Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The Secret Jesus

The following is a talk presented to Grace Connection on June 2, 2004, by Heather Isaacs-Royce, a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mk. 8:27-36

Secrets are everywhere. Good and bad secrets, personal secrets, family secrets, national secrets. I hate secrets. Keeping secrets used to be hard for me because it felt like I wasn’t being truthful. I wanted everything out on the table, nothing held back, right now. I felt that if I could have and supply access to all the relevant information needed when people are just getting to know each other that I could single-handedly prevent almost all the misunderstandings that cause broken relationships. Learning to live with secrets has been a process of accepting that some secrets are necessary to the health of our relationships, some secrets protect us, and some secrets are, paradoxically, the truth. Accepting secrets has been a process of giving up control–not only of information but of people. There is no amount of information I can have that can eliminate the risk of being in relationship with people. Period. So in learning which secrets are healthy, I have become even more averse to those secrets that threaten our well-being and seek to control our lives.

Someone close to me is recently emerging from one of those deadly secrets–an abusive marriage. Now, this person entered that relationship believing herself to be an independent thinker, a feminist who was smart, self-aware, confident. But within the first months of her marriage, she found that in her attempt to change him, she had been the one who had been changed. No longer able to defend herself or walk away, she told no one the truth about her marriage. For months she put on a good face to those who asked. In a short period of time, she was involved in what she would later recognize as a “textbook case” of domestic abuse. One of the essential components in the perpetuation of abuse? The power of secrets. Her husband isolated and controlled the family by making everything a secret–even the most mundane aspects of everyday life were kept a secret from those outside the family. In this way, private secrets became public lies. The trauma and danger at home were hidden behind tightly controlled public facades that learned what to say to placate the polite inquiries people made on a day to day basis.

From the title of my sermon, “The Secret Jesus, ” you may be thinking that I’m painting myself into a corner with this line of talk. And to be truthful, I can’t promise you that I’m not placing myself in a tight spot. I’ve been struggling to understand the function of secrets in the Gospel of Mark for a couple of weeks now and I’m not sure I’m even close to figuring it out. What do I mean juxtaposing a story of an abusive marriage to a discussion of the person of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? What do I mean referring to the “secret Jesus” at all? Is this going to be a “Da Vinci Code” sermon, replete with its own lurid conspiracy theory? Well, in honoring the “secretness” of this discussion, I’m not going to reach for a way out of this just yet. Rather, I’m hoping to let the questions find their own way to an open clearing.

Besides, if there is a time to wrestle with mystery and secrets, we are immersed in it. The Lenten season, the forty days before Easter when many Christians spiritually journey to the cross, is a temporal embodiment of a Christian enigma. In this somber but hopeful time, we are asked to enter into deep reflection and repentance. This repentance is not simply keeping a list of the sins we have known to have committed and then reciting them in prayer to God. This repentance goes to the very hidden heart of our beliefs about who we are and how we are in the world. Alan Jones, in his book on Lent and Easter, Passion for Pilgrimage, writes about the discipline of repentance. There are three simple commitments, he says. “The first is to rigorous honesty–that is, to hope for nothing less than the truth. The second is to honor our passion for connection by celebrating the solidarity of all human beings. The third is to search for a common language, so that we can talk to each other,” (6) Commitment to rigorous honesty as the foundation of true repentance. The commitment itself may be simple to make and yet the practice of holding to that commitment is what makes honesty the hardest aspect of repentance. How can we be honest with God when we have such a hard time being honest with ourselves?

Learning true repentance, learning to be honest with ourselves, others, and God may be a lifelong endeavor. But reading the Gospel of Mark is a good place to return to on any point of that journey. Mark begins with a call for repentance. And a grown man named Jesus walks into the story out of nowhere–without a personal history, without a birth narrative–and accepts the call, being baptized for the forgiveness of sins by John the Baptist. From his baptism, Jesus is then sent by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days to be physically and spiritually tested.

Without imposing other gospel traditions onto our understanding of Jesus’ birth and ministry, we are better able to appreciate how strange and enigmatic Mark is. At times, Jesus appears frustratingly elusive. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and Levi all answer Jesus’ call without knowing a thing about him. They leave behind their jobs, their families, their social status to follow a man they don’t know. (1:16-20) Then, when Jesus does have the opportunity to explain himself or what he is doing, he often keeps his identity secret commanding demons to be silent or telling those he has healed to not disclose the source of their healing. He teaches in parables which are not always or easily understood by those closest to him. The disciples stay close to Jesus throughout his brief ministry but their persistent disbelief is a constant factor in Jesus’ interactions with them.

Sometimes frustrated, sometimes shocked, Jesus frequently chastises his disciples for not seeing the spiritual truth behind his healings, miracles, and teachings. But reading Mark, we as readers have similar moments of frustration and shock in trying to grasp the nature and purpose of Jesus. In contrast, the other Gospel writers used considerable ink in fleshing out who Jesus was–from constructing Davidic genealogies to emphasizing Jesus’ pre-existent divine role. And that kind of storytelling, to be honest, is much more appealing to most of us–we feel like we have more pieces of the Jesus puzzle. But Mark is much more ambiguous about the nature of Jesus’ divinity and ministry and seems resistant to helping the reader work on the puzzle at all. Perhaps this is why Mark hasn’t shared the same level of popularity as the other gospels throughout church history. Mark’s presentation paints a very different picture of Jesus than the one we often claim to know in worship and he keenly probes the depths of our own struggles to know who Jesus is and what the cross means for us.

Much of today’s talk was generated by a question a professor of mine asked: What would Christian theology have been like if Mark had been the only book in the New Testament? I’ve struggled with this question because the idea itself was a new one. In general we tend to read the Gospels as one coherent, harmonized whole rather than listen to what individual Gospel writers may have been trying to say to their particular communities and how God may still be communicating different aspects of the Gospel through their distinct theologies. For example, the writer of Mark is known for his sparse inclusion of details and uncomfortable dialogues. Nick Cave, the punk-rock singer, describes Mark in these terms: “Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy, and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence,” (Taylor, 91). If you look at Matthew and Luke and compare them to Mark, it seems fairly possible that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark with the intention to “clean up” or “smooth over” some of Mark’s “raw, nervy, and lean” edges as each writer saw fit. An example is found in comparing today’s text with its parallel in Matthew. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s proclamation that he is the Christ. Instead, he lets Peter’s answer just hang there before he gives the command to tell no one about him.

Perhaps the reader can infer that Jesus is silently admitting that he is the Christ. But why not just say it then? Why the big secret? Matthew opted for a strikingly different response–in chapter 16, verses 17 and following, Jesus practically coronates Peter with the leadership of the church. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!” he says, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it...” and he continues. But even then, after this rather lengthy, congratulatory monologue, Matthew’s Jesus still demands silence on the issue.

Whether or not Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer that he was the Christ, it is obvious that Peter, along with the other disciples, did not know what that meant. In the verses immediately following this conversation about his identity, Jesus begins teaching the disciples about the suffering the Son of Man must endure. In a moment of “speaking plainly,” Jesus predicts both his own execution and his resurrection. However, Peter seems to get caught up on the suffering part and not hear anything else Jesus says. At this point, Peter takes hold of Jesus and rebukes him. Though we can only imagine what Peter’s protests were, it most likely had to do with Peter’s inability to imagine a suffering messiah when he, along with the other disciples, had been expecting some kind of apocalyptic warrior who would lead Israel to freedom. What kind of savior suffers? Peter may have asked Jesus. If you really are the Christ, can’t you just blink away the Romans who occupy our land and oppress our people? If God is on your side, OUR side, how can we lose the battle against Rome? Let’s fight–don’t roll over and play dead, Jesus–not now, not when we need you most.

Jesus’ response cannot be categorized as particularly loving–at least, not in the warm, feel-good Jesus love that we like to bask in. Rather, Jesus turns on Peter and rebukes him, saying “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” What must that feel like–to have Jesus turn on you? To bluntly expose and reject your true motivations for following him. How much of our discipleship is open to that kind of examination? How many of us could still be disciples after that kind of rebuke? Peter is often caricatured in sermons–after all, he’s the theological equivalent to a bull in a china shop. He’s preached as the comic relief of the Gospels. He’s described as brash and clumsy, full of good intentions but little faith.

Preachers love to use Peter, who was eventually martyred for the faith he once denied, to illustrate how God can use even the most unlikely, stubborn people in God’s service. Personally, I don’t think Peter’s story is that cute or clean. I think in this passage and others, Peter is on the brink of losing it all. The only other Markan narrative that can surpass the intensity of this one is Peter’s denial of Jesus at his trial when he does lose it all and, as Mark writes, “he broke down and wept,” (14:72). Peter is not simply acting out of an immature faith life or a badly formed character–Jesus has confronted and exposed the very world view that gave Peter’s discipleship shape and meaning.

As Herman Waetjen writes in A Reordering of Power, “This is not the discipleship to which Peter has been called. The Messiah Christology that he confesses and that simultaneously informs his self-understanding cannot be correlated with God’s will. It is of human origin, and Jesus considers it to be equivalent to a temptation of Satan. As long as Peter insists on this definition of the Christ, he is representing the evil lord; and there is no place in Jesus’ following for him, (146).” Peter is caught between a reversal of kingdoms–the visible, earthly, imperial realm that rules by the sword and the secret, spiritual realm that is inbreaking through the self-giving ministry of Jesus. If he stays where he’s at, Jesus will not only rebuke him but Peter will be forced to go look for a new Messiah as he secretly hopes for a militant uprising against imperial Rome. He can still hold onto the world as he’s always known it. He can try to defeat the “powers that be” at their own game. Which is no victory at all–just a perpetuation of the “powers that be.” But if Peter follows where Jesus leads, it will most surely invite suffering not only on Jesus but on himself. And yet, even in Peter’s attachment to his old way of being in the world, he is compelled to stay close to this man who dares expose the hollowness of his most valued beliefs and show him a new way of being in the world.

The Gospel of Mark is full of these kinds of encounters with Jesus–where people go to Jesus expecting one thing and leaving with another, where disciples go to reveal and pin down the mystery of Jesus but leave having let Jesus reveal their true selves to them. A commitment to rigorous honesty as the foundation of true repentance. We can never fully know Jesus Christ but that is not the point. In encountering Jesus, we know ourselves and are better able to live honestly and with repentance. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, writes: “Jesus was elusive. He still is. When we finally think we understand him, when we have at last arrived at an adequate explanation of him, when we have eventually defined him precisely, when we have, after great effort, identified him with our cause, then we discover that he’s not there anymore. We can take it as axiomatic: when we have captured Jesus for our own side, then... whoever we have won to our cause and persuaded to bash our enemies, it isn’t Jesus.

The early Christians piled up titles as they tried to articulate what the man was like that they had encountered. None of the titles quite did it. He was “like” Adam, “like” Moses, “like” David, “like” the Son of Man in Daniel the Prophet, “like” a messiah. But in each case he was also something more, something different, something more mysterious, something more disconcerting. A Jesus who does not disconcert is not Jesus. A Jesus who disconcerts our adversaries but not us is most certainly not Jesus,” I can’t spend too much time on the other stories of Mark that demonstrate this phenomenon but lest I fall into the same trap of singling out Peter, I want to briefly uplift two more examples of confrontations with the “secret Jesus” that continue to expose and challenge our unwillingness to embrace the kingdom Jesus lived, preached, and died for.

James and John, along with Peter, had accompanied Jesus up the mountain and witnessed his transfiguration among Moses and Elijah. Such an experience obviously convinced James and John that they were disciples of the one, true Christ who would soon reign in victory in heaven. Hoping to get in on that, they approach Jesus in chapter 10, verse 35 and childishly ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask..” Like Peter, James and John sought to control Jesus. One could argue that unlike Peter, who acted out of a place of cognitive dissonance, James and John were completely self-interested parties who were hoping to ride Jesus’ tailcoats to glory. Rather than rebuke them outright, Jesus humors them, leading them along into a valuable teaching moment. When he asks what they want from him, they reply to sit on his left and right hand side when he rules in the new kingdom. Again, the disciples demonstrate they have no understanding of the true nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus represents. They think he’s going to rule on a literal throne and that all the same social and political hierarchies that have defined their world view will still apply.

When the other ten disciples hear about what James and John have asked, they become indignant and begin bickering among themselves. Not out of a sense of wanting to set straight James and John’s picture of the Kingdom of God but because they got left out! What about them? Where would they sit? Once again, Jesus must attempt to penetrate this enemy world view among his own disciples. Already having challenged James and John’s request by linking it to the baptism of death that he will undergo, he relinquishes control over the matter all together. It’s not for him to decide. Rather, he overturns their expectations all together and proclaims that true discipleship exists in serving others at all cost–not in sitting high above everyone else with smug self-satisfaction, not in lording one’s self over another, not in controlling those around us. Mark doesn’t record the disciples’ response to Jesus here–but there’s no suggestion any of them had an “A-ha” moment. James and John’s spiritual blindness is immediately contrasted against the physical blindness of Bartimaeus in the same chapter. Except unlike the disciples, Bartimaeus KNOWS he’s blind and knows that he wants to see and that Jesus is the one that can and will heal him.

Recognizing our need for spiritual healing is the first step of living out the rigorous honesty that brings repentance. But we are not all in need of the same kind of healing. This point is clearly made in chapter 5, verses 25 and following. Having lived with her chronic ailment for over a decade, the woman with an issue of blood had spent all the money she had on medical treatments but she only continued to get worse. Having bled for twelve years, she had lived as a perpetually “unclean” person, a designation applied to menstruating women in the purity code of the Torah, and thus, most likely, she was treated as a social pariah within the Jewish community. Economically and socially destitute, she makes her way through the crowd that has gathered around Jesus. Mark writes that “she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’” She reaches out and touches his robe and instantly she is healed. Mystically, Jesus feels his power go out from him. He looks around for who touched him and his disciples respond–Jesus, everybody’s touching you! You’re in a crowd! And yet, Jesus keeps looking until the woman identifies herself. Jesus does not let her go away in secret. He turns toward her, inviting her to claim in her what he already sees. Her physical healing was only part of the encounter with Jesus. He will not let her go until she has seen herself in his eyes as a free and beloved human.

In the same way, Jesus does not let us go away in secret. Whether we approach Jesus as petty, self-serving, impatient disciples or desperate souls who are invisible to the world, Jesus will not let us hide from ourselves or from God. When we confront the secret of Jesus, our deepest secrets are exposed. Like James and John, our true motives for faith and discipleship are revealed. Like Peter, our hidden expectations of what Jesus should and will do are laid bare. Like the woman who bled for 12 years, we reach out, hoping to be healed in secret–to just touch the robe of Jesus and go away unnoticed. Instead of being anonymously and simply healed, we are seen by the one who has healed us. And in being seen and valued and loved by the human face of God, we are freed from a life of invisibility and shame.

But in our new freedom, we also carry a new burden. Living out repentance, this radical honesty that invites God’s ongoing confrontation, leads us to radical discipleship. It turns out that being a disciple of Jesus is not contingent on knowledge or certainty or doctrine. Being a disciple of Jesus means following him into the difficult and frightening places of ourselves and the world. The second commitment of repentance, Alan Jones writes, “is to honor our passion for connection by celebrating the solidarity of all human beings.” In Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, he reveals the true nature of discipleship in the name of Christ as not only a celebration of our solidarity to all human beings but a fierce defense of that solidarity. He says, “if anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

At the time Mark was written, at the height of the Roman reign of terror, hundreds, even thousands of people were being crucified on a day to day basis. When Mark’s Jesus sees the cross in his future, he does so knowing that his execution will be but one among the many. Thus, picking up his cross becomes an act of solidarity with the brutalized, tortured, and abused among us. Encountering the secret Jesus always reorders our vision of who we are in relation to God and the world. Encountering Jesus on the cross shocks, angers, frightens, consoles–but more than anything, it exposes the secret and deadly truths that make such suffering possible–then as well as now. Living out repentant faith, we are called to a discipleship of solidarity, of picking up our cross and following after Jesus. Encountering Jesus on the cross all of our expectations and hopes and beliefs are exposed. We suddenly see how connected we have always been to the well-being of this world and its inhabitants. We suddenly see our worth as no greater and no less than anyone else’s. We can no longer stomach being silent in the face of the political, social, and interpersonal forces that crucify people physically and spiritually. We can no longer keep the deadly secrets.

Recently, I heard a story that I feel models, in a very accessible way, what I believe “taking up our cross” and following Jesus means. Last week, an irate father walked onto campus to pick up his sixth grade son. As the two left, the principal heard the father begin yelling at and insulting his son. Moments later, she and the school counselor witnessed the father physically push the son once they got onto the road. At that point both women got into the principal’s car and began to follow the father and son as they walked away from the school. Before they reached them, they witnessed the man push the boy twice. This 53-year-old grandma of six pulled her car in front of the father, blocking their access to the road. She got out of the car and attempted to persuade the father to let her help, to let her take his son back to the school. She placed her physical presence between the abuser and the abused–not knowing what the man might do to her in retaliation. Effectively, she picked up her cross and became Jesus to that child AND to the abusive father. She let that child know that someone was willing to stand up for him and to become a barrier between him and his abuser–even at the risk of her personal safety. Driving her car, following them to their home, watching them closely, calling CPS and the police, she let that father know that someone saw–that someone knew–that someone cared–and that someone would not keep his deadly secret.

Mark’s picture of Jesus rejects any claim of Christian faith and discipleship that does not model an ongoing commitment to true repentance and solidarity with all humanity. As such, I believe Mark offers a much needed corrective in popular Christian theology that claims a piety based on the one true or real Jesus without speaking truthfully about the abuses inflicted in our own communities or confessing complicity in the systems of suffering whose victims Jesus died in solidarity with. Mark teaches us that wherever we meet the mystery of Jesus–in the Word, by the Spirit, through other people–our secret selves will emerge and be transformed in the encounter.

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