Be careful what you ask for.
James and John, for example, we can fairly guess, had no idea of what they were saying when they rather glibly answered Jesus, “We are able” when he asked them if they were able to drink the cup that he would drink or be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized. That cup and that baptism would most definitely take them to and through suffering and good deal more. All they knew was that they wanted two good seats in glory. It seemed simple enough. You know what you want; go for it.
But life is not so simple. Neither is the life of Christ nor the life in Christ. Mark’s gospel is particularly concerned with suffering, especially suffering that comes along with persecution. Best we can tell, Mark was motivated to write his gospel to encourage a young church experiencing its first wave of big-time persecution. And you know what that means. It means that people were busy looking for ways to survive, because that is what every living thing is always trying to do. And the quickest way to survive persecution is to flee it. If that doesn’t work, renounce whatever cause it is you are being persecuted for. Mark puts into perspective what it is about Jesus and his cause that actually makes suffering worthwhile, to put it bluntly. Mark wants his readers to understand that Jesus is in fact the Son of God, and thus the Truth from which there is no fleeing, and thus the ultimate reason for giving one’s heart and soul and life to follow this Man. Mark wants us to see that Jesus’ own journey led him to suffering and death, and that anyone who follows him can reasonably expect to go through the same thing.
There is not a one of us here today that is not interested in suffering, principally in how to avoid it. But how real is the threat of suffering brought on by persecution? That depends. A great many Christians in this country frequently imagine themselves to be persecuted, victimized. What they generally mean is that they resent the fact that they cannot impose their will and their religious values upon the rest of American society with impunity. That people with different religious ideas and customs as well as those with none are protected by the Constitution in this pluralistic, designedly secular society is onerous to them to the point that they flatly deny that this is a secular society at all. Limits to what one can do in the name of one’s religion does not equal persecution. But there are other pieces of contemporary life where persecution raises its head. Bullying, for example. My heart breaks when I read the too plentiful stories about kids who don’t fit in with their peers being bullied and badgered, sometimes to the point of suicide, or sometimes murder. Not only kids but a great many adults are persecuted for being lesbian, gay, or transgender. Ethnic minorities are persecuted simply for being who they are. Race inspired persecution is something ingrained in societies and cultures the world over. Pogroms and genocide, not to mention the slaughter of people who dare to dissent from authoritarian overlords, are no less common now than they ever have been, and are possibly increasing. Hate groups in this country alone grew from 602 in 2000 to 1018 in 2011. While they do not document a growth in persecution per se, these figures suggest that for a great many people in this country, the possibility of being persecuted as well was the possibility of being a persecutor is by no means insignificant.
But general persecution, even persecution for one’s political beliefs or one’s sexual orientation or one’s racial identity, is not what Mark is talking about, though it might be connected. Mark—and Jesus—are talking about persecution, and thus suffering, for “righteousness’ sake,” for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the Kingdom or reign of God. An example of this today might be the suffering that a person undergoes precisely because that person takes on the forces of hate or stands up against inequality or organizes people to fight injustice or speaks up for those who are easy prey to the powers of hate and evil. When we begin fighting oppression and injustice, speaking up for those who are essentially voiceless, threatening power structures, then quite likely we have begun doing exactly what Jesus was talking about when he talks about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.
I say “quite likely” for two reasons. One is that not everyone who fights against injustice and oppression or who strives for justice and peace is or wants to be identified as a follower of Jesus. To my mind, that is quite all right. “They who are not against us are for us,” Jesus once said. In other words, the cause of Jesus—the Kingdom or Reign of God—extends beyond the particular dues-paying adherents of Jesus. The cause of Truth is single but its forms are manifold and its supporters far flung throughout the world and history. The other reason is that those who pick up the sword of righteousness to strike against evil sometimes become more enamored of the sword than they are enamored of righteousness. Those who strive against powers and principalities run the risk of becoming more self-righteous than righteous. That is not to say they ought not to run that risk. But the only way around the danger is to become consciousness of it, and to invest considerable energy in cleaning oneself of pride and self-justification.
Are you beginning to see how James and John had no idea of what they were asking? Not only were they asking for places in a kingdom where places don’t matter except in relation to selfless service, but they had no clue about the kind of courage involved in risking precisely the kind of suffering that Jesus himself had multiple times predicted would result for him.
But we have left something dangling here, haven’t we? What about generic suffering, suffering that is not a product of persecution, suffering that has nothing much to do with relinquishing one’s place for another, or being a willing slave, or giving one’s life as a ransom? What about difficult, even torturous suffering, that comes to many of us simply because we are living, vulnerable creatures in this universe? You and I would like for there to be a guaranteed way to avoid that pain and suffering, and we would pay handsome sums to buy that way if we could. But we know better. We know that we are not immune to suffering. We have the choice of blaming God, protesting our innocence, railing against the injustice of the universe, or hunkering down and taking what comes.
To be honest, I need to hear something more than either that I will suffer (I already know that) or that I might be persecuted (I know something about being bullied at least). I get that living in the Kingdom of God means giving up self-centered competition, letting go, living life by a completely different standard from that of the world’s default. I understand that the issue is how well I follow my Master’s example in serving rather than being served. But what I want to know is how living in the Kingdom actually makes a difference in the way I respond to suffering, whatever form it might take. I want to know what I do in order to “drink the cup” which Jesus drinks and to “be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized,” which I take to mean his willingness to follow his deepest Self, consonant with his Abba’s will, wherever that took him. How do I do that?
As I look back on it, I got from early childhood a very clear message—not least from the preacher of my childhood—that God was a God I could trust. I did not have to fear being deserted by God. I did not have to worry about whether God loved me. And I did not have to do more than speak the holy name itself than I had the full attention of all heaven. I suppose, as a kid in an alcoholic family, I needed that kind of assurance, because God knows at times life was terrifying, uncertain, to the point of being almost unbearably painful. There have been some—a few—times since then that I have had to draw on all the resources I could summon in order to get me through. I imagine that before my time on earth is up, I will have other valleys to go through, nights of sweat, and days parched and barren. I do not know, as you cannot know, what the future holds. As Thomas Merton once prayed, “ My Lord God, I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I never do anything apart from that desire. And I believe that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
A young friend of mine, a singer, told me this week that when he is passing through times of great challenge and tribulation he sings a particular song that anchors him. I said that I did not know his song, but that I had one of my own, a hymn that I have been singing for years.
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
God’s mercy underlies.
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed God will not break
But strengthen and sustain.
I know not where God’s islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond God’s love and care.*
Find your song to sing, one that will keep you anchored, centered. And, freed of worry and anxiety, look about you, not for the best seats in glory, but for someone who needs you. They are not all that far away.
* John Greenleaf Whittier, "I know not what the future hath," in The Hymnal 1940 (New York: Church Publishing Company, 1940), 441.
© Frank Gasque Dunn 2012