March 1, 2015
You think Jesus would have been pleased. Maybe the disciples were finally starting to get it. Up to this point in Mark’s story, it’s seemed more like the work of a reporter telling people about the life, teachings, and reactions to Jesus. But suddenly it gets very personal. Jesus goes from asking the disciples “who do people say I am,” to “who do you say that I am?” Suddenly it was a very different story. The disciples were required to show their hands. Sure they have seemed a bit dimwitted along the way. And reading the story up to this point, you almost are ready to cringe at what the response might be. But then Peter surprises all of us and gets it right.
It went pretty quickly downhill from that mountain top, though. I’m sure Peter and the other disciples thought Peter had gotten it right. Surely that was the answer that Jesus was looking for. But Jesus was never that easily figured out. There was always more going on with him than anyone expected or could handle. So instead of heaping praise on Peter he simply says don’t say anything about this.
That was weird enough, but then he started talking about suffering, being rejected, and put to death by the religious establishment. That was too, too much for Peter. “Are you out of you mind? Here I just thought we had it figured out that you are the Messiah and then you start talking all this nonsense. The Messiah doesn’t die. In fact, he’s the one who does the killing. Everybody know that, Jesus.” You think Peter would have figured out by now that it’s probably never a good idea to rebuke Jesus. So Jesus responded, calling Peter Satan. That’s intense.
We already talked about that very first recorded interchange between Jesus and Satan that happened out in the wilderness shortly after Jesus was baptized. It’s interesting that the season of Lent in the life of the church has its roots based in this temptation story. I don’t think that really works, though, when you think about the story. I want you to take out your hymnals and turn to hymn number 180. (We aren’t going to sing it). But look at the words. It’s about mourning and conquering our sins, and penitence, which are the big things we focus on in Lent. But think about the story. Was Jesus mourning or wrestling with sin? Was going into the wilderness and fasting an act of penitence for him? What was he contending with in the desert as he struggled with Satan? Temptation. Temptation and sin are very different things. And remember how that story ends. It says Satan left him for a time. And when is one of those times that Satan show up again, reclaiming his title as The Tempter? Here in this story where we thought Peter and the disciples were at their finest hour.
What Satan offered Jesus in that time in the wilderness was not that different than what Jesus was being offered by Peter’s understanding about what it meant to be the Messiah; power, wealth, fame, adoration, safety, and triumph over all of his enemies. That was the temptation that was always before Jesus, to take that easier route that Peter and everyone else was holding out for him. Why suffer? Why take the risk of loving your enemies? Why not make yourself a friend to the religious and political establishment? Why align yourself with the outcast and the poor, when the insiders and wealthy had much more to offer, could help you get where you wanted to go much faster? Why die on Pilate’s cross when you could crucify him? And maybe Herod and Caesar on both sides of Pilate.
Jesus knew the way Peter and the others wanted him to go was the only way they understood. They thought he was opting for weakness. They wanted to be proud of being with him, but if he kept on going the way he was, all they saw was shame. So he offered them a way out. They didn’t have to pick up a cross if they didn’t want to. But if they were going to continue with him, they had to pick up a cross and follow him. And that’s exactly what his point was. It wasn’t just about picking up a cross, it was also about following him.
Following means you are on the move. You are in transit, you are going somewhere. And Jesus was going in a whole different direction than everybody else. That’s why we have crosses, to deal with people like him. But Jesus saw beyond a cross on a hillside. He was moving toward what he trusted would become an empty tomb. When Jesus asks us to pick up a cross and follow him, he’s not asking us to die, but to risk resurrection, because that’s what he was doing.
I think, sometimes, we forget that when it comes to Lent. Lent is too often about sacrifice and sin, it gets us too focused on what we give up rather than what we can gain by following Jesus. But the interesting thing about Lent is that it is so seasonally challenged, and maybe there is a big hint there. What’s happening during those days and weeks of Lent when we are looking at the darkness of sin, confession, and sacrifice? Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, as Lent goes along the days get longer and lighter and warmer. Lent is a movement toward life, not death. If your Lenten practices, or even your faith, don’t lead you toward life then you’ve got to find something else. That doesn’t mean there won’t be death along the way. Ask anybody who has picked up a cross. But to be following Jesus, to be moving, in transit, making transitions, being transformed has to be toward life because that’s the only place Jesus is going.
I want to say this gently because we all struggle to get this business of following Jesus right. But, I see too many TV preachers and others who seem to be moving toward death in what they believe and preach. They are still, it seems, looking for the same kind of Messiah that Peter and the others were tempting Jesus to be. It’s almost as if they are ashamed of what Jesus stood for and his loving, non-violent, and inclusive way of living. And there are also way too many politicians who are proclaiming their policies of death and division are based on Christian principles. They aren’t volunteering to pick up a cross and lead the way. Rather they want us to pick up a cross and go away.
It’s not only more conservative Christians who might need to examine themselves, though. We sometimes imagine that following Jesus really amounts to getting involved in progressive coalitions where we save the world through politics. We just have a different politics than the conservatives, but for both sides political solutions make more sense than a cross.
I don’t think Jesus was ever looking to be a martyr. His goal in life wasn’t to pick up his cross. He just wanted to keep moving toward life no matter how steadfast and even violent the opposition was to who he understood God to be. And maybe it’s helpful for us to think about the cross not only in relationship to our sins and fears and failures, but also the temptations that we encounter that would try, even in the name of God, to divert us to death or, at least, keep up from moving, following Jesus, toward life.
I am so glad that Joyce incorporated a candle in the piece she created for the communion table for this season of Lent. It’s not all about death and darkness, but like all seasons of the church year, Lent is about life and light. Think about it. Advent, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost all feature light. Why should Lent be any different?
Before you come up for communion, or afterwards, or if you are not coming for communion, you are invited to take a candle and light it from the one up here. What resurrections are you waiting for? What death do you want to leave behind? Not even Jesus could make it all the way as he bore his cross toward life. He had help carrying it. What help do you need as you pick up your cross and follow Jesus? Who needs help carrying their cross? Who do you need to help carry their cross? With that cross on your shoulders who do you say that Jesus is? Where is he taking you as you follow him? Who is with you as you keep moving, keep following during Lent and beyond to that place of light and life?