The Consequence of Speaking Plainly

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Second Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2012
Mark 8:31-38
Peder Stenslie

I teach 6th grade at the Mandan Middle School. Every day after school, I work with a small group of students who need extra help with their schoolwork.

One girl I work with is very withdrawn and shy. She hardly ever speaks. And when she does, it is usually a single word spoken so quietly that I have to strain to hear it. Often there’s just a single, slight nod or shake of the head. Sometimes, her head doesn’t move at all and I have to try to read the look in her eyes.

She never raises her hand or calls for me, but I’ve learned how to read when she’s stuck and needs help. She sits still at her desk and looks in my general direction.

She is a wonderful girl and I would do anything to help her. I would love to hear what she has to say. It would be exciting to hear her one day say: “Mr. Stenslie, I don’t understand what this word means;” or “Mr. Stenslie, when I divide these two numbers which one goes inside the box? Or, “Mr. Stenslie, wanna know my favorite color?”

To hear her speak clearly, openly, directly… would be wonderful. For one thing, it would be so much easier to help her. But it would also just be so delightful to get to know her.

Clear, open communication is a powerful thing. It opens doors and makes the unknown known; though it doesn’t always lead to the results we expect.

As I have thought over the years about the text that makes up today’s Gospel lesson, one sentence that really stands out for me is verse 32: “He [Jesus] said all this quite openly.” The word for “openly” (παρρησίᾳ) means “bluntly, clearly, plainly.” In today’s lesson, that phrase is like a switch that signals a dramatic change in relationships.

It’s business as usual in the Gospel of Mark, with Jesus healing and teaching… and the crowds loving it… until we hear those words: “He said all this quite openly.” These words indicate something new has come forth. What follows that statement is a terrible crisis. You could say, “All hell breaks loose.”

Peter gets very upset and begins to scolds Jesus. The Greek word translated as “rebuke” here is quite severe (ἐπιτιμάω). Peter is really upset with Jesus for saying the things he’s saying. Nothing like this has happened before.

In reply, Jesus gives Peter a tongue-lashing that I’m sure he never forgot. In front of all of the disciples, Jesus angrily calls Peter “Satan” and basically tells him to “get out of my face.” He accuses Peter of being spiritually ignorant.

All of this came about because Jesus spoke “quite openly, bluntly… plainly.”
It is ironic that speaking openly should result in this kind of strife and conflict. Why?

Up to this time, when Jesus taught or spoke of the Kingdom of God, his disciples strained to understand. They often got confused. To them, Jesus wasn’t speaking plainly at all. Yet they always received the information respectfully as a student receives instruction from their teacher. But here, when Jesus speaks plainly and openly, there’s rebellion.

In the first 7 chapters of Mark, Jesus and the disciples go from town to town and heal the sick, cast out demons, draw enormous crowds and put the Pharisees firmly in their place. Nothing goes wrong. It’s just one incredible experience after another.

From the point of view of the disciples, it must have been absolutely amazing to ride this wave of exhilarating success. What a rush to see these incredible things happen and to see their leader become so wildly popular! I’m sure the disciples felt like rock stars.

Now, out of the blue, Jesus starts talking about terrible things that are going to happen to him. “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.”

If you’re a disciple who has been along on this wild ride, the stuff Jesus is saying in today’s lesson just doesn’t make sense. “What are you talking about Jesus? Are you blind? What does this have to do with anything that has been going on?” Of course, if the words of Jesus were to prove true, it would be a terrible turn around for Peter too.

These passages are not confusing and unsettling just to Peter and the other disciples. They’re unsettling for us. Like Peter, they upset our ideas about how things should be… about what is reasonable and makes sense. Even though we know the whole story about Jesus’ passion and death on the cross, we still struggle with Jesus taking this path of suffering and death. And I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be unnerved by the second half of today’s lesson.

“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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Part of us just wants to say: “Why are you talking this way, Jesus?” Like the disciples, so much of what Jesus says and does we just love. But this kind of talk unsettles us; and it should. It is meant to. And we must not just turn our minds off to it because we don’t like it.

On our Lenten journey, one of the most basic truths we discover is that we are being drawn to paths we would never choose to take on our own.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Peter begins the painful process of understanding that the way of God is different than his way. He’s been following Jesus for some time now and imagines that he has some sense of where it is all headed. But he doesn’t at all. His experience echoes the words of Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

All of us have been called by our creator to something new… something we haven’t imagined before. Like Peter and the other disciples, we need to trust the one who has called us. We need to trust that the way and life we are being called to is good… it is worth the discomfort and hardship we face when we follow Christ. It is okay to let go of things that are familiar or comfortable to us as we grow and change and learn new ways of living, thinking and acting. We are in the hands of God. There is no better place to be.

There is simply no other way that new life in Christ can be born in us. Our world needs to be shaken up… turned upside down. We need to change and grow.

Christ says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The point and purpose of this command isn’t that we suffer, but that we open the door to the joy and freedom that comes with new life in Christ

To deny ourselves means that we shed our self-destructive delusions about the world and our place in it. It means that we turn away from old patterns of behavior that keep us imprisoned in lives of petty pursuits and small, selfish dreams.

We are called to deny ourselves so that we can be freed to learn God’s ways of love and mercy, so that we are freed to become a part of something greater ourselves. So that God can work in us new life as children of God.

As our lesson from Romans today declares: “We have been called and claimed by the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

All of you belong to God. He created you. He claimed you… and he will never let you go. He has made a place for you in his
Kingdom… in this world and in the next.

We can be sure that his love will outlast our poor choices, our stubbornness, and our foolishness. The one who comes to us from beyond time and space will wear down our hardened hearts and mend those hearts are that have been broken.

Christ may shake up our world today with his blunt speech, and direct us to paths we’d prefer not to take. He may lead us through troubled and difficult waters; but in the end, he will bring us to our destination. He will gather us all together and complete his creation, bringing us peace and wholeness through the blood of his cross.