If you read through the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, you may notice that there is a major turning point in chapter 8, a place where the story of Jesus turns on a dime and heads in a completely different direction. The first part of the book is full of miracles and good works. Jesus heals all kinds of people—a boy with demons, Peter’s mother, the daughter of a foreign woman, and man who is blind. And this starts to draw a crowd. People flock to hear him, he is surrounded at every turn, and when he tries to sneak away for a few minutes rest, they chase him down and bring him back. He walks on water. He feeds thousands of people with just a little bit of food—twice. And his twelve closest friends are there to see it all. And they are amazed, but mostly, they don’t get it.
And then one day, as Jesus is teaching, everything just slides into place. Well, for Peter, at least. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road to Caesarea Phillipi, and out of nowhere, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And after some suggestions from the other disciples, Peter blurts it out: “You are the messiah.” And it’s obvious that he is right.
And that’s when everything starts to go wrong. Because Jesus says to them, “Good. You’ve got it. Now, let me tell you what a messiah is.” And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Which is, frankly, an absurd and awful thing to say. Everybody knows that the messiah is a great king who will rise up and defeat the Roman Empire and free the Jewish people from their oppressors and return Israel to the glories of the days of Solomon. Suffering? Rejected? Killed? No!
And as the story goes on, it seems that now whatever the disciples do is add odds with Jesus’ plans. Jesus has given them the power to heal, so they try to heal a young boy. But they can’t do it, and Jesus says their faith is too small. The disciples complain that there are other people performing great works in Jesus name. “Jesus, stop them!” And Jesus says, obviously, that those who are not against us are for us. Children gather around Jesus and the disciples shout them away. And Jesus calls them back, and says that we must all be like children in order to enter into heaven. And it’s clear: Jesus’ teaching is getting harder, it’s getting a darker tone. And the crowds that follow him everywhere are getting... smaller.
For just a moment, as he enters into Jerusalem, the crowds gather around him, shouting “Hosanna” and waving branches. But it doesn’t last long. It seems that people are powerfully drawn to Jesus. But when they find out who he really is, they run for their lives. He stands up to the religious and political leaders, and his disciples abandon him in droves, until finally, only those twelve are left.
So they gather for dinner that last time, and Jesus offers his hardest teaching yet. Something about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and the apostles can’t understand, or maybe are too horrified, too disgusted by the idea, and they refuse to understand. And then after dinner, he goes off to pray, and only Peter, James, and John come with him. He asks them to stay awake with him, but they fall asleep. And then when Roman soldiers show up, even THEY run away. Chapter 14, verse 50, says it simply. “All of them deserted him and fled.”
Peter, God bless him, Peter at least tries. He keeps his distance, but follows where they take him, and waits outside in the courtyard overnight to hear what happens to him. He meant it when he told Jesus at dinner that even if everyone else deserted him, he would stay. And so he did. But that doesn’t mean he’s not terrified for his life. And so his last fleeting effort to stay fails when his fear compels him to pretend he doesn’t know Jesus. And so even this last faithful friend leaves. And Jesus is alone.
They would follow him to the ends of the earth, but they would not follow him to the cross. Condemned to death, he hangs there utterly alone. People pass and mock him, but they do not stay. People taunt that perhaps Elijah will come and rescue him, but Elijah does not come. And finally, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have even YOU abandoned me?” And then he gave up his breath.
We are alone, all of us. It is part of the human condition. Oh, we have lots of people in our lives, and hopefully, our relationships with one another are full of love. But you know as well as I do that we can never truly, fully understand each other. Even the closest lovers, who have everything in common, still argue, still offend, still trip over misunderstandings. Our existence ends at the ends of our flesh, and no matter how much we might want to, we cannot share that which is inside us with anyone else. The most socially connected of us has had moments where we have been alone in a crowd. To be human, in a way, is to be alone.
And so Jesus also had to be alone. He had to be fully human, he through whom all things came into being. To be fully human, he had to know the joy of the Hosannas. He had to know the sorrow of the Garden. He had to know the torture and violence of our common life. He had to know death, and he had to face it alone. Because that was the way he mended the rift that we carve out between us and God, ever since we first made it so that we were alone.
It is a gospel that can only be gestured to today, a Good News message that needs to wait for next week. But Jesus who knew how alone the limits of our flesh can be, offers himself for us, his body and blood to eat and drink, to enter and mix with our own bodies, to insist that we have God with us always, in even the most fleshly way. It is the simplest thing to understand, and at the same time, the greatest wonder and mystery of faith. We should be horrified and disgusted by the idea and run away, and yet we find ourselves to be powerfully drawn to it. This meal we gather around is just a sign to show us what God is doing, and yet it is also no mere symbol, but the very active thing that gathers us, and the way that God does everything to us. In Jesus is death. In Jesus is life. And in Jesus, we never have to be alone again.