There is a sense in which the message of Mark’s gospel is about suffering. The Messiah must suffer and die, if you do not understand this you do not understand what it is to be the Messiah. Indeed, whilst the readers of the gospel have been told that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ in the first verse, the title is not used within the narrative by a human being until Jesus is on the cross. We misunderstand who Jesus is if we do not grasp that it led him to a violent death, and no amount of using abstractly correct language about him will help us avoid this uncomfortable truth.
If the Son of God himself can expect nothing more than rejection and execution, the same is true of his disciples. Mark is like a worked example in discipleship: we watch the disciples misunderstand and come to terms with finally what it means to follow Jesus on the way. As they go with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, they hear him speak of his coming death and, more darkly still, hear him intimate that they can expect similar rejection as the price of their allegiance to him. It is a reasonable conclusion that Mark wrote for Christians suffering persecution; that his gospel is structured so as to show them that, far from being a sign of their being rejected by God, their experience was an assurance of their fidelity.
To follow Christ is to suffer. History offers ample confirmation of this, and so Mark stands vindicated. Yet there is a temptation to misread this aspect of his message, in a way that makes the gospel complicit in misery (at best) or abuse (at worse). All too often we can slip from the recognition that discipleship involves suffering to the kind of spiritual masochism for which suffering is in and of itself good. This cannot be right, at
least not from the perspective of those reading the gospel as communicating the revelation of a God who wills that we flourish as human beings, whose gentle grace does not abolish our fragile nature. What then is the point about suffering?
“If you don’t love you will die”, wrote Herbert McCabe, “if you do love they will kill you”. It is the result of the world not being all it was created to be that discipleship and suffering go hand in hand. We have built a world of injustice and fear, for which the message of Jesus cannot be encountered as the euangelion, the good news, Mark takes it to be. Our call is not to suffer, but to do the works of the Kingdom and proclaim the good news that it has come. It is just that, because of the kind of world we live in, we can expect this not to be welcomed. If you want a recent example of what faithful discipleship leading to suffering looks like, the life and death of Oscar Romero is a good place to look.
Even here there’s a danger of going wrong, of thinking that if people don’t like the way we live out our faith we must be doing something right. A more subtle masochism takes a suspicious amount of delight in being thought beyond the modern Pale. There’s a kind of joyful indignance that characterises a fogeyish Catholicism, for which every disagreement with secular modernity (and these are nearly always about sex, in some way or other) is a sign of divine favour. Mature following in the way of the Cross requires of us self-knowledge and honesty about our motives; it demands that we fearlessly proclaim the Kingdom, opposing those demonic forces which bind human beings today (poverty, exploitation, racism…), not seeking out persecution but simply proclaiming the joyful truth that the Strong Man has been bound and the Kingdom is upon us. If we’re faithful to that call, opposition will come without us having to seek it out.