Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for March, 2015

Seeing and Walking in the Woods

John 12:20-36    

John’s Gospel belongs in a Sesame Street song.

One of these Gospels is not like the others
One of these Gospels just doesn’t belong
Can you guess which Gospel is not like the others
Before I finish my song 

Come on, Grover; they’re ALL circles.

But Grover would be right about John if he said that John was not like the others. The fourth Gospel portrays a different Jesus and weaves a story together that reads less like an account of actual events in the life and death of Jesus, but more like a spiritual fable.  Perhaps that’s why, not long after it was written, people called it the spiritual gospel. There are many reasons as to why John doesn’t belong with the three Synoptic Gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke], but let’s focus on a few that exist in this chapter 12 of John.

In the other three Gospels, when Jesus heads to Jerusalem, we know the story is about to end. It’s one and done. Ride into town on a donkey; throw tables in the temple; eat Passover meal with disciples; get arrested; stand trial; suffer; die on a cross.

Not so in John’s story. In this case, Jesus goes to Jerusalem more than once. We’re looking at John 12 [the second time]. And Jesus doesn’t actually make it to the Passover meal. Instead, John has him eat a meal with his disciples the day before Passover. Why? Because the storyteller Gospel wants you to recognize that on Passover, thousands of lambs were slaughtered for the big feast. So for the story’s sake, Jesus is on the cross, slaughtered like all the lambs on Passover day; because from the very beginning in chapter one, John calls Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. No other Gospel does this. Jesus is the lamb lifted up on the cross, reaching across generations of Jews, reminding them of the Exodus story and the passing over of the Spirit of God in Egypt when all their doors had the blood of a lamb on them.

The lamb lifted up was also an invitation to non-Jews, who had historically been considered pagan for their rituals and unable to enter the temple and excluded from religious festivals like Passover.

All this talk of lamb and Greeks reminds me….

Sorry–couldn’t resist. I have some Greek on my mom’s side of the family.

Anyway, notice that the Gospel of John’s appeal is wider.

Perhaps that’s why, if you look closely at Western Christianity, John’s view of Jesus dominates theology, church doctrine, and Sunday school teaching.  The reason for that is because of something you might have heard of:

The creeds.

I’m not a huge church history buff, but it is important to know about the fourth century. Constantine, emperor of the West, figured out, so says the legend, that if he put the Chi-Rho symbol on his warrior’s shields and military equipment, they would be victorious. Some historians say that Constantine converted to Christianity. I’m not really convinced of that, but at the very least, he was convinced that Christianity would help the Roman Empire. So the Roman State became a Christian state.  Because war and weapons and food provision are quite influential, there were mass conversions. Look at this map illustrating just how much Roman Christianity spread during this time.

mapRomanChristianity.jpegSo back to the creeds. Just like in the 1st and 2nd century, 4th century people argued about who they thought Jesus was. So now that Roman Christianity had been established as a religious power, things like “ecumenical councils” started happening. In short, people argued about Jesus and ways to think about God, and which so-called Christians were too “out there” to be called Christians. So in the end, creeds like the Nicene and the Apostle’s Creed [after various revisions], became mainstream.

The creeds, for many, were a written expression of the belief that the Gospels were a literal account of the life of Jesus. So you can imagine how that becomes a problem–especially if you consider that John’s Gospel is more allegorical and symbolic.I say all this, hopefully not to bore you, but to remind anyone who claims to be “Christian” that much of our beliefs are rooted in a pretty narrow interpretation of the Gospels, centered around one century and the Roman empire. We don’t realize it, but this 4th century creedal thinking is embedded in many of the hymns churches still sing and in church doctrines—including the most modern, mega churches.

All this to emphasize that John’s Gospel appealed to non-Jews back in the 2nd century and still appeals to many Christians today. I’m not criticizing the Gospel per se—but I am simply pointing out that the John perspective about Jesus is dominant, and has been for a long time. And I think we should keep that in mind; it will help us to understand context and motivation.

It will also help us to look at our own perspectives and how they are shaped by what we hear, see, and read.

The end goal is to have a more balanced view of the Jesus—considering all the Gospels, and considering our own context. No one should just accept 4th century perspectives [or any other person’s, for that matter]. Instead, I hope that you will discover how your own worldview shapes your view of Jesus and the Gospels. Accept that the people of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine ate different foods, wore different clothes, practiced different religions, and saw the world so, so differently than you. Likewise, the people of the 4th century in the Roman empire were so, so different from those 1st and 2nd century folk in the Middle East.

So we have freedom to see Jesus differently.

The Gospels did, so why shouldn’t we?  Let’s return to the story with this in mind. John’s retelling of the Jesus story would be more appealing to non-Jews who previously might have been disinterested because they saw Jesus as a Jewish prophet or Messiah.  It’s no secret that the storyteller gospel was speaking to the Hellenistic world. And the narrator lets us know. Some Greeks were headed to Jerusalem to crash the big Jewish Passover party. Add another layer of context—the Greeks and Jews weren’t actually all that different. They both believed in a god; both would be considered “monotheistic” in modern-day terms. Both conducted religious sacrifices in very similar ways.

But as you know, really religious folk often criticize other religious folk who are like them; we have a tendency to make truth claims about our particular religion, asserting that how we “do” religion is better or that how we think about god is the one true way.

In this case, things haven’t changed much since the 2nd century.

The Greeks weren’t welcomed into religious circles.But according to John, they now had a way in. The Greeks go to Philip [a Greek name, of course] and say: We wish to see Jesus. Notice that they don’t go to the temple; they know they’re not allowed there.They go to the “shepherd” who cares for “other sheep” who don’t belong to his own fold.

Background note: there is a particular audience now. Considering history, the Gospel seems to be referring to certain followers of Jesus who were in conflict with the followers of John the Baptist; they were also painfully separating themselves from Judaism.  So what does Jesus say to these Greeks?

The hour has come to be glorified and lifted up.When a grain of wheat dies, it bears fruit.

The falling leads to lifting up, which leads to life. But it’s a different kind of life. Here, John actually borrows from Mark for once. 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. And there’s more Mark, this time the Markan story of the garden of Gethsemene, when Jesus gets agitated because he knows that he’s going to be betrayed, arrested, and then killed. Curiously, though, in John’s version, Jesus is not in the garden of Gethsemane. Remember, he’s still in Jerusalem city with Greeks. Recall that in Mark, Jesus is the suffering servant. In John, Jesus is the one who is glorified and lifted up. So even though Jesus is troubled, he isn’t really according to John, because he already knows what’s going to happen. He’ll be lifted up by God, because that’s his purpose. His death will simply affirm that which Jesus knew from the beginning—that he was the Word of God, the logos. And now, because of God’s love for the world, Jesus will be lifted up.

Then John plagiarizes Mark again, but strangely. It’s the baptism story. Jesus hears a voice from heaven, this time not at the River Jordan but in Jerusalem, with Greeks. And it isn’t just Jesus who hears the voice, but everyone else, too. That’s why the Greeks think it’s thunder or an angel. But according to John’s Jesus, the voice wasn’t meant for him, but for the people themselves. Jesus already what was coming—they did not.

And then the sign: lifting up. In John’s, signs are a recurring theme. Water to wine: sign. All the healings: signs. Lifting up: a sign.  And notice John’s universalistic viewpoint: Jesus will draw all people to himself [that means Greeks, too].

So what are we to make of all this?

John, and all the Gospels for that matter, present a certain view of Jesus. It’s more than that, though.

You and I, the readers, are supposed to not only see Jesus, but to see ourselves.

The journey into the woods, for every character, is a journey of acceptance.If we see ourselves as we fully are, without the tampering of how we have been conditioned by others and our past, we then can take responsibility for our own lives. In the woods, some destructive behaviors and harmful thoughts come to the light. But if we are willing to see the light, we can walk in the light. And if we walk in the light, we can face all our fears, behaviors, and thoughts.

We can face them.

So many people since the 1st and 2nd century and up until now have asked this question:
Who is Jesus?

I wonder, though–is this life really about us trying to define someone we can only guess about? Or, is this life really about learning about ourselves, discovering light in and around us, and thus not fearing a path into the deep woods?

Maybe the question we should ask is:

Who am I?

Friends, see the light.
Even in the darkest part of the woods.

Walk in that light.
Notice others on the journey with you.

See and accept yourself, as you are.
Then walk in that light.


Light Lifting Us Up in the Woods

John 3:14-21  

intothewoodsIn the musical Into the Woods, fairytale characters journey into the wilderness; as Stephen Sondheim says:

Ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed.

The woods are a metaphor that we have been exploring since Lent began. Jesus of Nazareth goes into the woods and is challenged and transformed. He invites others to go with him and they are challenged and transformed.  But in the woods, it can be scary; it can be lonely.

In Sondheim’s musical, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella, the Baker and his wife—they get lost in the darkness of the woods. At one point, Cinderella says:

It’s hard to see the light now.

Indeed, because sometimes in the woods we do get lost.

And then it is hard to see the light.

Even so, in that darkness of the woods, Cinderella and company find strengths and talents they never knew they had. And, coming out of the woods they see the light; they realize that their decisions and actions affect everybody else in and out of the woods.

Light and darkness is a recurring theme in the musical.

Light and darkness is also a prevalent theme in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew prophets like Isaiah use the motif of light and darkness to describe the journey of the Israelites. The New Testament Gospels borrow from the OT as they present their perspectives about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s Gospel in particular emphasizes light and darkness.

John chapter 3 is a well-known chapter, because it includes the Nicodemus story. You remember him? Nicodemus was a religious leader of the Sanhedrin. He came to question Jesus—or at least to engage in some sort of theological debate. But we’re starting at 3:14 and Nicodemus’ lines in the story are done. In fact, the whole tone of John chapter 3 changes. That’s why I think it’s likely that this portion of chapter 3 isn’t part of the Nicodemus story; some Bible scholars agree. In the original Greek of the Gospel, the pronouns change. Before, Jesus spoke with Nicodemus on a private level using “I” and “you singular” language. From verse 14 or 15 on Jesus seems to be addressing a larger crowd and not just one know-it-all religious leader.

Some scholars take it a step further and I happen to agree with them.

Perhaps these words attributed to Jesus at the end of John 3 were not his own, but instead were words actually written by the Gospel writer to address the church; in other words, the growing community of Jesus followers 60-65 years after his death. Yes, John’s Gospel was not written until 60-65 years later. NO WAY!!!!!!!

fearBut don’t freak out about it.

Sure, many are conditioned to think that these Gospels were all eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life and death.

But they’re not.

And as it pertains to the so-called “words” of Jesus, as always, you’re welcome to look at the story as you wish. I’ve chosen the perspective of many modern scholars that these “John” words were not words actually spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. This is because of what I’ve studied about John and also because John’s portrayal of Jesus [and what the Gospel has Jesus say] is so drastically different from the other three canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

I simply encourage you to read John’s Gospel as a separate story, because it really is. There is a clear purpose to it and also a distinct audience in mind.

But back to the recurring theme of light and darkness.

Do I need to mention that Nicodemus went to talk to Jesus at night?

And Jesus, in John’s perspective, is the light of the world.

So there you are.

This latter part of John chapter 3, however, is not about Nicodemus, but about Moses. I’ve mentioned before that sometimes the Jesus stories of the Gospels parallel the Moses stories of Exodus and Numbers. Here is another case. If you are familiar with the OT story, you’ll remember that Moses was with the Israelites in the woods [wilderness].

See….I TOLD you that into the woods was relevant!

Well, things were not going so well.
The Israelite people didn’t have enough food, they were tired, and hello, Moses, where is this so-called promised land again?

All of a sudden, Egypt sounded just great.

If you want, you can read the original story in Numbers 21, but here’s what happened next: snakes started biting people and so eventually God tells Moses to place a fiery serpent [an ancient symbol of knowledge] on a pole so that when people got bitten by the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and live to see another day.

It’s weird, right?

But it wouldn’t have been weird to John’s community. They were already drawing parallels between Jesus and the prophets. So John’s Gospel tweaks the story just a bit, and has Moses lift up the serpent on the stick, just as Jesus would be later lifted up on a cross and then lifted up to life.

The point is that in both cases, Moses and Jesus bring healing to people.

That of course leads us to a passage probably no one has ever heard of….NOT!

John 3:16.

Sticking out tongueHonestly, many preachers [including me] would like to avoid talking about this one little verse that has been so misused and misquoted, but that would be like ignoring a flaming pile of…[oops], so we’ll talk about it.

It’s one verse.

As I said before, Jesus probably did not say it. It’s not, as some claim, the “summary” or “crux” of the religion of Christianity or the one true way to know God.

It is one verse within a larger context and story.
So let’s be honest and thorough Bible explorers and give John its due.

It’s light and darkness again.

The dark place is the world, the reason for all this lifting up of serpents and sons of man. God so loves that darkness. God so loves in a way that it disrupts our ideas about what is light and dark.

God so loves without any kind of condemnation.

God so loves.

The Moses story and the Jesus story of John are about confronting the darkness—not just the darkness in the woods, but that which is in ourselves.
We’re meant to shudder at the idea of biting snakes and scary woods being symbols of healing and life. The things that scare us and that which we call “evil” or “bad” are all of a sudden the direct opposite.

The biting snake heals and gives wisdom.
The scary, dark woods provide light and life.


Light has come into the cosmos to stay.

Unfortunately, though, people seem to love darkness more than that light. In other words, as human beings we are capable of doing evil, hateful, and unjust things.

Yes we are—all of us.
And of course we would not want such things to be exposed in the light.

This is in sharp contrast to the unconditional love of God that embraces the whole of the cosmos and is itself LIGHT.

No condemnation.
No favoritism.
Just all-encompassing love.

Friends, it would be easy [and lazy] to say that John 3 is simply about Jesus saving those who believe in Jesus and judging those who don’t.

I encourage you to dig deeper and to hear the whole of John’s story.

This is about lifting up.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s story the emphasis is on Jesus undergoing great suffering and then eventually dying.

In John, the death of Jesus is about healing—just like the snake on the pole.
For John, Jesus was just like Moses, but a step further.

Jesus was logos, or the light that from the beginning was there with the divine presence. John wants us to see Jesus as not just a healer from his mid-thirties until his death, but a healer from day one. Not just a prophet who received a call on earth, but a prophet from the very start of things. Not just a light after baptism, but a light from the very beginning.

And this is a change—a shift in perspective.
It’s a new community some 60 years later thinking about what Jesus meant to them.

I think Christians of today ought to take note and do the same.
John’s context cannot be ignored, but neither can ours.
We are all interpreting Jesus’ life, ministry, and death right now.
Our heads are filled with what other people and churches and preachers and television and radio programs and blogs tell us we should believe or think.

I encourage you, however, to accept that it’s really up to you how you see this Jesus of Nazareth.

We have these Gospel stories as examples of how other people in different places and times saw him and interpreted his life. It only matters if you wrestle with the stories in your own context.

What does your journey into the woods, into darkness, look and feel like?

What things do you hide from the light due to shame or regret or fear?

How can your view of Jesus help you to heal from those things?

How can your view of Jesus move you to accept and love all people, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe?

How can your practice of living out these views move you towards light?

What lifts you up in this life?

And how can you lift others up?

I think it’s best to begin and end with these questions.

Buildings and Bodies in the Woods

John 2:13-22

I’m still thinking about the musical Into the Woods and just how much it resonates with Lent—a time when Christians are supposed to look deeply at themselves, venture into the wilderness, and then emerge as changed people. The fairytale characters of Into the Woods all have issues to deal with. Said issues can only be worked on if they go into the woods. Of course, going into the woods for each one of them does not mean that their problems are solved. Neither does it mean that they all find the happiness or prosperity they were looking for.

In fact, it’s safe to say that none of them find what they set out to obtain. In the woods they were surprised, challenged, frustrated, scared, and disappointed. Things were not what they seemed. The world changed around them.

And they changed.

But the “good” [and not “happy”] ending of Into the Woods is that all the characters discover something true about themselves, about others, and about the world. They notice something they didn’t see before. they all changed their minds about what was important. Their focus shifted.

Much of the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth share the same motif. Jesus’ followers [and Jesus himself] have to journey into the woods. They have to leave their places of comfort; they have to leave behind their narrow perspectives; they have to change.

In this case, we’re looking at John’s Gospel, the last one written and the Gospel most-influenced by the early church, as we call it. John has the luxury of knowing about Mark, Matthew, and Luke and the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters. So this Gospel is not really worried about giving us a history lesson.

This is interpretation of the older stories in light of near-second century contexts.

So the story goes that Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem for Passover. John has Jesus go to Jerusalem quite early in the story [chapter 2], while Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus go to Jerusalem at the end of their story.

Passover, of course, was a big party. The city would have been packed. But in John’s story, Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in the partying. He goes straight to the temple. There he finds all sorts of animals and moneychangers.

But let’s get something straight. This “temple” was not Solomon’s temple. It was Herod’s temple, or as some refer to it: the 2nd temple. Here’s a model of what it may have looked like:


Of course, the 2nd temple didn’t last long. After Herod’s death, the Romans came about 70 CE and destroyed the temple. There were Roman religious altars built on site.

Then, around 614, the Persians invaded Jerusalem and then Arab Muslims. The Dome of the Rock was built on the same site where the 2nd temple stood. Pieces of the 2nd temple make up a walkway to the Dome of the Rock.

domeoftherockI probably don’t have to mention that since 614, there has been even more warring and fighting over this site. It remains a Muslim site today, but people of both Jewish and Christian faith still visit; and lots of others, too.

Context is important so that’s why I bring all this up.

Jesus, in John’s story, would have been at Herod’s Temple.
But by the time John’s Gospel was written, the Romans had already destroyed that.

Now you see where I’m going with this?
John’s author knows what’s going to happen.

Therefore, everything in the moneychangers scene is an interpretation of past events in light of present-day knowledge. Hindsight really IS 20/20…

So just who were these temple moneychangers? Um, they were people who changed money. This was pure business. The temple authorities made deals with rich bankers and such. You see, in the temple, Roman coins were forbidden. So people needed to change their Roman money for temple money. Of course, the moneychangers charged them a fee for the exchange.

Can you imagine how good of a business this would have been?

Jerusalem full of people for Passover, tons of religious pilgrims going to the temple and needing temple money—this was a huge scam!

There were also dudes who sold birds [doves, specifically]. They sold the birds to poorer people who could not afford to make expensive temple sacrifices. Doves were cheap. But again, the birdmen marked up the price of the doves; another scam.

So the story tells us that Jesus then became the Incredible Hulk [Jesus MAAAAAD]

JesusSmash And apparently, Jesus also became MacGyver, because he fashioned his own weapon out of a whip of chords and then somehow was able to clear out all the people, animals, and things out of the temple.

macgyver Now seriously, it would have been impossible for this to happen. Herod’s temple was massive—about the size of twenty football fields. So unless Jesus also became the Flash, I’m not taking this literally.


So let’s read John more plausibly. It’s a metaphor.

Jesus, in the story, takes on the religious power in Jerusalem, and he does so by attacking the center of their finances. Most likely, he did it with words and not with a whip.

“Get these things out of here!” he says.
“Don’t make the house of my father a house of merchandise.”

The Judeans responded: Show us a sign that you can do this.
They called Jesus’ bluff.

And then we get the climatic statement:
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

The Judeans don’t get it; neither do Jesus’ followers.

Jesus is speaking on one level, but people understand things on another level, which usually means that they take it too literally.

I mean, even if they did think Jesus was the Incredible Hulk, MacGyver and Flash, it would still be pretty hard to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days!

Unless Jesus had a hot tub time machine.

But thankfully, John’ s author spells it out for us.
No, Jesus isn’t really saying that he’ll tear down Herod’s temple and then rebuild it. He’s talking about his own temple—his body.

Now do we get it?

The people think that Jesus is talking about buildings.
But Jesus is really talking about bodies.

And even though Jesus was indeed a carpenter, he wasn’t talking about raising up pillars or walls of a building.
He was talking about resurrection.

So if John’s Gospel does anything right, it most certainly gets us thinking on another level. So let’s do that.

Church buildings. Bodies. Resurrection.
Into the woods we go…

Most churches are obsessed or at least partially in love with their buildings. In fact, people call the building “church” and also refer to any activity at said building [whether worship or education or a Halloween party] as “church.” So it follows that for most traditional Christians, church and building are one and the same.

I get it–I really do, because institutions are like that. I, for example, went to graduate school at Princeton. Now, since then, I have taken continuing ed classes that were given by Princeton but not on Princeton’s campus. Truthfully, in my mind, these classes were not Princeton. The campus in Princeton, NJ is Princeton to me. So anything not on that campus just isn’t Princeton. So I get it.

But in faith and spirituality, buildings matter only insofar as they provide a space or a medium for the practice of faith and spirituality.

In short, the building means nothing if it is empty.
People [bodies] give the building its meaning.

And the flipside is that without buildings, there is just as much meaning. In fact, more often than not there is more spirituality and faith practice outside of buildings than there is inside them.

I do think that we have to think on another level—not the traditional one.
We need to stop thinking so much about buildings.

We need to think more about bodies.

Because bodies are people!

They live and breathe and work and play and cry and laugh and wonder and question.
And only if we focus more on bodies and less on buildings will we catch a glimpse of resurrection.

Resurrection, new life, is not a magical, miracle, supernatural-type thing reserved for Messiahs and gods and legends.

Resurrection is about people [bodies] finding new life even in the mundane, normal, ho-hum moments and even during times of sadness and confusion. Resurrection is tangible and real—but only if we decide to think on another level.

I wonder, if we weren’t so in love with our buildings and more in love with our bodies and the bodies of others—people—I wonder if what we call “church” wouldn’t be a resurrected, full-of-life community that positively impacted the world.

Institutions come and go, they rise and fall.

People matter most.

New life is possible.

Every day of the journey into the woods.

Into the Woods…and Not Turning Back

Mark 8:31-38

 Into the Woods is a musical by Stephen Sondheim. If you’re not familiar with it, read a brief synopsis here.

Into-The-Woods-CharactersThe fairy tale characters of Into the Woods are changed by their experience in the woods. Their perspectives change; their lives change; some characters don’t even make it out of the woods alive. And this of course wounds those who are close to them. And those who do make it out of the woods leave that place scarred.

The ending of the musical is not what I would call a “happily ever after” ending. But I would call it a “good” ending, because it’s honest, real, and formative.

The witch character spells it out for us when she sings:

witchI was perfect.
I had everything but beauty.
I had power,
And a daughter like a flower,
In a tower.
Then I went into the woods
To get my wish,
And now I’m ordinary.
Lost my power and my flower.

I view the stories of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels in a very similar way. The characters in the Gospels who choose to follow Jesus also go into the woods, so to speak. But once they’re in the woods with Jesus, people find out that their perspectives and experiences are very limited. They think they know who Jesus is and who they are, but they don’t. In Mark’s telling of the story, the journey of Jesus and his followers is a journey of identity formation. I think that Jesus was a person who expressed full humanity; like anyone else, as he aged and matured and experienced the world, he formed an identity. His identity was also shaped by people, places, and experiences. So it was for his followers.

And so it is for us.

Mark’s Gospel, you see, is very different from the other three. No Jesus birth story; no resurrection story either in the original text. Mark is the shortest Gospel and first one written; it’s a no-nonsense story without much theology or church doctrine inserted. Action is what drives the story forward.

And Mark is really concerned with identity questions: who is Jesus, who is he not, and who are those who follow him? Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as much more human than the other Gospels. Jesus shows emotions. He is called “the carpenter” as anyone else would be defined by his/her vocation. He falls asleep on a cushion while the disciples steer a boat. And at the end of his life, the Jesus of Mark suffers great physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.

And finally, the Gospel of Mark contains various references to what scholars call the “Messianic secret.”

What the heck is that? Good question.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a mysterious figure. He intentionally tells people to shut up about his identity. He heals people and then says don’t tell anyone about it. As a storyteller, why does Mark portray Jesus in this way? Well, the writer of Mark already knew about various images of Jesus or beliefs about him in the 1st Century. The identity of “Messiah” for some meant “miracle worker” or “political leader” or “the Son of God”…or you fill in the blanks.

But Mark makes it clear that Messiah means:
Son of Man or Son of Adam and Messiah means suffering servant who dies.

Sounds a bit macabre, but that’s Mark’s interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth.

But I also tend to agree with some historical and Biblical scholars who see this Messianic secret thing in Mark as a demonstration of just how much people tried to give Jesus an identity that he never actually gave to himself. While the other three Gospels in the canon often over-emphasize that Jesus was and is the Messiah and miracle-worker, Mark’s Gospel has Jesus shush any notion to that effect.

You see that in this particular scene is Mark 8.

Jesus asks his followers:      Who do people say I am?

The followers say:                   John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.

Jesus:                                       But who do YOU say that I am?

Peter:                                         The Messiah, of course!

Jesus:                                       Ssshhhhhh….the son of man suffers and dies.

Peter:                                         No way, Jesus!

Jesus:                                       Peter, Shut yo mouth!

The “son of man” reference is from the OT prophetic book of Daniel. The son of man figure is a human who has a great and lasting impact on people and the world.

Clearly, we have an identity crisis here.

Think about it—if Jesus were not the Messiah that the disciples were looking for—then that would mean they were on a dangerous path that could lead to suffering, rejection, and perhaps even death.


Peter and the other Jesus followers saw the miracles as most important and they also wanted a religious and political Messiah, too; but Jesus was on another path.

Jesus’ journey was one of servanthood–giving one’s life out of love for others. That is why Mark focuses intensely on the symbol of the cross. Taking up one’s cross would have meant something to the people of the 1st century. It was a human journey to death, to suffering. It was a reminder of the religious and political powers of society that oppressed people.

I’ll admit it’s a misused phrase and probably it has caused more harm than good.

Take up your cross has been used to make people feel guilty or to coerce them into accepting needless suffering or abuse.

But that’s not what the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is saying.

Instead, it was an invitation to stand up against the injustice and oppression; the false religious piety; the imbalance of the world; the hatred and selfishness of human beings. Taking up the cross meant walking an uncomfortable path into the woods and not looking back.

It may seem harsh to you how Jesus rebukes Peter in this scene, but people have to understand what they’re walking into, don’t you think? This path of seeking justice and loving others to the point of giving one’s life is no walk in the park.

It’s a journey deep into the woods.

On this journey, if you spend all your time trying not to lose people and things, you’ll end up losing it all [and your own life] anyway.

The invitation, then, is to stop trying to save everything and everyone and instead to dedicate your life to being Good News for others; in this way you might truly live.

This journey is not one of fame or power or status or comfort. It is brutally honest, too, and requires all masks to be removed. It’s a journey that recognizes suffering and rejection because that’s what happens when you stand up against status quo authority or oppressors.

 And the journey is about letting go of fear in order to discover yourself as you truly are.

This motif underlies the story of Into the Woods, because the life lessons that the fairy tale characters learn come at a great cost. Happily ever after isn’t the way it works. The baker and his wife, in wishing for a child, encounter a curse and even death. Cinderella finds out that her prince isn’t as dreamy as she imagined him. Little Red Riding Hood discovers that the forest can be a dangerous place where wolves prey on the innocent. Jack loses his mother and his best friend, Milky White. The witch loses her daughter and also her beauty. But amidst all the tragedy, heartache, and disappointment, wisdom is gained; identity is formed; and the characters learn how to serve each other.

Consider what the baker’s wife sings:

There’s something about the woods.
Not just surviving.
You’re blossoming in the woods.
At home I’d fear
We’d stay the same forever.

True, the path of going into the woods is difficult.

But something blossoms in the woods; people even thrive.

I think it’s because the woods expose everyone’s fear of being themselves—truly human.

In fact, there is this quote by Frederick Buechner which states:

What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.

I think that’s true. We all want to be accepted and known as we truly are, but we’re also scared out of our minds to show that true self to others…and even to ourselves.

But I think we can learn something from the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel: he is human. Intensely human. And also, it’s not wise to define people [or ourselves] based on the past or nostalgia, or even what we wish for the future.

The discovering of our identity should happen in the present—where we are.

In this present moment, we should walk through the woods. We should not fear the crosses or heavy burdens of the world. As the characters sing in the musical:

Though it’s fearful,
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark,
And though you may lose your path,
You mustn’t stop,
You mustn’t swerve,
You mustn’t ponder,
You have to act!

Yes, we should act. We should notice be good news for people. We should be honest and human and…ourselves. We should go into the woods, “where nothing’s clear, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear. Into the woods and through the fear, we have to take the journey.”

Because along that journey lies wisdom, acceptance, and fullness.

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