(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Mark 8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For 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.
How would the early Christians have understood Jesus’ command that his followers must “take up your cross and follow me?” Is there any application of this to us today?
The earliest Christians were receiving these words in the context of persecution, and therefore they would have understood that to be a follower of Christ meant to participate in suffering for His name. We certainly see this demonstrated throughout the lives of the apostles in the book of Acts. “Losing one’s life” does not necessarily refer only to the loss of physical life, but also to the potential loss of one’s position in the hierarchy of the community. As most of the earliest Christians were Jewish, their community life would have revolved in large part around the synagogue, from which they would be outcasts upon becoming followers of Christ. It was their persecutors who had “the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets” (cf. Mark 12:39). And just as Jesus warns them in another place in Mark, these early Christians (Jewish believers) would be “handed over to councils; and be beaten in synagogues; and would stand before governors and kings because of [Christ], as a testimony to them” (cf. Mark 13:9).
For us today, the “cross bearing” familiar to first century Christians may seem less relevant. However, as we reflect theologically on this passage, especially in light of New Testament admonitions regarding our communion with other believers, we will see that “cross bearing,” or the more accessible image of “burden bearing,” is the unique mark of a follower of Christ. Now, as we “bear one another’s burdens,” we “fulfill the law of Christ” (cf. Galatians 6:2). Christ’s commandment to us is that we “love one another as he has loved us” (cf. John 13:34; 15:12). And by this we know that we are his disciples: when we love one another (cf. John 13:35). And this love “covers a multitude of sins” (cf. 1 Peter 4:8) as we “confess our faults to one another” (cf. James 5:16)—in denial of ourselves and self-righteousness, silencing the voices of all accusers, either from within or from without--and “restore one another in a spirit of gentleness” (cf. Galatians 6:1), as those who are “holy and blameless in his sight” (cf. Colossians 1:22), because “he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that are now made the righteousness of God in him” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). We now bear the burdens for one another of sorrow, shame and guilt by comforting one another with the comfort of the Gospel (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) and restoring one another to the joy of salvation in the New Creation, where all our judgments have been removed (cf. Zephaniah 3:15). This is the “cross” we now “take up” on one another’s behalf: “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), when he “removed our transgressions as far as the east is from the west” (cf. Psalm 103:12) and now “remembers our sin no more” (cf. Isaiah 43:25).
Proverbs 19:22 What is desired in a person is kindness.
We've all experienced the loss of friendships. Sometimes we lose them because someone moves away, and we just "lose touch." Those "losses" are just part of the changing seasons of life. But sometimes friendships die, right before our eyes, for lack of kindness.
I have been contemplating the essence of kindness in the face of such a death. I keep thinking about this:
Ephesians 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Kind. Tender-hearted. Forgiving.
Regardless of how one may choose to analyze that admonishment from Paul grammatically, I believe that tenderheartedness and forgiveness are intrinsic qualities of kindness. For only a tender heart can be kind. And only one who has forgiven--unreservedly, extravagantly--out of the abundance of mercy they have been shown, is free to show unrestrained kindness. And is there any other kind? Is there such a thing as tempered kindness? Guarded kindness? No. For such would be perceived as feigned or forced, and therefore, most assuredly, unkind.
The face of unkindness masks a hard, rather than a tender and open, heart. And it reveals a reluctance to forgive. Usually we withhold forgiveness and harden our hearts to protect ourselves from being hurt. Again. It's natural. When someone has hurt us, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt again. So we may say, "I forgive you, but..." What we are really saying with that "but," is that we acknowledge what the other person has done to hurt us, and we recognize our responsibility to forgive them, but we aren't willing to acknowledge the hurt that we have caused them. We aren't ready to receive the forgiveness that we are so piously offering, and so desperately in need of ourselves, because to do so would require a humility and a vulnerableness that our hardened heart will not accommodate.
What I am learning? Protecting myself from being hurt again: it's just a form of pride. And "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." And it is His kindness that leads me to repentance." His kindness: His tender heart, and His forgiveness. And if I want my friend to repent? Again, it is kindness that leads. It is kindness that initiates. It is what drew my heart to God. It is what draws my heart to others, time and time again. But kindness only flows from a tender heart. There is no such thing as self-protective, hard-hearted kindness.
Thankfully, there is no vicious cycle with God, the way there is between us, because He doesn't withhold His kindness based on our failure to perform in return. He lavishes it upon us freely. His mercies are new every morning. But it's only when we receive them from Him with a tender heart, broken and contrite, that we can forgive others, "even as Christ forgave us." Because it's only when we come to the place of knowing that we are rich beyond measure in Him, that we can freely give out of that abundance, as though we had nothing to lose. And resuscitate a friendship dying for lack of kindness.
"What is desired in a friend is kindness;" in fact, kindness is the very air a friendship breathes. To prove this, we need only to look to the One who said, "I have called you friends," and be Him to one another.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.