The sheer numbers still astound me. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a victory parade in downtown yesterday and 250,000 people showed up. One quarter of a million people braved bitter cold temperatures, long waits, and ridiculously high parking fees in order to see a bunch of football heroes drive through the city. Perhaps more surprisingly, not one arrest was made. It was unarrested joy. The pictures show people standing so thick in the streets that the cars carrying the players look like boats navigating a sea of people. People in this town and throughout the so-called “Steeler Nation” have had their spirits so uplifted by this Super Bowl victory that they assemble in the hundreds of thousands from hundreds of miles away to celebrate. As I was talking with some lifelong Pittsburghers this week about this game, one of them said, “It’s about time we won that trophy! Twenty-six years we’ve had to wait for that!” as if the Vince Lombardi trophy belongs in this town and in no other. The mass of people gathered yesterday is ample evidence of the sense of relief this homecoming has brought to the city.
I can’t help but draw a comparison to the crowds who flock to see Jesus in the beginning of Mark’s gospel as he starts his ministry in Galilee. Literally, a plethora of people come from miles away—Tyre, Sidon, Jerusalem, Idumea, and from lands beyond the Jordan—in order to see him. And, in order not to be overcome and crushed by the crowds, like Hines Ward or Jerome Bettis, Jesus orders his disciples to have a boat ready so he may push out into the sea. Jesus does this, actually, at several points in the gospels, sometimes teaching to the masses from just off the shoreline. People sense relief that a wonderful miracle worker has arrived in the land—could he be the hero they have so long expected?—and they want to press upon him to touch his hand…touch his cloak…be healed…be made whole. While on some level it is good news that Jesus brings hope and healing through miracles and blessings to people, I think, in fact, the story of Jesus and the pushy plethora is actually another example of how we humans clamor and hunger for the instant fix. We have a tendency to flock to whatever might give us easy promise and quick relief. The prospect of actually waiting for deliverance makes us balk: “Can you believe we’ve had to wait 26 years for this?”
As we follow Jesus’ ministry from this point, the crowds seem to fall away as he gets in greater trouble with the Jewish authorities. Jesus begins to talk about his crucifixion and teach about suffering. We find out that Jesus will not chiefly be a miracle healer, who has come to take away our aches and pains at the touch of his cloak, (although it is true that death and sin stand no chance against his purifying powers). Rather, Jesus has come to be a sufferer. The ransom he will pay for many will come about not through dazzling works of healing and demon exorcisms, but through his dying. It is difficult to say whether this is the type of Savior that the plethora will want, but we have a good indication of this from what happens at his crucifixion. He dies almost utterly alone, the bulk of the crowds having given up on him. In fact, the only person left to make a declaration of faith when it’s all said and done is a solitary Roman soldier. Not exactly a parade.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp after speaking out against Hitler’s regime, was also an outspoken critic of the church in Germany in his time. He understood that standing up for Jesus—truly following his call and wanting to be a part of his power in the world—entailed a good deal of suffering. Following Christ was not a “quick fix” that would end all problems. It meant perseverance through the grace of God in the face of the world’s temptations. In one of his letters from the concentration camp prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “It is not the religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.” In other words, when we truly see Jesus for who he is and what he does, we realize he has come not only to dispel our darkness and show God’s power and mercy point-blank, but to dispel our darkness and show God’s mercy through his own suffering. It is the call of the Christian to realize that if we are a part of Christ, we can’t help but also be led into the suffering of the world, even into our own suffering. We know that Jesus is victorious over sin and death and therefore we need not fear such darkness or let it convince us into thinking our faith is simply a set of religious actions or duties. Pressing in on Jesus is more than reaching for blessings for ourselves. It is stepping into the suffering of the world and bearing Christ’s blessing there.
Ironically, we begin to understand this because of what the demons say about Jesus in the gospels. In Marks’ gospel especially, it is the unclean spirits, not the plethora of people who identify Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. But Jesus commands them repeatedly to be silent. Jesus knows his story is not over yet, his messiah-ship not been fully defined. Although the unclean spirits correctly attest Jesus as the Son of God, he still has not gone to the cross. Jesus has not fully lived his identity as God’s Son and our Savior until he has suffered. In other words, Jesus without the cross is not fully Jesus.
What does this say to us? For one, we always view Jesus and therefore, God, through the lens of the cross. Without that central event, nothing that Jesus does or says bears any lasting significance. He would be just another authoritative miracle worker. But our God redeems us through his self-giving death, and Jesus is more than just a specialist doctor that we go to when things start getting rough for us.
Secondly, it says that because we know that Jesus has conquered death already we may be freed to embrace our suffering and our fears and that we may expect new life when we do. Jesus bears with us in the long haul, not just on the sunny days of the parade. Sometimes that involves a little waiting, but it is a promise made good by his blood.
And thirdly, the gospel means that we have been given the power and gifts to meet the world wherever and whenever it is suffering—wherever people are waiting for peace and justice and mercy—for the sake of God. It means we must not rush to cling to false hopes and quick fixes but point others (as well as ourselves) to the crucified One—the only one—who gives life eternal.
This is joy. This is unbridled, unarrested joy.