Long before Christians developed systems of religious rules and regulations for "getting into heaven," Jesus' disciples had just one goal: to imitate His death and resurrection in their everyday lives. Such an objective seems simplistic to many modern, catechism-trained Christians. Yet everything in the Christian Scriptures revolves around this single act.
Everyone wanted to gain the life the risen Jesus had achieved, but they had problems accomplishing the death which opens the door to that life. How does a follower of Jesus imitate the death of Jesus?
No sacred author ever encourages the members of his or her community to be physically scourged, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross. They know the risen Jesus expects His followers to imitate His death in a way which parallels His actual demise, not in a way which slavishly reproduces it.
Jesus demands that His disciples make His value system their own, that they develop the same mentality which led Him to relate uniquely to God and the people around Him, a mentality which eventually caused His enemies to kill Him.
Jesus certainly knew that God's followers through the centuries had suffered for their beliefs. It's probable, for instance, that long before His disciples applied the painful first reading to Him (Is 50:5-9), Jesus applied it to Himself.
This third song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh actually contains the biblical definition of a disciple: "Morning after morning," the prophet reflects, "Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear." True followers of God jump out of bed each morning and hit the ground listening. They presume God will attune their ears to whatever God will ask them to do that day. In spite of the pain such listening brings, they're confident God's presence will help them accomplish God's plan.
James also zeroes in on listening (Jas 2:14-18). He likewise knows the death such listening brings, especially when it entails responding to the needs of others. Here, he reacts to those in his community who define faith in non-listening, non-dying terms. He delivers a challenge which is still valid after 19 centuries: "Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works!"
Yet, as clear as James is, no author of the Christian Scriptures explains dying with Jesus better than Mark. Like James, he confronts those in his community who have developed a "new and improved" Christianity, a faith that avoids dying (Mk 8:27-35).
In three successive chapters -- 8, 9 and 10 -- Mark creates a memorable literary pattern. Jesus first predicts His passion, death and resurrection. Next, one or all of His disciples say or do something which shows they're unwilling to die with Him. Finally, Jesus corrects His disciples' mistake by explaining how one goes about joining in His death.
In Sunday's Gospel, Peter has the honor of showing how little he knew about dying. He's first told, "Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." Then Mark has Jesus present the first of His three "dying stages." He calls on His followers to share His cross by imitating His willingness to lose His life for the sake of the Good News He proclaims.
Over the next couple of weekends, Mark will present the other two stages, each one a deeper, more meaningful way of losing one's life in order to gain one's life. This week, it might be best to concentrate simply on training our ears to hear God speaking to us through the people and situations we'll encounter during the next 24 hours. That one action will probably bring about more death and resurrection than we thought we'd ever experience during a lifetime.