St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38
We Can Be So Right, But Oh So Wrong
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.33b; NRSV). Strong words addressed to Peter; perhaps some of the strongest words Jesus ever spoke, yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, I believe they were spoken in love! What led Jesus to address Peter so sharply?
According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples have recently been in Bethsaida, roughly three miles inland from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus restored a blind man’s sight. They were now en route to some villages near Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north and slightly east of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” They replied, “John the Baptist, and others Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8.22-30; NRSV).
Matthew 16 gives us a more complete account of this initial interchange between Peter and Jesus. In this account, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah; the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16.16-19; NRSV).
In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus then proceeded to openly teach 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. This was too much for Peter, who said something like, “Come on over here, Jesus, we need to talk!” Peter rebuked Jesus; “You have it all wrong, Jesus! This isn’t the role of the Messiah!” Jesus turned, looked at his disciples and rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.33b; NRSV). For we teachers, this is like our star pupil having the right answer, but totally misunderstanding what it all means. Peter was so right, but, oh, so wrong!
Peter’s understanding of the messiah was the authorized Jewish interpretation. On this view, the messiah was to come to liberate God’s chosen people, to overthrow the oppressor, to rightfully ascend the throne, and to rule with liberty and justice for all! Well, I barrowed those last words, but you get the idea. The messiah was to usher in a reign of peace and prosperity. Jesus, where’d you get this stuff about undergoing great suffering, being rejected, killed, and rising again? In contrast, Jesus had the divine understanding of messiahship. Although Peter had been rebuked, the lesson was not over.
Jesus next “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Mark 8.34; NRSV). Talk about divine things versus human! From the human standpoint, inviting someone to die is no way to begin a movement!
What is the literal meaning behind “taking up one’s cross?” Crucifixion was a horrendous form of capital punishment perfected by the Romans. After one had been severely flogged such that their back was lacerated, they were to pick up the cross bar, place it across their shoulders and lead the procession to the place of their death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
Taking up one’s cross may not lead to physical death, but it always leads to the death of our egoistic self. Jesus said, “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” (Mark 8.35-37; NRSV)? How are we to understand these verses? What is Jesus asking?
All sin is at root a failure to love as God would have us love – the failure to love God and the failure to love our neighbor as we love our self. In Matthew 22.40, Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (NRSV). Our human sin nature would have us love ourselves and the things of this world, things such as pleasure, wealth, power, and prestige above all else. Our fundamental choice in life is between love of self (including the things of this world) or love of God (including our neighbor, and the kingdom of God). When we choose the love of God, we participate in the crucifixion of our worldly self (we take up our cross) and we are born anew into our eternal self as followers of Jesus. This is the meaning of “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.” On the one hand, we can choose the way of the world; we can pursue all the pleasure it offers and glorify the self. On the other hand, we can choose God’s way, the way of love, whereby we experience God’s grace, participate in God’s kingdom, and glorify God.
Our reading from the gospel closes with these words: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, (I think that applies to all generations) of them the Son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy angels” (Mark 8.38; NRSV). Our reading ends there, but the first verse of Mark 9 is clearly connected to this passage: “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (NRSV).
In closing two things come to mind. First, those who choose the way of the world, those who are ashamed of Jesus’ words, have willfully cut themselves off from God’s kingdom. Given God’s great love for us, I believe the Son of Man will not only look upon them with a sense of shame, but also a sense of pity which stems from the knowledge of what could have been theirs. Yet they have freely chosen and have sealed their fate. God’s justice cannot be separated from God’s love. You may be thinking, no one is fully capable of living a life of love. You ae right. Thank God for faith and the mercy of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom we are made righteous.
Second, I believe that Jesus’ reference to “some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” refers us back to his sharing of all the Messiah would undergo: great suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. We know from Jesus’ words to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God was already among them (Luke 17.21), but the kingdom of God came with power in Jesus’ resurrection.
There are many who would follow Jesus without taking up their cross. They want to follow Jesus with one foot in the world. They are right in that they want to follow Jesus, but they are oh so wrong in that they are unwilling to take up their cross. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to live in God’s love and to live into the kingdom of God.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34.8; NRSV).