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2nd Sunday in Lent — February 28, 2021

Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2B

The Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Lent raises one of the most difficult of theological questions: Is suffering ever the will of God?

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At a watershed moment in Mark’s story, on the heels of Peter’s confession and the first passion prediction, Jesus says this to his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). But what exactly is Jesus asking of us? What does self-denial and cross-bearing entail? Could an abusive relationship or other oppressive circumstance ever be described as a cross one has to bear? Or a medical affliction? Is suffering in general in view?

Some traditional readings of this text have suggested as much, conveying suffering as the will of God for us, and that such suffering could even be redemptive. Therefore, these interpretations imply that to resist suffering – to resist the crosses we have to bear – is to resist the will of God. But I would contend that suffering due to abuse of power is never redemptive and is in fact antithetical to the will of God. Moreover, it is important that we be clear about the fact that when Jesus calls for self-denial and cross-bearing, suffering in general is not in view, but rather suffering that comes our way as a consequence of discipleship. Such suffering is encountered as a direct result of following Jesus — of embodying the reign and will of God to which he bore witness in our own lives, knowing that it may well evoke the world’s enmity and backlash. Disciples are to have eyes wide-open to this likelihood: We may suffer as a consequence of following Jesus.

My own reflection on this text has been clarified by an important study of it by Raquel St. Clair, in “Call and Consequence: A Womanist Reading of Mark.” St. Clair argues that traditional interpretations of the text, exhorting selflessness and bearing the burdens of others, have been detrimental in the lives of African American women, who have been forced or coerced into abusive surrogacy roles (such as domestic workers or surrogate mothers) throughout their history — that is, forced to perform roles that normally belong to others. From this social location, to suggest that the suffering of surrogacy is God’s will is deeply problematic.

Moreover, St. Clair critiques traditional interpretations of this text that disconnect Jesus’ cross from his life and ministry, throughout which he resisted, nonviolently, social evils that deformed and defaced human life, and sought liberation for the marginalized and outcast. In other words, the course of Jesus’ life and ministry conveyed that humans, rather than God, are the source of suffering. Humans are the crucifiers, not God. Indeed, followers of Jesus are called to name and resist evil as he did, rather than to accept it. As St. Clair notes, there can be painful consequences to following Jesus and resisting evil — in Christ’s case, that consequence was a cross. She clearly distinguishes between suffering that comes one’s way due to abuse of power and the pain of social consequences that result from resistance to suffering. I find this distinction helpful.

In light of St Clair’s insights, I interpret Jesus’ teaching on cross-bearing as agitational — the often painful process of naming and resisting the crosses that disciples and others around us already bear. In our context, one such cross is surely racism. Many other crosses litter the landscape of our communities: abuses of power and suffering large and small. Cross-bearing entails the daily tension of agitating — of naming and resisting suffering. Indeed, theologian Ted Jennings says in “The Insurrection of the Crucified: The Gospel of Mark as Theological Manifesto,” that followers of Jesus must be willing to face the consequences of naming and resisting the crosses in our midst as they demonstrate “the audacity of solidarity with the crucified,” thereby disrupting the status quo.

That work of taking up the cross is the collective work of churches, not just individuals. I caught a glimpse of what that looks while engaged in urban ministry in Baltimore in the 1990s, when an interfaith and multiracial community organizing coalition called BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) embarked on what came to be called The Living Wage Campaign. It began as we talked with low-income workers who were struggling to create a life on the minimum wage. We knew some of them from soup kitchens housed in the churches we served, because it was hard to pay the rent and have enough money for food. Yet Baltimore’s downtown and Inner Harbor districts (which were developed, in part, on the promise of producing jobs for low-income residents of Baltimore) were thriving. So the churches of BUILD began to organize low-income workers to pressure the business community and the city government for living-wage jobs. Resistance to our work was strong and swift — it made people angry and there were consequences. The business community, the mayor and even some church folk pushed back against our efforts. At times it felt as if the whole city was against us. But as a collective, we persevered in the midst of backlash. And eventually, we lobbied for and helped support the Baltimore City Council’s bill to raise the wages of workers to a more livable standard.

For me, that work with Baltimore’s Living Wage Campaign remains etched in my memory as an example of what it means, as disciples of Jesus, to take up the cross. It means to agitate, to name and to resist suffering in our communities and world, with eyes wide open to inevitable backlash and painful consequences that may come our way. We take up such crosses together, as a collective work, for when some of us wane, others continue to bear them, and to bear us along, as we endeavor to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This week:

  1. Have you ever heard people describe suffering they are experiencing as their cross to bear? Have you ever described your own suffering in this manner? How might Mark 8:31-38 inform your reflection on such statements?
  2. Do you think suffering due to the abuse of power is ever redemptive? Or is it antithetical to the will and work of God?
  3. How might Raquel St. Clair’s powerful reinterpretation of cross-bearing inform your own understanding of it?
  4. What do you think of the notion that taking up the cross entails agitational work — the often painful process of naming and resisting the crosses the mar the landscape of our community and world?
  5. Have you ever experienced cross-bearing as solidarity with crucified persons in your community? What did you learn from this experience?
  6. How does cross-bearing find expression in the collective ministries of the church and the ministries of your community?

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