loved doing these wee Marcan reflections each week.

The ‘young man’ in white says what most angels seem to say to people they meet – ‘Don’t be afraid’. Here is a glimpse of the ‘otherness’ of God reflected in his messenger.

But fear and terror are not appropriate in this situation. For now the world has changed. Bad news and grief and despair are being transformed in the face of the astonishing good news given by the angel.

And this is the ‘good news’, the gospel – the man Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified, killed and buried. But he has been raised bodily from the dead; the tomb is empty, death has been found powerless in the face of the power of God. And this man Jesus is raised to a new order of eschatological existence. The future world of resurrection has broken into the present.

All has changed.

No wonder the women are bewildered. This good news is so ‘paradigm shifting’, so ‘big’ that they cannot begin to take it in.

That will take time … and Christians ever after, from the early Christians and their writings recorded in the NT, to believers around the world today are still processing that great good news.

So how does this astonishing good news, first spoken by the angel to the women all those centuries ago, continue to speak into and transform your life and context today ?

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Sundays in Mark (74) terror in the tomb

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

We’ve reached chapter 16 and the last moments of hopelessness and mourning for the lost Messiah.

Mark’s focus switches back to the women. They were prepared for sunset (and the end of the Sabbath) to purchase perfumed spices as soon as they could, likely to pour on Jesus’ head. He would have been in the tomb for 2 nights and a day in a hot climate by the time the women arrive at the tomb on Sunday morning.

Mark is typically minimalistic. The size of the round stone is mentioned to emphasise the impossibility of the women or the ‘young man’ moving it on their own.

No wonder the women were terrified (the word is that strong) – entering a tomb, huge stone rolled away, no body and a white-robed stranger sitting inside. The stranger isn’t called an angel but he fulfils the role – a holy, pure, divine messenger. And I guess there must have been something terrifying about him – something glorious, transcendent, other ….

And this is the typical response of anyone encountering an angel of God, let alone God himself.

What place should the fear of God – fear of his otherness, his glory, his holiness, his power and his mystery – have in the modern church, in your faith? What place does it have? Has the modern church pretty well lost any sense of God’s complete and terrifying otherness? And if so, what are the implications?

Jesus Has Risen

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

Sundays in Mark (73) Courage at Jesus’ burial

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark is in concise descriptive mode, but as usual there is a lot going on behind the scenes. It’s deeply poignant that there is no (male) close relative or disciple of Jesus around to ask for the body so it can be buried quickly before the Sabbath and according to Jewish custom.

Jesus is alone in death, abandoned to his fate.

Joseph of Arimathea, I think, tends to get overlooked. In contrast to the disciples he acts with real courage. Permission to allow a body of a convicted enemy of Rome to be buried had to be granted by Pilate. Joseph is a senior member of the Sanhedrin which had passed its own judgement on Jesus. He must have been drawn to Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God.

If it was one thing to take the risk to follow Jesus when he was alive, it is an extraordinary decision for Joseph to identify himself publicly on the side of a dead man. But an urgent decision had to be made, and it was Joseph who stood up to be counted.

Influential and likely well off, it is Joseph, and presumably his servants,  who tend to Jesus’ body and take it to a nearby stone-cut tomb. It is only in death that Jesus is among the wealthy.

Sometimes in life, there comes a moment when you either stand for what is right and what you believe in or you bottle it and don’t.

Maybe sometimes we act like Joseph and grab that moment in faith. Maybe more often we act like the other disciples and disappear or keep our heads down. Joseph certainly was the exception. But the good news is that with Jesus, there is always restoration and forgiveness for a new day and a new opportunity to stand with him.

The Burial of Jesus

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

Sundays in Mark (72) Jesus and women

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus, the Messiah, the beloved Son of God,  is dead; executed by pagans, rejected by Israel, abandoned by his disciples. The story of the gospel has reached both its climax and its nadir.

And isn’t it remarkable, that in the midst of these dark and momentous events, Mark inserts a little interlude about Jesus and women. Too easily these verses are skipped over.

But we’ve seen that Mark is much too canny an author to be putting in irrelevant padding. No, these verses are significant. But how?

At one level, like a good story teller he’s setting up the women’s involvement in the burial and resurrection to come.

But at another level, his matter of fact description reveals some fascinating things about Jesus’ relationships with, and dependence on, women.

While Mark mentions three specific women, ‘many others’ were present. These were all Galilean women. And this group of women had had the surprising and remarkable role of basically being Jesus’ ‘ministry support team’ in Galilee.

Luke makes this even more clear in Lk 8:1-3. He also mentions some specific names among ‘many others’ who accompanied and supported Jesus’ itinerant ministry.

1After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

So here we have the Messiah, the Son of God, soon to be revealed as the risen Lord, being supported in his mission to Israel and to the wider world by a fairly substantial group of women.

It is these women who risk being there to be with Jesus as he faces death. It is these women who would be first to minister to Jesus in death, just as they had in life. And it is these women, who would be the first witnesses of the resurrected Lord.

Now of course it is one thing to highlight these facts, it is another to translate them to the contemporary church.

A ‘hard patriarchialist’ might say the women had to stand in because the men had failed! But there is no hint of this here (or anywhere else in the NT). On their own these verses are highly suggestive of the remarkable and vital role of women within Jesus’ mission. Taken with Jesus’ own counter-cultural inclusion of women within the kingdom of God, and the overall thrust within the NT of equality in the new community of the Spirit, this passage forms a piece in the NT jigsaw picture of the honoured and indispensable role of women in the earliest Christian community.

Comments, as ever, welcome.   

Women at the cross

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Sundays in Mark (71) The Centurion’s exclamation

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reflecting on Mark’s account of the death of Jesus, specifically how his death (1) reveals the identity and mission of the Son of God; (2) is associated with impending judgement on the temple and today (3) the significance of the pagan Roman soldier being the one to recognise something of Jesus’ true identity.

Wasn’t it John Wayne hundreds of years ago (1965) who, playing the soldier in The Greatest Story Ever Told, exclaimed in his drawling American accent that ‘Truly this man was the Son of Gawd’?

‘Tis unfortunate that this line still tends to get automatically associated with Wayne’s hammy acting.

For it is a crucial turning point in Mark’s narrative. The centurion on duty would have witnessed the whole crucifixion and the extraordinary events surrounding it. It is clearly the manner of Jesus’ death that convinces him of … what?

As a Roman, does he recognise Jesus’ extraordinary status and authority, perhaps his god-like power and transcendent identity? He is awestruck by Jesus, but he expresses his thoughts as a pagan Roman soldier. One thing is for sure, this Jewish rabbi does not belong on the cross.

Mark takes the Roman’s words to another level of meaning. His gospel has begun with the proclamation that it is all about the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Here, the Roman, unwittingly confirms the truth. His public exclamation must have ‘spoken’ powerfully to the Christians in Rome to whom Mark writes. Jesus is God’s Son, not the Emperor.

And, I like to think, this Gentile recognition of the Jewish Son of God prefigures the inclusion of the Gentiles under the Lordship of the risen Christ. The good news of Jesus is good news for all.

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”