There is a time to analyze, to study, to reflect. There is also a time to respond, to move, to act. Mark’s Gospel is intended for the second occasion. It is 65-67 A.D. Nero is Emperor in Rome. He has just beheaded Paul and crucified Peter upside down. Now he is unleashing a wave of lethal persecution against Jesus’ followers in the imperial capital. Some he ties to stakes, drenches in oil and burns as human torches. Others he dresses in animal skins and exposes to killer beasts. Others he crucifies. Jesus’ followers remember the master’s challenge: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). They do not sit in a Bible class and theorize “What is my ‘cross'”? For them, this is no metaphor. It is cold reality. The choice is clear. Jesus went to a Roman cross in obedience to God. Do I follow him or not?
Some observers say that more Christians died as martyrs during the 20th century than during all previous centuries combined. Today, in at least 40 countries around the world, believers in Jesus are actively persecuted for their faith. Most of us who live in the West have never experienced physical or financial hardship for following Jesus. It is too easy for us to forget or to remain ignorant about our sisters and brothers who do (Heb. 13:3). We cannot know what the future holds as the chilling glacier of post-Christian thinking continues to cover Europe, the U.K., North America and Australia/New Zealand. Already the center of Christianity has shifted to Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. Already the Koreans and Nigerians and Ugandans are sending missioners to the United States and England.
Whether we face physical persecution or not, the call of Jesus remains the same and it is unmistakably clear: “Follow me.” Jesus does not say, “analyze me” or “explain me” but “follow me.” He does not call us to build buildings or plan programs or attract audiences, but to follow him. This best happens with the support and comradeship of communities of faith but it ultimately happens individually, personally, one person at a time. Each morning we awaken we hear his call: “Follow me.” Each hour we live we respond to his challenge: “Follow me.”
Before Jesus calls his first apprentice, Levi, in Mark’s Gospel, he has already been announcing the kingdom of God and calling his hearers to repent. He already has been healing and expelling demons. Already Jesus has been teaching with uncommon authority. He is not an ordinary man but the Son of God of Psalm 2:7, the apocalyptic Son of Man of Daniel 7 who will finally judge the world. His deeds match his words. He is what he says. His words therefore command our attention. His person compels our respect. Every minute we breathe, his call hangs in the air: “Follow me.” How will we respond?