I’ve been watching a number of performances lately by the magicians Penn and Teller. I was fan of theirs back when I was in high school and, thanks to YouTube, I am rediscovering them now. I suppose that I am drawn to Penn and Teller because of the way that beauty and mystery suffuse their work (beauty and mystery are a huge part of the reason that I am an Episcopalian). And I am drawn to this duo as well because of their abiding commitment to telling the truth and, indeed, to pushing the limits how much truth they can safely tell onstage.
A number of years ago, for instance, the two of them did that famous and somewhat gruesome trick in which a person (in this case, Teller) steps into a tall box and then the other magician slice apart the big box into smaller boxes, the box with the head being placed over here, the box with the hands over here, and so on. Periodically, Penn, standing on the outside, would open the door on the front of a given box and reveal Teller’s waving hands or his feet wiggling or his head will smiling and nodding. The variable that Penn and Teller introduced was to do the trick a second time, this time with all of the doors taken off their hinges and the front wall of the stage removed, so that the audience could see how Teller moved from one box to another, how he created the illusion of being cut apart.[i]
More recently, Penn and Teller created a trick with a nail gun – one of those highly useful and entirely terrifying devices used to frame houses, a device that can deposit a nail into a post with a single alarming, ka-chunk. Penn began the trick by explaining that he had removed some of the nails from the belt that feeds the gun and that he had memorised the entirely random order in which he had done so. And then he proceeded to take turns driving nails into the table before him – ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk – and then shooting blanks – click, click – into his hand. Penn kept this up for quite a while, allowing the squeamish horror in the audience to build – ka-chunk, click, click, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, click, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk – before he let them off the hook. He told them that he and Teller believe that actually doing dangerous things on stage is immoral. He reminded the audience that they were watching a trick, an illusion.
He told them the truth.[ii]
Here’s the extraordinary thing: these moments of truth-telling – the doors off the boxes, the admission that there is actually no danger that Penn will drive a nail through his hand – they don’t wreck the act. To the contrary, in a way that I can’t entirely name, the unexpected appearance of the truth actually intensifies the beauty and the mystery of what we are witnessing.
These past few weeks, as I have watched Penn and Teller surprise their audience with the truth in such a way as to both throw them off balance and also to invite them ever deeper them into wonder, I thought to myself: Wait a minute, that’s what Jesus does. He is constantly startling us with the truth. He is constantly revealing the unexpected truth with the goal of inviting us into joy and freedom and wonder and possibility.
We are right at the middle of the Gospel of Mark, at what we might call its hinge point. The first half of Mark is devoted to introducing us to Jesus and his friends: in Mark’s first seven chapters, we learn that Jesus has authority, that he is the bearer of the Kingdom of God, and then we watch and listen as he imparts wisdom to his disciples, as he trains them.[iii] The second half, beginning with Chapter Eight, beginning right now, focuses on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and towards the cross.
Up until this moment in Mark, Jesus has taught his friends through parables and through what we might call parabolic actions. The Feeding of the 5,000, for instance, is a parabolic action, it is both a meal and a symbol: like the Eucharist, the two fish and the five loaves are something that you eat and they are also a symbol that points towards God’s Kingdom. Via these stories and actions, Jesus has invited us to wonder with him about the God whom he calls Father.
Jesus’ parables and parabolic actions carry deep and profound truth. But – and if you have ever found yourself flummoxed by a parable, you will know this – Jesus also structures them in such a way as to make them into pretty hard work for his students, for you and for me. Parables and parabolic actions are glorious, but they are rarely easy. They are multi-layered and beautiful and confusing. In their surprise endings, they have a remarkable amount in common with magic tricks.
In this passage, Jesus speaks with startling directness. Jesus tears the doors of the boxes, he removes the covering from the front of the stage. He shows us the absolute, unvarnished truth. He says to his disciples:
I must be rejected, and suffer, and be killed.
And Peter responds: Lord! Stop talking like that!
Now, there is a temptation for me, and maybe for you as well, to roll our eyes at Peter at moments such as this. Much like the time when Peter wants to build the tents after the transfiguration, much like the time when he denies Jesus three times, here is one of those occasions when Peter just doesn’t get it. Jesus gives Peter the uncommon gift of stripping away the veneer that is covering the truth. And Peter shuts him down, he wants to cover the truth up again, he wants to put the veneer back in place. Peter, well, just doesn’t understand what Jesus’ mission looks like, he just doesn’t understand what the Gospel looks like.
I hope that we resist the temptation to think of Peter that way. Because I’d like to suggest that Peter’s instinct to look away from a hard truth, to prefer in its place an easy and well-intentioned lie, is something that exists within all of us. When a loved one wants to talk about her will or her funeral and we shut her down by saying, “Oh Mom, you’ll outlive all of us,” we’re behaving like Peter. When our spouse our partner wants to talk about his pain and his longings and we deflect his words with jokes or arguments or silence, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to minimise a big loss or big injustice or big hurt by racing to find silver linings, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to bury grief by insisting on finding closure, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to the Gospel into an exercise in prosperity and relentless optimism, so that following Jesus is about hopping from one success to another to another, we’re behaving like Peter.
We all behave like Peter.
The irony of our behaviour is that, while we engage in this truth avoidance in order to spare ourselves and our loved ones hurt, our avoidance costs us way more than the truth does, it hurts so much more than the truth does. There are few scenes harder to watch than the one in the hospice room in which no one has ever named out loud the reality that the person lying in the bed is dying. That person is left with the disorienting sense that her reality is unnamed and unheard, her loved ones are deprived of the privilege of saying thank you and goodbye and I love you. The conversation is trapped in the realm of the trivial. And when death does come, it comes to the survivors as a devastating surprise. Our refusal to name the truth vastly magnifies our loss and it vastly magnifies our grief.
I wonder. I wonder if one of the reasons that Jesus responds speaks of his dying so directly, and one of the reasons that he responds to Peter with such intensity when Peter tries to stop him from talking – Get behind me, Satan! – is that Jesus realises that needs to shock Peter into paying attention. Good teachers don’t reach for this tactic often, but they recognise that it is sometimes necessary, they recognise that once in a blue moon you need to yell out truth. If wonder if Jesus yells in order to snap Peter out of his reverie, to snap us out our of our reverie, to confront us with reality, to tear away veneer, to name the truth.
The hard truth is that the Son of Man, indeed, must die. We can debate about whether or not there is a theological reason that he must die, and a lot of ink has been spilled doing just that. But there is no question that there is an anthropological reason that he must die. To confront and defy and mock empire, as Jesus is doing: well, that is to follow your conscience towards the cross. Two thousand years ago and now, empire will not tolerate confrontation and defiance and mockery. It will respond to these things with the most brutal kind of violence that it can muster.
Naming a hard truth doesn’t make that truth stop being sad. It doesn’t make that truth stop being awful. But it does allow say and do the things that we need to, it allows us to wrestle with the truth, it does allow us to engage with that truth in a deliberate way, a way that sometimes leads to transformation. It allows the possibility that the road to the cross might also be the road to Easter.
So, next you have the opportunity – and some of you will have the opportunity on this very day – Go. Go back to the hospice room and say what you are called to say. Go back to your partner and name the hurt that hangs between you. Go back to your grief and weep, weep until your chest heaves. Go back to Jesus and remember that, notwithstanding all of the joy that comes with being in his presence, following him always leads to the cross.
Go back. And maybe, maybe be surprised that, in the midst of all of this hurt, the truth leads you into beauty and mystery, the truth leads you into joy, the truth leads you beyond the cross and into resurrection.
[i] Evidently I should check YouTube before referring to a given trick! The boxes are not doorless – but they are transparent.
[iii] This structure for the first seven chapters of Mark is taken from Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson’s Introduction to the New Testament.