Archive for July, 2018

The Paradox of Christian Discipleship (Mk. 8.22-38) II

July 17, 2018

Last Sunday we meditated on “The Paradox of Jesus’ Messianic Identity”. I said at the end that we need to understand and accept the paradox of Jesus’ messianic identity in order to understand and accept the paradox of Christian discipleship. Because we are the disciples or the followers of Jesus Christ.

I. Disciples and Admirers

Jesus called Peter and Andrew, and James and John to “follow” him (Mk. 1.16-20; 2.14). In other words, Jesus called them to be his disciples, not to be his admirers.

Who is an admirer?

In the 1st century there were many people who admired Jesus’ teachings and his miracles (Mk. 1.21-22, 27-28; 2.12). Even today there are many who admire Jesus’ teachings and his life of love, compassion and sacrifice. Some of them even attend church and are members of church.

However, an admirer is not a disciple.

Characteristics of admirers:

  1. Keep themselves detached. Keep themselves at a safe distance. Play safe;
  2. For them Jesus is like an actor;
  3. Willing to serve Jesus Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger;
  4. Only admire the truth, but do not want to follow the truth;
  5. Do not make any true sacrifice. Through words, songs, testimonies and even messages they are inexhaustible about how highly they prize Jesus Christ. But they renounce nothing, give up nothing, and will not allow Jesus to transform their life.

 

When there is no danger, when everything is favourable to Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a disciple. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing safe.

However, a disciple aspires and strives with all his strength, with all his will and with all his mind to follow Jesus Christ and is prepared to pay the cost for his commitment to Jesus Christ.

 

II. Christian Discipleship

 A. Definition of Christian Discipleship

Christian discipleship is going after Jesus Christ or following Jesus Christ: “If anyone would come after me” (Mk. 8.34). Following Jesus means “togetherness with him” (“To be with him” Mk. 3.14).

B. Initiative for Christian Discipleship

In the Gospels we find that Jesus Christ took initiative in calling certain persons for discipleship (Mk. 1.17, 2.14).

Though Jesus called certain persons for discipleship, Christian discipleship is voluntary: “If anyone would come after me.” It is a conscious and willful decision of the person, who is called, to the call of Jesus Christ for discipleship.

A disciple of Jesus remains as a disciple for life, unlike disciples of other Jewish teachers who later become masters who will have their own disciples. So it is a lifelong journey of learning from Jesus Christ and following Jesus Christ.

C. The Purpose of Christian Discipleship

There is a twofold purpose of Jesus calling for discipleship (Mk. 3.13-15):

  1. To be with him;
  2. To be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.

“Following” is possible only when the disciple is with the master, so that the disciple can see the life of the master and learn. The disciple also learns from the teachings and the deeds of Jesus Christ.

The disciples are also called to preach the same message of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and to liberate those who are under the bondage of the ruler of this world, Satan (Mk. 3.22-30; Mt. 12.22-32). Therefore, disciples are to participate in the establishment of the kingdom of God through proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God and doing the liberative deeds with the authority received from their master Jesus Christ.

Empowered by Jesus for ministry, they did as Jesus did: preached, healed and exorcised demons (Mk. 6.7-13). The disciples were excited about the ministry they did and they came and shared with Jesus (Mk. 6.30).

The seventy two, who were sent to do ministry, returned and told Jesus Christ with excitement, “Lord in your name even the demons submit to us!” Jesus replied, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening” (Lk. 10.17-18).

Jesus becomes a model or paradigm for the disciples not only for the liberative ministry, but also for the sufferings.

 

III. The Paradox of Christian Discipleship

Soon after teaching his disciples what it means to be a messiah – about his sufferings, death and resurrection -, Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowd what it means to be a disciple: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8.34).

Jesus’ own sufferings or cross becomes a paradigm to the self-denial, cross-bearing discipleship. There is an indissoluble link between discipleship, and self-denial and cross-bearing.

Therefore, the two conditions for following Jesus Christ are self-denial and carrying one’s cross.

A. Self-Denial

The word “deny” has two basic meanings. The first is “to disown” someone (Mk. 10.30,31 – The same Greek word “aparneomai” is used here). This is what Peter would do later in regard to Jesus Christ: he would deny knowing Jesus (Mk. 14.66-72).

The second meaning is “to act in a wholly selfless manner”. This is the meaning with which the word “deny” is used in Mk. 8.34. Jesus is essentially challenging them to set aside their agenda and to get on God’s agenda. “Denying self” means to submit one’s human thoughts to God’s thoughts…to his will, his plan and his purposes. You submit to what God wants you to think and to do. As Rom. 12.2 instructs, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect.”

After Jesus predicts about his sufferings, death and resurrection in Mk. 9.30-31 and Mk. 10.32-34, the disciples of Jesus look for positions of honour (Mk. 9.33-34; 10.35-41), so that Jesus had to teach them about the nature of true greatness and the importance of service (Mk. 9.35-37; 10.42-45).

The attitude of disciples was one of self-aggrandizement, self-glory and self-seeking. So Jesus calls his disciples to follow him in self-denial.

Without denying oneself, one can not carry one’s cross.

 

B. Carrying One’s Cross

Crucifixion was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame. It is one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.

In the Roman world of the first century, a condemned person was crucified on a cross. In fact, he would even be forced to carry his own cross (or at least the cross beam) to the place where he would be crucified.

The phrase “take up his cross” is a reference to this practice. But why did the Roman government require a condemned man to carry his cross through the streets of the town to the place of his execution?

What does cross symbolise for the crucifying powers and the crucified person?

  1. The crucifying powers

a. The political power 

i. Crucifixion is a symbol of the display of the supremacy and dominance of the state or the ruling power

In the ancient world the supremacy and dominance of the state or the ruling power was displayed through various forms of punishment to criminals, insurrectionists, slaves and foreigners. In the order of increasing severity, the aggravated methods of execution were decapitation, burning and crucifixion.

Crucifixion was practiced throughout the ancient world. As a method of execution, crucifixion was employed among Persians, Indians, Assyrians and others, and later among Greeks, Jews and Romans.

Crucifixion was an act of nailing or binding a living victim or sometimes a dead person to a cross, or stake, or tree. The act of crucifixion was heinously cruel. The crucified person experienced slow death due to either shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing were exhausted. That’s why Roman citizens, particularly members of the upper class, were generally spared from this form of execution, no matter what their crimes were. Crucifixion was largely reserved for those of lower status – dangerous criminals, insurrectionists, slaves and foreigners. The state or the rulers used it as a deterrent against open resistance to its authority and power.

The Roman authorities used the method of crucifixion in order to send a message to the conquered people not to disturb the status quo, and on the one hand to accept their dominance and authority and on the other hand to accept their (conquered people’s) subordination.

Therefore, crucifixion is mainly to maintain the status quo, and to exhibit the supremacy and dominance of the state or the ruling power through violence.

 

ii. Carrying the cross and crucifixion in a public place is meant to send a stern warning to the public

In order to send a stern warning to public, crucifixion was made a public affair. The condemned person was forced to carry the cross through the streets of the town to the place of his execution.

Naked and fastened to a stake, cross or tree on a busiest road, the executed was subjected to savage ridicule by passersby. Moreover, under Roman practice crucified was denied burial. The corpse was left on the cross as carrion for the birds or to rot.

Surprisingly, the early disciples understood Jesus’ crucifixion as lynching. Standing before the Sanhedrin Peter said, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5.30).

The condition of a lynched person is also similar. This is well depicted by the song titled “Strange Fruit”, which is about the lynched African Americans by the “White” Americans in the US during 19th and 20th centuries:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

In this way, the general populace was reminded of the fate of those who resisted or challenged the authority and power of the state or the ruling power.

 

b. The religious power

Among Jews, crucifixion was occasionally practiced during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean period. The Sadducean high priest Alexander Janneus (in office 103-76 BC) had 800 Pharisees crucified and ordered their wives and children slaughtered before their eyes as they hung dying.

According to Jewish law, the corpses of executed idolaters and blasphemers were hanged on a tree to show that they were accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21.22-23).

 

2. The crucified person

Whether living or already dead, the victims suffered rejection, brutality, shame and a degrading loss of all dignity by being bound or nailed to a stake or cross or tree in public view.

For the onlookers he is a seditionist and a cursed one of God. This is how the state and the dominant religion (Judaism) tried to present Jesus to the public by crucifying him: political pretender (“The King of the Jews” Mk. 15.26), and messianic pretender (“You have heard his blasphemy” Mk. 14.61-64; Gal. 3.14).

Jesus has already warned his disciples that they may face similar fate: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (Jn. 16.2). This is what happened to the disciples of Jesus Christ. They suffered brutality, shame and degrading loss of dignity for being the disciples of the crucified messiah and for proclaiming that the crucified Jesus is the messiah (Acts 8.1-3; 22.4-5; 26.9-12; Gal. 5.11). The disciples were the victims of the religion, which promoted and practiced “sacred violence”.

Luke adds an important detail not found in other Gospels, “take up his cross DAILY” (Lk. 9.23). By being the disciples of Jesus Christ, we become objects of public rejection, ridicule, shame and suffering. That’s why Paul encourages Timothy, “Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (II Tim 1.8).

 

IV. Paradoxical Climax

However, the culmination of the fate of Jesus and his disciples is not rejection, ridicule, shame, suffering and death.

It is victory!

Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days RISE AGAIN” (Mk. 8.31; 9.31; 10.33-34).

The dominant religion charged Jesus Christ as a blasphemer and the Roman government charged him as an insurrectionist or seditionist. So the official story about Jesus Christ is – he is a threat both to the dominant religion and the state. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ expresses the official story about Jesus Christ that he is a security threat!

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix.”

John W. Whitehead says, “I have studied enough of this country’s (the US) history – and the world history – to know that governments (the US government being no exception) are at times indistinguishable from the evil they claim to be fighting, whether that evil takes the form of terrorism, torture, drug trafficking, sex trafficking, murder, violence, theft, pornography, scientific experimentation or some other diabolical means of inflicting pain, suffering and servitude on humanity.”

Most of the time the powerful try to silence those who are trying to disturb the status quo and they create a story justifying their violence against the victims. Both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman officials did the same. But God raised Jesus from the dead and made him sit at his right hand, thus revealing that Jesus is not a blasphemer, but the Messiah, the Son of God!

  1. The resurrection of Jesus Christ exposed the lie – that the official story about Jesus Christ is FAKE.

We live in an age of fake news. TV channels like Republic and Times Now create fake news against those who are questioning the governance of the BJP and exposing the failed BJP government policies, failure of Narendra Modi in keeping his promises, and exposing the real issues facing in India today like oil prices, farmers’ plight, increasing state-sponsored communal violence.

So the resurrection of Jesus exposes the official fake news about Jesus Christ.

2. William Barclay says that the resurrection of Jesus proves that

a. Life is stronger than death;

b. Love is stronger than hatred;

c. Truth is stronger than falsehood;

c. Good is stronger than evil.

3. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has redeemed the silenced voice and language of the victim.

Now we hear the victim’s story shared by the victim of the sacred violence. This is what we hear as the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus’ resurrection expresses is, love, truth and goodness can not be suppressed and silenced for long. One day they will get back their voice and language!

A few years ago I read a book titled “Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions” written by Teresa Godwin Phelps. The book is mainly on the issue of justice. How justice should be understood in the context of violence? She analyses the Truth Commissions that were established by the latter democratic governments in South Africa, after the collapse of the Apartheid regime, and in Chile, after the dethronement of its military dictator Augusto Pinochet, to hear the experiences of the victims.

In this book the writer quotes the poem written by Antjie Krog, who reported the painful experiences of victims during the South African Truth Commission.

“Beloved, do not die. Do not dare die. I, the survivor, wrap you in words so that the future inherits you. I snatch you from the death of forgetfulness. I tell you the story, complete your ending – you who once whispered me in the dark.”

Silenced voices will regain voice and language to tell their stories! This is true in the case of Jesus and this will be true in the case of Jesus’ disciples! Because Love, Truth and Goodness will be the ultimate victor!

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The Paradox of Christian Discipleship (Mk. 8.22-38)

July 17, 2018
  1. Introduction

There are some paradoxical biblical truths or biblical teachings in the Bible. This statement states two things:

  1. Biblical truths: These are considered as truths by the biblical writers and the faith community.
  2. Paradoxical biblical truths: These biblical truths are paradoxical.

 

What is a paradox?

“A paradox is a statement that may seem absurd or contradictory, but yet can be true, or at least makes sense. Paradoxes are often contrary to what is commonly believed.”

A paradox is “a statement or situation that may be true, but seems impossible or difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.”

For example:

  1. Less is more: This statement uses two opposite words that contradict one another. How can less be more? The concept behind this statement is that what is less complicated is often more appreciated;
  2. I know one thing that I know nothing;
  3. This is the beginning of the end;
  4. I love to hate.

 

Paradoxical biblical truths or biblical teaching:

  1. God becoming human and living among human beings and dying on the cross;
  2. Jesus – 100% God and 100% human;
  3. Jesus is a servant-king (Mk. 1.11; Mt. 3.17). That means God is a servant-king;
  4. A Christian leader is a servant. The great one is a servant (Mk. 10.43-44);
  5. Last is first and first is last;
  6. Lamb is shepherd (Rev. 7.17).

 

II. Paradox of Jesus’ Messianic Identity (Mk. 8.22-38)

The writer of the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus Christ in two seemingly contrasting portrayals.

A. Jesus, the Messiah of Authority and Power

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were amazed at the teaching of Jesus, “for he taught them as one having authority” (Mk. 1.22). His teaching was followed by exorcism. Then the people said, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk. 1.27).

The first three Gospels writers use the term “miracles” or “deeds of power” for the miracles that Jesus performed, whereas the writer of John’s Gospel uses the term “signs” for the miracles of Jesus. For Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus’ miracles are Jesus’ deeds of power, whereas for John they are signs or pointers to the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

Mk. 6.2 “On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” Further it is said, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (Mk. 6.5).

The Greek word used for “miracle” in Mark is dunamis, from which the English word “dynamite” comes (Mk. 6.2). So miracles manifest the power of Jesus Christ.

One of the unique features of Mark’s Gospel is that whenever Jesus healed a person, he ordered  him not to tell others (Mk. 1.44; 7.36; 8.26 footnote).

Jesus could have used his healing miracles to advertise about himself and thus promote himself, as the present day televangelists and “healing crusaders” are doing in order to attract crowds. Contrary to what we are witnessing today, Jesus never used his miracles to attract crowds. Rather he discouraged the healed persons from telling others.

The reasons are:

  1.  “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone….But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country, and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk. 1.43-45).

Some people followed Jesus because he was an exciting miracle worker and teacher (Jn. 2.23-25). Crowds followed Jesus for healings and other benefits, but not to become his disciples.

2. Jesus as the messiah of authority and power is not the complete identity of Jesus Christ. He is not only the messiah of authority and power, but also the suffering messiah.

The other identity of himself (i.e. the suffering Messiah) is revealed to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi.

 

B. Jesus, the Suffering Messiah

After Peter confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus immediately started telling them about his impending sufferings, rejection, death and resurrection (Mk. 8.31-32): “Then he began to teach them that 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 again.”

Matthew 16.21: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples….”

    1. Two Forces Opposing Jesus Christ
  1. a. Religious Force

The chief priests, elders and scribes represent the Jewish Sanhedrin, the official Jewish religious body.

Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin (Mk. 14:53-65), and they charged him with blasphemy because Jesus confessed that he was the messiah, the Son of God (Mk. 14.61-62). They “all of them condemned him as deserving death” (Mk. 14.64).

So the Jewish religious leaders charged Jesus as a messianic pretender.

In all this the Jewish religious leaders used the “lynching mob” against Jesus Christ. The “lynching mob” went with Judas Iscariot carrying swords and clubs to arrest Jesus (Mk. 14.43). They gave false witness against Jesus (Mk. 14.56-58). They were instigated by the religious leaders that their religious sentiments or sensitivities were hurt by Jesus by claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God (Mk. 14.61-64).

Jesus Christ was considered to be a threat to the existing system and therefore the religious establishment, with the active help of the “lynching mob”, wanted to kill him. I call this religious system as the system of sacred violence. Killing those, who are considered to have hurt their religious sentiments or violated their religious traditions or teachings, is considered to be their religious duty or sacred duty.

This is what we witness in the present day India where innocent Indians are killed with the pretext of cow-slaughter. The “lynching mobs” are very active in the India today.

 

b. Political Force

Jesus talks about his impending sufferings, rejection, death and resurrection three times (Mk. 8.31-32; 9.30-31; 10.32-34). In the third prediction the description is more and “Gentiles” are included. Here “Gentiles” denote the Roman government officials.

Since the Sanhedrin did not have power and authority to pronounce and implement death penalty, Jesus was handed over to the Roman governor Pilate and it was the Roman government that crucified Jesus Christ.

The Roman government charged Jesus as the political pretender. This is what has been nailed to the cross: “”And the inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews” (Mk. 15.26).

So the Jewish official legal body condemned Jesus as a messianic pretender (Mk. 14.61-64), and the Roman government charged him as a political pretender (Mk. 15.26). So Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender and a political pretender! This is the official story about Jesus Christ!

 

2. Reaction of the Disciples

In response to the passion prediction, Peter, as a representative of Jesus’ disciples, rebuked Jesus saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Mt. 16.22). Jesus’ disciples were happy to reconcile Jesus’ messianic identity with authority and power, but not with passion or rejection, sufferings and death!

Like the blind man at Bethsaida, who had an unclear vision at first after Jesus touched him, the disciples too had an unclear vision of Jesus’ messianic identity.

Most of us have this unclear vision of Jesus Christ. We prefer to accept him as a messiah of authority and power.

Today we hear the “prosperity gospel” or “success, health and wealth” or “name it and claim it” gospel. I don’t know how many of you read Bruce Wilkinson’s “success, health and wealth,” “name it and claim it” version of the Prayer of Jabez (I Chronicles 4.10). This version of God, gospel and faith is preached from the pulpits of mega churches and propagated by the Christian TV channels.

Paul calls such a gospel as “a different gospel” which means a different kind of gospel (Gal. 1.6-7). This gospel confuses and perverts not only the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also the identity of Jesus Christ and God.

Jesus says that this is human way of thinking! This way of thinking may be humanly appropriate and logical in human reasoning.

But Jesus says such thinking makes that person adversary to God and his will: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk. 8.33). Matthew includes, “You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt. 16.23).

The Hebrew word of “Satan” means “adversary”. As an adversary, the disciples, due to their unclear vision of Jesus’ messianic identity, are stumbling blocks to Jesus and they are diametrically opposed to God’s will.

Like the blind man, the disciples and we need to have the second touch of Jesus in order to have a clear vision of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Mk. 8.25 says, “Then Jesus laid his hands again, and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Then only we can see clearly Jesus Christ and recognise his paradoxical messianic identity.

Only when we see clearly the paradoxical messianic identity of Jesus and believe in this Jesus Christ, we can understand the paradox of Christian discipleship.