This is the first sermon (September 13) in our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus,” at Community Lutheran.
Today is a huge day! We’re kicking off the Program Year with Rally Day, we’re giving blood, and we’re even training Sunday School and Confirmation teachers. It’s also the day we’re kicking off our sermon series, “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus.” Over the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring more what it means to be a disciple of Christ by taking a closer look at Jesus’ encounters with others in the Gospel of Mark.
This discussion in today’s text between Jesus and the disciples, and especially Peter, is a great way to start off our series. Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Caesarea Philippi, an ancient town, with a strong cult to the Greek deity, Pan. As part of worshiping Pan, there were frequent sacrifices made. It’s in this area that Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” They tell him what they’ve heard – that he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead, or the prophet Elijah returned to earth, or maybe one of the other rock star prophets of Israel’s past.
I can see Jesus nodding thoughtfully, taking it all in. And then I see him looking at them and asking, “But who do you say that I am? Thanks for reporting what you’ve heard – that’s well and good, but I want to hear who you say that I am.” Silence falls over the disciples as they wonder what’s going on. Slowly, Peter clears his throat and says, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus tells them to keep quiet about his identity and they continue walking.
I always imagine Peter smiling, truly pleased with himself for coming up with the right answer and thinking, “I’m in good cause I’m with the Messiah.” Maybe he was even thinking “YES! I AM AWESOME!” Or whatever the Aramaic equivalent of that is. But, of course, the story doesn’t end there! Nope, unfortunately for Peter’s ego, they keep walking. Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Then Jesus 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. He said all this quite openly.”
In this area where people sacrificed animals to satisfy a half-man, half-goat god, fully human and fully divine Jesus reveals that he will suffer and die. He reveals openly that he will offer himself as a sacrifice, bridging the gap between God and humanity once and for all. This is too much for Peter. It messes with his image of who a god should be and what a god should do. It’s not at all what he thought the Messiah should be about. Jesus’ teachings about a suffering Messiah are completely the opposite of God who is glorious, mighty and worthy of praise, aren’t they?
Peter can’t take it and so he speaks up, being the bold and the brash fellow that he is. Maybe he was thinking he’d get two right answers in a row. No such luck, because Jesus tells him “get behind me, Satan.” Zing! From all-star disciple to major failure in a few verses. That’s why I love Peter! We all have those moments where we feel like we’ve got it and we’re moving in a great direction and then … BAM! We realize we don’t have it at all. It’s like a scene in the 1980s comedy, “The Three Amigos.” Steve Martin’s character is chained in the enemy’s prison, but he realizes he can move the chains by pulling his arms and legs forward toward the chain release lever. He slowly creeps forward, saying, “gonna make it. Gonna make it. Gonna make it. Gonna make it.” He reaches the release lever, and shouts, “I made it!” Then is slammed back against the wall with an “Ow.”
This exchange between Peter and Jesus is just like that – Peter thinks he’s figured it out and Jesus clarifies pretty strongly that he hasn’t.
I find Jesus’ words interesting and not just because he just told Peter that he’s acting like Satan, the accuser and tempter. I find his words interesting because if I had an enemy, the last place I would want the enemy or the adversary or the accuser to be was at my back – I can’t see him, I don’t know what’s going on. These words are a form of rebuke for sure because they also appear in the Old Testament, but I think it’s also saying something to Peter.
If you’re behind someone, most likely you’re following them. Jesus tells Peter to get in line – “get behind me.” Stop setting your mind on human things – the things everyone in this world thinks are important. It’s like Jesus is saying, “Peter, don’t you see? Those aren’t the things that God cares about. God has something else in mind – something that involves dying and rising, sacrifice and new life.” So Jesus tells Peter “get behind me” and to all who are gathered, “take up your cross and follow me.” It’s a lot harder to follow someone else, the ways of the world, or our own evil hearts, if we have our eyes firmly set on Christ and we are carrying our crosses.
Ok, but what on earth does it mean to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Christ? Does it mean saying of annoyances we experience, “I suppose this is my cross to bear.” No. It means turning away from the things that would lead us away from God and seeking to live out our lives in a Christ-like way. Carrying our crosses is a constant reminder of whose we are and what he has done. It is a reminder of God’s sacrifice on our behalf – a sacrifice made out of sheer love. Who do you say that Jesus is? And what would it look like to live formed by Christ’s sacrificial love, so that we might share that same sacrificial love with those around us?
It might mean spending time working with the hungry children in our area, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and ensuring that they have food. It might mean welcoming refugees, offering up your resources and maybe even your home so that someone might have a warm, safe place to stay. It might mean journeying with someone as a Stephen Minister and providing a listening ear and a loving heart. It might mean sitting with a friend who has lost a job and being there for them. It might mean spending time tending the gardens of the church so that it looks welcoming for those coming inside. The possibilities are endless.
The crucifixion, and indeed all of Jesus’ human life, took place in the midst of a period of oppression, poverty, suffering, despair and difficulty. And the fact that we are called to take up the cross as well means that we are called not to run from the difficulties, the ugliness, or the pain of the world, but that we are called to journey with those who suffer. Anglican N.T. Wright even described prayer in this way: “Prayer stands cruciform at the place where the world is in pain to hold together Jew and Greek and slave and free. To hold together male and female, to hold together a battered and bleeding world and say, ‘No, there is a different way to be human.’”
Yes, there is a different way to be human. And ironically, it looks like letting go of the things society upholds in favor of the cross. It means that in order to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, we sometimes have to say, “get behind me, Satan. I want nothing to do with you” to the things that tempt us to despair, to give up, to fear, or to forget God’s love for the entire cosmos. So to what do you need to say, “get behind me?” Is it the rat race? Is it to taking on more work in order to seek some kind of esteem? Is it spending money on things you don’t really need? Is it that dread feeling of hopelessness when you look at the world? Is it the voice of scarcity that would tell you to safeguard everything you have and not share it with others because there might not be enough? Is it that nagging voice that says God cannot or will not forgive?
Today, I want to invite us to say to those things what we need to say – to put them in their right place in our lives. Behind Christ. Not before Christ. To say, “get behind me. I follow Christ.” As Jesus says in the reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” The way of the cross is hard. It’s arduous and often times it’s not as glamorous as the life of those we see on TV or in movies. But ultimately it is the way of true life – of life that is lived for something bigger than itself. For the sake of God and for the sake of others.
Peter may have thought he won the prize with his first answer about Jesus being the Messiah. And he was right. But it was actually his mistake that led to the life-giving lesson. Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s the kind of Messiah he is, and the people we are called to be as a result, that is truly life-giving. God chooses to work through the weak, the imperfect, the foolhardy and often confused disciples, the brutal cross, and ultimately, the surprising, in order to being about abundant life for all people. As followers of Christ, we are not perfect, but God has seen fit to work in and through us for the good of the world. It may not be what we were expecting when we set out on this journey to follow Christ, but it is good indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.