When you’re listening to a symphony or some other orchestral music and you hear the cymbals, it’s a clue that a musical statement is being made. Often the sound will start with a quiet roll of the mallets on a single cymbal, rising under the sound of the other instruments until it crescendos into an impressive clash of bright noise to punctuate the piece. That clash of the cymbals is a musical way to say “pay attention.”
A clash of symbols—S-Y-M-B-O-L-S—also gets our attention. This weekend we observed a horrible anniversary. It was twenty years ago when terrorists violently assaulted our religious, social, economic, and political structures by crashing three planes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Analysts think that the fourth plane, which was heroically brought down by its passengers, was intended to crash into the US Capitol building or the White House. The terrorists wanted to make a statement. They wanted our attention. So they chose to destroy targets that were symbolic, targets that represented our economic, military, and political might. Their actions were not intended to be militarily strategic. Their actions were violently symbolic.
The Gospel of Mark is thick with symbols and symbolic actions as Jesus nonviolently confronts the religious, social, economic, and political structures of his time in order to proclaim that the Reign of God is arriving. Everything that happens in Mark’s gospel pivots around that opening announcement: The Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, the Dominion of God is arriving.
The announcement, itself, the very language of it, carries symbolic weight. Jesus doesn’t announce that the Kingdom of God has arrived, but that it is within reach. The message is that even though Jesus, the Christ has arrived to inaugurate the Dominion of God, it’s not a done deal. And maybe it never will be. The language Jesus uses tells us that the Kingdom may always be a work in progress. The Reign of God is arriving. Engikken is the word in the Greek text. It means imminent. Think of it as a train that’s just coming into the station, or a plane that is on approach but hasn’t landed yet. The orchestra is swelling with the theme, but there is a lot of the piece still to come before the final clash of the cymbals. The conductor has not yet put down his baton.
There are a number of cymbal clashes and symbol clashes in Mark’s orchestration of the story of Jesus. Nothing is superfluous in this first of all the gospels. Mark even uses the literary structure of the story in a symbolic way to reinforce the impact of what Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom, and to reassert his invitation to us to be disciples—followers and participants in The Way. Mark carefully orders the stories and episodes he describes not just for dramatic effect, but to clarify the challenges of discipleship.
Here in chapter 8 of Mark, smack in the middle of the gospel, the disciples come to a turning point—and Mark wants it to be our turning point, too.
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s an easy question. What’s the buzz? What’s the word out there in the crowd? What do the polls say?
They told him that some thought of him as John the Baptist, who had recently been executed by Herod. Others thought of him as Elijah. Certainly they all agreed that he ranked among the prophets.
It’s easy for the disciples to report on what all those other people are saying. The crowd is not the inner circle. They’re not as fully vested in Jesus and The Way as the disciples, who are in the inner circle.
But then Jesus puts the disciples on the spot. He asks them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?”
Mark frames this critical question with all kinds of important symbolism. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is posing the question to us, too. He places it right in the middle of the gospel so we will understand that Jesus is asking us this question right in the middle of our own story, our own journey of discipleship, our own day-to-day life: “Who do you say that I am?”
The geographic location where Jesus asks this question is powerfully symbolic, too. They are in Gentile territory just outside Caesarea Phillipi, a city famous as a center of pagan worship, most notably worship of the god Pan—a very sexy and earthy deity. The city was reconstructed by and named for the Tetrarch Phillip, the sycophant son of the ruthless Herod the Great. In an effort to curry favor with his Roman overlords, Phillip also named the city for Caesar, the Roman Emperor, a dictator who claimed to be divine. On top of all that, Caesarea Phillipi was the place where the Roman legions took their R&R and staged their campaigns into Palestine to put down Jewish rebellion.
Here, in a place that confronted the disciples with false gods and stared them down with the brute force of its political and military power, here is where Jesus asks them—and us—his pointed question: “Who do you say that I am?” In the face of the allure of religion and all the false gods that beckon to us, in the face of seductive political power, in the face of the addictive efficiency of brute force he asks “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter said, “You are the messiah. The Christ.” Is that your answer, too? What does that title mean to you? Messiah. Christ. How do you interpret that title, that role?
Jesus, it seems, did not like the way Peter and the others interpreted that title. Messiah. He told them not to say it. Not to talk about him in those terms. He didn’t deny that he was the Messiah, but he was concerned that they were thinking of Messiah in terms of political power and military force. So he told them to keep quiet.
And then, without using the term, he began to teach them what it really meant to be the Messiah. He called himself the Son of Man, the Human One, and told them that he would undergo great suffering, that he would be rejected by the religious establishment that had, ironically, been expecting him for centuries. He told them that he would be killed and that then he would rise again.
Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying. Peter was expecting a righteous general to command a holy army and Jesus was telling him he wasn’t willing to play that role. So Peter argued with Jesus right there in front of everybody. How often do we argue with Jesus because he won’t play the role we want him to play? How often are we looking for a Messiah who will kick tail and take names and step in and fix everything?
Jesus made it crystal clear that those kinds of expectations, that kind of thinking, is in direct opposition to who he is and what he’s about. “Get behind me, Satan! You’re thinking about things in a typically human way instead of trying to understand what God is doing and how God is doing it.”
And then Jesus said what was maybe the hardest thing of all—for the disciples and for us. “If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in behind me.”
When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” it wasn’t just rhetoric. He wasn’t speaking symbolically. Those who heard him understood him quite clearly and so did the first readers of Mark’s gospel.
Mark’s gospel was most likely written in Palestine during the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome from 63-70 CE, and those original readers were all too familiar with the cross. Crucifixion, with all its horror, was a common sight for them. Crucifixion was the Romans’ favorite way to execute those accused of rebellion or sedition. The cross was an instrument of torture, but it was also a tool for ridicule. Crucifixion was not only excruciatingly painful, it was also a publicly humiliating way to die—hung up naked and in agony before the world and helpless to do anything to cover yourself or ease your pain. The Romans used it symbolically to make a statement about the futility of opposing them.
In Mark’s gospel, publicly displaying your faith, publicly acting as a follower of Jesus, means standing in opposition to both the religious and political systems that enrich and empower some while simultaneously creating a permanent class of the oppressed and disadvantaged. The first readers of Mark understood that Jesus was asking for a total commitment to his nonviolent revolution, his transformation and restructuring of the world to bring it into conformity with God’s vision.
Jesus is still asking that of us. But he wants us to understand that there are consequences for taking on the powers. He also, however, wants us to understand that there are consequences for not doing it, for continuing to play along with all the forces of business as usual.
“What good will it be if you play the game and get everything you want, the whole world even, but lose your soul? Your self? What are you going to get in exchange for selling off your soul in little pieces? What’s the going rate for that internal essence that makes you uniquely and creatively you? What’s the market price for the image of God in you? What good will it be at the end of the day if you’re surrounded by every comfort but you’ve lost everything that makes you really you, everything in you that shines with the likeness of God?
Those words should hit us like a clash of cymbals in the symphony of life. They should wake us up to look at where we are in the melody of the Spirit and the orchestration of the God’s kingdom. Those words should open our eyes and hearts and minds to the clash of symbols in our world and in our lives.
On this day, twenty years after violent men assaulted our country by crashing into important symbols of American power, Mark’s gospel is asking us once again to pay attention to the clash of symbols in our own lives and the bright noise of the cymbals in the music of heaven. On this day we are all standing a Caesarea Phillipi, caught between two questions: Who do you say that Jesus is, and will you take up a cross to follow him? The symphony pauses, waiting for us to answer.