Lent 2B February 28, 2021 Mark 8:31-38
We find ourselves, today, at the center of Mark’s gospel. This is a turning point for Jesus. From now on Jesus and his disciples would be on their way to Jerusalem for the last time to face the horror of the cross. The disciples and the excited crowds had come to think of Jesus as a miraculous healer, as an inspiring and provocative teacher, and as a powerful enemy of evil spirits. And whatever else they thought of him everything changes here. Now the truth comes out. Now quite plainly he tells them about the kind of Messiah he will be.
I find it interesting that typically Jesus spoke in parables, giving his listeners a lot of room for speculation. But here, for the first time, he spoke openly, leaving no question about what was ahead for him. And what he told them wasn’t at all what they expected. Nothing had prepared them for this. Peter refused to believe it. He pulled Jesus aside, not wanting to make a public scene, and rebuked him. “What a stupid thing to say,” he tells Jesus, “everyone knows that that kind of thing doesn’t happen to the Messiah. It is ridiculous. You are going to ruin everything if you keep talking like that.”
But if Peter is appalled, Jesus is even more so. He turns to the rest of the disciples, points at Peter, and shouts at him, “Get behind me, Satan.” And then with a tremble in his voice and a little softer tone, he says, “You are setting your mind not on God, but on human ideas and earthly expectations.”
Poor Peter, it is easy to pity him for his lack of understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and God’s plan for redemption. And, of course, it is easy for us to pity him standing where we do on our side of history and knowing that the end of the story of salvation is resurrection and eternal life. The fact is, had we been standing in Peter’s shoes, knowing how little he knew, we would have also been scandalized by the thought of a crucified Messiah. Like Peter, we would have expected a popular Messiah, a powerful Messiah, a victorious Messiah.
It is also important to understand that what we have here is not just that Jesus is correcting some mistaken ideas the disciples had about his Messiahship. He is not making a theological point. In hearing Peter’s rebuke, he has heard the voice of Satan once more, the voice that has haunted him ever since his time in the wilderness.
You see, for Jesus, the cross was not just a divinely assigned destiny, it was a choice. Jesus, fully human as a human can be, had to choose. Moment by moment, day by day, right up to the very night before his crucifixion, Jesus had to choose to accept the terrible calling he had been given. It was never assumed, it was never easy, it was never automatic.
Jesus understands that this not only has tremendous implications for him, but also for them. He draws a line in the sand. “Do you still want to follow me?” he asks. “If you do, that means that you must take up your cross and come along with me.” This is the first time Jesus uses the word “cross.” He compares being his disciple to the terrible picture, probably familiar to them all, of a condemned person carrying a cross beam over the shoulder to the place of execution.
Think about that image for a minute. Put yourself in that situation. You are exhausted, struggling step after step under the unbearable weight of a heavy timber. And you know that every step you take is getting you closer and closer to the very last step you will ever take. There is no way out. There is no escape. You are as good as dead. It is hopeless to think otherwise.
What would it mean to live as if you are as good as dead for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? In a sense, it is kind of freeing, having lost everything you would have nothing else to lose. You would have nothing to be afraid of, nothing to worry about, nothing holding you back anymore from denying yourself and giving yourself away in sacrificial love. It is kind of freeing, not having to be in control of your life. Your fate is sealed. There is nothing you can do about it, so live without the burden of trying to make it happen. This bid from Jesus for us to come and die is kind of freeing because it will help us find our true self in the Kingdom of God. Jesus understands, and wants us to understand, that self-denial leads to self-fulfillment. That self-giving leads to deep self-satisfaction. As Jesus tells them, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
And to make sure they understood how serious he is and the import of his words, he asks a question. “What good would it do you to get everything you want, and, in the process, lose your life?” Put like that, it is very clear what to do. So, as scary as it sounds and as absurd as it seems, off they go following Jesus to Jerusalem. Still, they will get things wrong. Still, they will mess things up. Still, they will put their selfish interests first. Still, fear will drive their actions instead of faith. That is just the way it is.
And the same is true for us because following Jesus is a process … a journey … and regardless of how well or how poorly we take up our cross and follow him, the fact that matters the most is that we follow. Yes, we get lost along the way. Yes, we misunderstand and get confused. Yes, it will seem like we are in over our heads most of the time. But we follow and in following we have before us the One who is our life and salvation.