by Daniel Harrell
As the copious snow fell on Thursday, I pondered a Lenten reflection by St. Paul pastor Debbie Blue. She noted how Lent, which means spring in Middle English and slow as a Latin prefix, is exactly how we experience spring, and Lent, in Minnesota. Slowly. “We are so deprived in winter—of color, light, sound, smell, vitamin D. We hardly have to make a decision to give anything up for Lent; winter thrusts us into a sensory deprivation chamber. If Easter doesn’t come, I’m sure we will eventually freeze to death. And yet, some nights, when it’s warm enough to take a walk in the silent, glistening snow, death doesn’t seem so fearsome. It has its own undeniable beauty. If we could look it in the face and fear it not, this would change our lives. Monks spend weeks in burial grounds in order to sit with death and contemplate it. This sort of silent sitting with death can be one of the blessings of the Lenten season.
We’ve spent this Lent thinking about silence in the Bible. Now deep into Lent, we start to think about dying too. About himself in Mark 8, Jesus will say, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” And then, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
These verses trail our passage this morning, unavoidable outcomes of Jesus’ true identity. As readers, we’ve known the truth since the first verse of chapter 1: Jesus is the Son of God. Like Lent in Minnesota, it’s taken awhile for his disciples to get here. Such is the nature of spiritual insight. Sometimes it takes time. Just prior to this morning’s passage, a crowd brought a blind man to Jesus and begged for some miracle eyesight. Jesus spit on the blind man—saliva being a popular symbol of healing power—except that Jesus’ saliva didn’t fully finish the job. Wiping the spit from his eyes, the blind man said, “I can see people, but they look like walking trees.” Jesus had to put his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, and only then was his sight fully restored.
An object lesson is sometimes necessary to make a point: moving from spiritual blindness to sight sometimes take time. So Jesus gave his disciples more time. The long walk from Bethsaida where the healing happened to Caesarea Philippi took several days, plenty of time to finally put it all together. Once there, Jesus pitched them his spitball: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples relayed all the celebrity gossip spread by his fan base: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” These characters were recognized harbingers of the long-awaited Messiah, the King David-slash-Moses-like Savior from God, a Superman on steroids from heaven to rescue occupied Israel from its miserable existence and make them a mighty nation. What’s funny, is that how these characterizations of Jesus only had him as runner-up to the real Messiah. Popular miracles notwithstanding, he was still dirt poor, born out of wedlock to a teenaged mother; an uneducated construction worker and Bible nerd from Nazareth. Nobody could see Jesus saving the world.
Insight takes time. So, Jesus pitched a second question to his disciples, tight and inside, right up at their eyes: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter knocked it out of the park. “Oh, you’re the Messiah alright.” In Matthew’s gospel, the crowd went wild. “Well, hallelujah, Simon!” Jesus exclaimed. “Finally. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.” Simon won the prize for best disciple, got his keys to the pearly gates and a brand new name for his jersey: Rocky.
Here in Mark, however, there were no accolades. Instead, Jesus sternly ordered Peter and the others to be silent and not tell anybody. Strange. If God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it, why keep that quiet? Isn’t this supposed to be good news?
Perhaps the gag order was a psychological ploy. Research shows secrets are hard to keep, especially big ones. Keeping quiet about good news or juicy gossip can actually be hazardous to your health. Studies demonstrate an association between keeping an emotionally charged secret and ailments ranging from chronic diseases to the common cold (sneeze). Secrets, like unwanted thoughts, tend to take up more brain space the more one tries not to think about them. If you want news to get out quickly, order people not to say anything.
On the other hand, Jesus’ concern may have been like one faced by the ever-popular rock band U2 some years ago in Boston. Wanting to slip into town to play the uncharacteristically cozy confines of a local small theater, U2 had to keep it a secret or a crush of their fandom would have made the intimate gig impossible to pull off. In the same way, the immensely popular Jesus wanted to slip into the world to save it uncharacteristically by way of a cross. Maybe he had to keep it a secret or a crush of his fandom would have made his plan impossible to pull off. The crowds were huge enough with them thinking him only a prophet. What would happen once Jesus was known to be God’s Son himself? Had word got out that he really was the celebrity Savior everybody wanted, no way would they let him be the suffering Savior everybody needed.
Peter recognized Jesus to be the Christ, but he wasn’t buying the shaky salvation plan. Jesus explained how being Christ meant getting crucified. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise from the dead.” What the heck did that mean? Peter didn’t sacrifice his family and job just to have Jesus die on him. Is he really the Messiah or just messing with my head? And then, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it?” What’s that? Peter rebuked Jesus for all his crazy talk, only to have Jesus turn and call him Satan. That had to hurt, and it had to make things all the more confusing. Saviors don’t die. Dead people don’t rise. Death is not the way God operates.
I spent this past week teaching a seminary class on theology and science. As one both convinced by the evidence for evolution in biology, as well as a believer in evolution as God’s creation, I’m forced to account for a whole lot of death. The emergence of life on earth demanded an enormous amount of dying, billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. Not only was the massive dying off rampant, it’s mandatory too. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive failure. Moreover, the famous struggle for survival reveals a process in which cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much wreckage and ravage in the evolutionary epic that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent and benevolent Being is practically an insult. How can the Maker of Heaven and Earth make it this way?
This was Peter’s contention. What kind of Savior saves by dying? Executed as a criminal on a cross? Seriously? To be accurate, Jesus never specifically spoke of his own death as a means of salvation in Mark. Other gospels do that, along with Paul and the rest of the New Testament, but not Mark. Here, Jesus frames his death as an inevitable and dreadful injustice, an outcome bound to happen at the hands of the law of the land. As for rising from the dead, Jesus did speak about that in Mark. He talked about descending from heaven on clouds with angels and with power and glory. No need to order his disciples to keep this a secret. Who would you tell? Anybody hearing you say such silliness would conclude you were a nutcase.
Speaking of nutcases, I came across a fascinating, and disturbing, retelling of the 1993 Waco debacle written by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. Remember Waco? The FBI fatally stormed a compound occupied by a religious cult called the Branch Davidians led by a crazy man named David Koresh. Gladwell based his article in The New Yorker on a recent memoir by one of the survivors. I remember being mesmerized by the lengthy standoff between the FBI and the Davidians, disgusted by reports of David Koresh as a polygamist, munitions stockpiler and self-proclaimed Messiah, bewildered by the weeks of futile negotiations during the standoff, and then horrified when the FBI moved in, igniting a fire that led to 74 people dead, 25 of them children. Gladwell informs that Koresh and the Branch Davidians were in fact not a cult, but a Seventh-Day Adventist spin-off that interpreted the Bible and its end times predictions as true gospel. Bible-believing millennialists. Koresh justified his polygamy by a strict reading of the Old Testament. This being Texas, the group had a few guns, but there was no munitions stockpile as the government accused. Gladwell concludes that negotiations failed, and the FBI ruinously overreached, because the law of the land didn’t know how to deal with devout believers.
“To the F.B.I. agent, the Branch Davidian compound was a hostage situation, and the purpose of the ‘negotiation’ was to get the man behind the barricade to release some of his captives. But Koresh viewed his followers as his students. They were there of their own free will, to learn the prophecies of Revelation. How could he release people whom he was not holding in the first place? … Not long after the Waco siege began, a Bible scholar heard David Koresh on CNN talking about Revelation’s Seven Seals and immediately recognized the Branch Davidians as a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets. It became clear to him that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited.”
The standoff started after ATF agents assailed the compound on suspicion of violating federal firearms rules. A gunfight ensued, killing four agents and six church members. The Branch Davidian adherents interpreted this disaster as the ‘fifth seal’—a late stage at the end of time, during which believers are asked to suffer through a round of bloodshed, to ‘wait a little season,’ and then to suffer a second round. This was why the Davidians wouldn’t leave. They had been through the first round of violence, with the initial A.T.F. raid. Now they were doing as they believed the Bible compelled them to do—waiting. But they also saw the peril ahead—the promised second round of bloodshed—predetermined by God as an unavoidable step toward the sixth seal, the great Judgment Day of God” It was bound to happen.
The Bible scholar, along with other experts, persuaded the FBI to let Koresh make his case for his theology, after which he would surrender. Upon hearing this, there was rejoicing inside the compound. The world would hear the good news. Soon they would all come out together, and the ordeal would be over. The FBI, however, remained skeptical, and after three days—ironically—lost patience and attacked. The FBI agents manning the loudspeaker outside chanted: “David, you have had your fifteen minutes of fame. It is finished. Koresh is no longer the Messiah.”
Not that David Koresh was ever the Messiah. Anybody could have seen that. He was dirt poor, born out of wedlock to a teenaged mother; an uneducated construction worker and Bible nerd from Houston who deluded disciples into believing what he said was gospel truth to the extent that they lost their own lives for its sake.
Gladwell writes, “Mainstream society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.”
My seminary class was filled with obnoxious nut jobs who took their Bibles too seriously, to the extent of insisting God made the universe in six 24-hour days despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Genetics and geology may look like evidence for common ancient amphibian ancestors and a very old earth, but who’s to say God didn’t rig it? The Lord likes to make fools of human wisdom, they held. I shook my head. Were these students choosing to be so obtuse on purpose? Don’t they care how stupid their fundamentalist literalism makes the rest of us look?
Aligning Koresh or Six-Day Creationists with Jesus is never a good idea. I’m a reasonable person. A conventional Christian. Jesus possessed neither wives, guns nor a biology major. No, I survive my faith the way most reasonable and conventional Christians do: I align Jesus with me. I project my own values and attitudes so that my Lord and Savior mostly looks just like I do. Liberals portray Jesus with progressive values, conservatives have him being conservative. He’s a radical for the radicals, a corporate CEO for business types, a university professor for academics. Describe Jesus in your own words, and he’ll likely sound a lot like yourself—with your same priorities and values and friends and enemies. Of course, you’ll assume it’s really you resembling Jesus and not the other way around.
In Mark, Jesus sternly ordered his disciples to keep his true identity secret. And they do. They keep quiet for the rest of the gospel. Their imposed silence probably came as welcome relief. Conventional and reasonable Christians still have to account for the resurrection on Easter and for ingesting Jesus’ body and blood at communion. Best to keep that secret. “Whenever we eat this bread and drink from this cup we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes.” Take that seriously enough to talk about it and people will think you’re a nutcase too.