Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Crux of the Matter

I’m teaching an intensive graduate seminar on the Gospel of Mark this summer at Liberty University. Hadn’t taught Mark for a while, so I welcome the opportunity. Wrote my PhD dissertation on Mark back in the late 70’s. Since then, I’ve gravitated more to other NT documents. But Mark has always haunted me. The power of the story comes through in Mark in a way that it doesn’t in the other canonical Gospels, so much so that the British actor, Alec McCowen, once held audiences spellbound simply by reading the Gospel of Mark on stage in a one-man performance. No commentary was necessary. The story itself carried the freight.

The reason Mark is so powerful is the fact that, hidden from the characters but known to the reader, the shadow of the cross looms over the story almost from the outset. One New Testament scholar, Martin Kähler, famously described Mark as “a Passion Story with an extended introduction.” Jesus is going to Jerusalem, says Mark, but not to be hailed as conquering hero as his disciples had hoped, but to suffer and die. Why? Because it was the will of God. That’s right; the cross was the will of God, not just for Jesus, but for his disciples too. Because, as counter-intuitive as it seems, there is a way of life that can only be entered through death. “Save yourself,” Jesus says in Mark, “and you lose everything! But sacrifice yourself and you will discover a self you never knew existed” (Mark 8:35).

But the cross has not been popular in my tradition. Perhaps that’s why the Gospel of Mark has never been as popular in Baptist churches as the other Gospels.

I was guiding a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land, and over coffee one evening had a curious conversation with the local tour company representative. He expressed some surprise that I was guiding my group to places most Protestant pilgrims never go; namely, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Himself a Palestinian Christian (Roman Catholic), he expressed astonishment that I would take my group to those places. He said that typically Protestants aren’t interested in either of those places because they seem “too Catholic,” preferring instead Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb (which we also visit). I said, “I don’t think that’s quite it. I think, rather, that Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb to the Via Dolorosa and Holy Sepulchre because we prefer the Risen Christ to the Crucified Christ, and those two places are much too graphic reminders of just how brutal the crucifixion was.”

Think about it. Protestants don’t typically wear crucifixes. We prefer an Empty Cross and an Empty Tomb. Catholics, who on the whole are far more willing to reflect on the Suffering Christ than are we Protestants, wear their crosses with Jesus still on it, a not so subtle reminder of just what our redemption required, both of God and of us. For most Protestants, on the other hand, the cross has become tamed, civilized, sanitized. It was not.

I was a young PhD student when I read Professor Martin Hengel’s The Crucifixion. He points out, among other things, that the Latin word for cross, crux, was a four-letter word, literally and figuratively. It was not a word one said in polite company, both because only dregs of society suffered it, and because the method of execution was so gruesome and grizzly that one did not speak of it (which is what the word “obscene” literally means). He said that it was hard to bring the word crux into English with the same sense of offense as it carried in the ancient world, but our word “crap” comes close. “Cross crap.” Shocking, offensive, obscene, isn’t it.

If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you got a glimpse at Golgotha. It was violent, ugly, brutal, bloody. Ironically, Gibson was criticized by Christians, by Christians, for making it so gruesome that it carried an “R” rating. As a New Testament scholar, I applaud him for not sparing us. Christians need to see it for what it really was – an obscene, shocking, brutal murder of the Son of God. Only then are we able to comprehend the consequence of the words, “And he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Only then can you dare sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back, no turning back.”


the simple life said...

Thank you for your insight. I preached the entire month of March on living out the "cross bearing" life from the gospel of Mark. It is truly powerful. Hope you are well my friend.
Jeff Genson

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks, Jeff. Good to hear from you! Ευλογίες, wayne