a biblical reflection, based on Mark 8.27-38, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2015
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What might this – one the best known, oft repeated, regularly preached verses of the New Testament gospel accounts – have meant in the original context of its initial utterance?
For Jesus, the end is near. During his ministry of proclaiming God’s kingdom, the realm, the life of God’s love and justice for all, Jesus encountered open, even violent opposition. Mindful of greater conflict to come, the thought doubtless occurs that he might die for his cause.
I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his intuitive awareness of the imminence of his death; giving voice to it on the night before his assassination: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But…I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. (But) I may not get there with you.”
So, for Jesus. Thus it is important for him to know what his disciples understand about him: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for all, testifying to their hope of fulfillment in the coming of the long prophesied, long awaited divine messenger, “You are the Messiah.”
His identity established, Jesus must say more. He is the Messiah, but what kind of Messiah is he? A God-sent liberator who will drive out the occupying, oppressive Roman Empire or something else? The latter. Jesus is a Messiah who will suffer and die.
(This is not good news for the disciples. When I’m in trouble and have a choice between one who will rescue me from my travails or join me in my suffering, I, every time, without hesitation, choose the former. So, the disciples.)
Out of compassion, having uttered this disturbing word, would that Jesus stop here. Yet precisely for compassion’s sake, Jesus tells his disciples what their lives will be like. If he is a suffering, dying Messiah, then they are to live self-sacrificially: “If you want to be my followers, then deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”
Illustration: Cristo abrazado a la cruz (Christ embracing the cross), El Greco, c. 1602 (Museo del Prado, Madrid)
 From the sermon, “I See the Promised Land,” delivered at the Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968 (emphasis mine).