As you read this article you may find yourself well along the way in a Lenten journey. It is no mystery why the early followers of Jesus often referred to themselves as people of the way. The Greek word for way is “hodos” which is often translated into English as path or road. The writer of Mark, the first written of the four biblical Gospels, is devoted to explaining what this path was all about. For Mark, it is first and foremost about the importance of discipleship.
Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordon River. There is no birth story, no immaculate conception, no little town of Bethlehem, no baby in the manger and no wise men or shepherds. The central focus and theme of the book of Mark has to do with Jesus’ own journey into Jerusalem. Everything prior to that journey is part of the build up for that event. And everything after is a way of explaining its meaning. All of this leads to the ultimate question that Mark asks of his readers, “will you follow him?”
According to Mark’s story immediately after Jesus’ initiation ceremony by John, Jesus goes out into the desert. If there is any historicity to this story, this would have been a time when Jesus had to sort out his relationship with the Infinite Mystery we call God. It is impossible, of course, to have any idea about what the issues might have been in this young man’s mind, but it seems clear that he felt he had to do something to make a difference. His people were suffering beyond imagination. This could not have been part of God’s plan.
He must have struggled with the options. Was it John’s way, who was likely a Zealot? Was it the way of the more radical Sicarii rebels? Was it the way of power and influence or was it the power of love and compassion?
Although Mark gives us little information about this struggle in the desert, it seems clear that Jesus chose a path of giving up all attempts at earthly power, violence and further hatred. Jesus apparently chose the path of kenosis. Kenosis, comes from the Greek word, kenosein and means letting go, or emptying oneself. Today we might consider the “oneself” term here as ego or ego needs. This kind of spiritual path can open the heart and give the courage to love recklessly.
The well known poet, Rumi, once wrote that “love is recklessness, not reason. Reason seeks profit.” In the same poem he writes, “Having died to self-interest she (love) asks for nothing, love gambles away every gift God bestows.”
According to Mark, Jesus knows there is a great risk for him to go into Jerusalem under any circumstances. And it is probably no coincidence that Jesus then speaks three different times about the price of following him and what this kind of discipleship can mean.
The first of these three passages is probably the most explicit. It is found in Mark 8:34. “If any of you want to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Like so many other religious symbols and traditions, over the course of time, the word cross has lost much of its meaning. Today we talk about our cross to bear as if it is something life or God has put upon us and our task is to somehow learn to put up with this burden with patience and without begrudging it. But for first century Jews, the word, cross meant execution. It meant a horrible death. One can only imagine how that word would have felt to a potential follower of Jesus.
There were probably few words in those times that could generate greater dread. For decades thousands of people were executed on crosses in front of the city gates, often left alive to suffer for days. That dread of the cross would have been reinforced on a regular basis, especially during the time of Passover. Thus for Mark, discipleship was to be taken seriously. It meant embarking on a path that could even lead to one’s physical death.
When we look at the entire story of Jesus, including his teachings as well as his life, it seems clear his path always presumed a spiritual death before one could experience new life or rebirth. His hodos required a death to the old before there could be a birthto a new way of seeing, a new way of understanding and experiencing life. The writer of the Fourth Gospel of John understood this clearly when he wrote of the need to be born again of water and Spirit if one wants to experience the Realm of God.
And what is that new way? It is a way that is driven by love rather than fear, even the fear of death. Like so many of the great spiritual teachers throughout history, Jesus understood we are motivated primarily by two energies. One is love and the other is fear. Nothing saps our ability to love and to be loved more than fear. In fact love and fear are diametrically opposed energies. One who is motivated by love cannot be hampered by fear. For most people this is a different way of living.
Far too many of us still see the world through a paradigm of scarcity. We see the world with limitations not abundance. We live in fear of not having enough. We want our share and a little extra for safety’s sake. We feel the need to hoard and to protect. We want control so we can’t be hurt. We want guaranties. We want protection. We want to know the destination before we start a journey. We limit our love to limit our potential hurt.
The way of Jesus was very different then and still is for most people. Jesus invites us into a path of love without guaranties except that we will discover a new perspective and a new experience of life. He invites into a relationship with the Universe, with Sacred Unity, with Alaha, Elohim, or the Infinite Mystery we call God. He says if we truly follow this path we can trust all of our needs will be met. He assures us we can learn to live without anxiety and fear. “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”(1John 4:18)
So during this season, if we take it seriously, we are asked—invited really—to journey with Jesus to our Jerusalem wherever that is and whatever it is, without fear. If we want to experience the promised new life, we must be willing to take this journey. It will require some deep soul searching and hopefully a willingness to empty ourselves of those things, those thoughts, those emotions we hold onto out of insecurity, our hurts, or our losses. Only when we empty ourselves, or self, can we be filled by the “water and the Spirit” John refers to. This is never easy. For many of us, it is a lifetime journey.
It is a path that challenges us to focus on the abundance and to be motivated by love. It is a way that does not give in to fear. It is a way that acknowledges our interconnectedness to all life and one that trusts that in spite of all of its short comings, our lives are a gift and this world is truly marvelous and good.