“The Way of the Cross”
OT: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Epistle: Romans 4:13-25
Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Well… so much for positive, encouraging radio from the Son of God this morning. Poor old Peter! Sometimes, it seems like just when he might have things all figured out, he gets harshly reminded of how far he has yet to go. And, if you’re anything like me this morning, then you probably feel like Peter is not alone in his struggle to understand and follow this Jesus character. As we enter this second full week of Lent, our Holy efforts to give up certain foods, pray a little more, or reboot a new year’s resolution are starting to drag a little thin. Ash Wednesday was neat, albeit a little morbid, but now we’re starting to scratch our heads a little. What is this Lent thing for again? How long does it last? How far do we take this self-denial stuff? Anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts I have, at least. Overall, I like Jesus, and I like thinking Jesus likes me. But besides some nifty spiritual exercises, and trying to be a generally nice person, I’m often confused as to what being a follower of Christ means exactly? Put another way, what difference does Christ make for our lives? I know I’m supposed to say it makes all the difference, but what does that entail? What does that look like?
In the verses that come right before our Gospel reading this morning, we catch up with Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples while they journey together between two locations. We are told they are on their way, presumably walking along a path somewhere. (Now, as we all know, this is the ideal setting for all good Christian discipleship. Just take a walk down Iredell St. sometime before prayer around 7:00am or 5:00pm and I guarantee you’ll hear all sorts of Christian clarification of thought, some of which even manages to be interesting.) Here in Mark, Jesus takes full advantage of that beautiful connection between the moving of feet, the opening of lips, and the showing forth of God’s praise. Here, he invites his disciples to embark on a walking procession of reflective witness: “Who do people say that I am,” he asks the group as they plod along to their destination?
“Who do people say that I am?” The disciples quickly answer this generalized question by repeating what’s been reported to them by others: “John the Baptist,” says one? “Elijah,” says another? “Maybe one of the other prophets,” says a third? Not bad answers! The disciples have been paying attention. Clearly, Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons up to this point in the Gospel has left quite a mark on the people of Israel. His reputation has put him in some good, though notorious, company. But then Jesus gets more direct with his comrades: “who do you say that I am?” Now this question is so personally confronting that it nearly jumps off the page at us readers. Along with the disciples, we find ourselves being asked, “Who do we—yeah, you and I—say that Jesus is?” This question, the question of Jesus’ identity, is crucial for any would-be disciple, whether “on the way” in the Gospel of Mark or “on the way” here in Durham, North Carolina. For whatever is proclaimed with the lips must show forth in the following of faithful feet. Whatever is claimed about Jesus in word must lay claim on the lives of those who would follow him. It is at this very point, this crossroads between words and deeds, that we find Peter today.
At first, when Peter speaks up, his words are bold and clear. He declares what we readers of Mark already know: “You are the Messiah,” Peter says. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus responds to Peter’s confession by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon […] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Surly, this is music to any disciple’s ears, especially Peter’s. He, before anyone else, sees Jesus for who he really is, and in so doing, he is told he will be the foundational witness of the church throughout time, upon which, not even death will prevail. He will be given the keys to the kingdom of God to open the sacramental doors between heaven and earth, the ultimate pathway between two locations, the one human journey in this life shot through with Christ’s divine embrace.
Now, this might be a good place to stop the sermon for today. At this point, it is easy for Peter to lip-sync the positive, encouraging grammar of faith. Unfortunately, we haven’t even made it to this morning’s reading yet. Peter has proclaimed the Word: Jesus is the Son of God. Now, he must learn where those words will take him. Faithful grammar is nothing, after all, if it doesn’t form bodily actions in specific ways. For now, Peter’s bold confession stands empty. It is a nonsense statement with no vital content. Will his words move from his mouth to his feet?
Walking further along with Jesus and the disciples, we see the Messiah begin to fill-in the content of Peter’s confession. “The Son of Man,” he says, “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.” Suffering. Rejection. Death. “This is the way of the Messiah,” says Jesus, “the way of the cross, the way of resurrection.” Peter, however, wants none of that. Pulling Jesus aside like one who has the authority to scold him, Peter rebukes Jesus and patronizes his master by attempting to correct the vital grammar of the Word of God. We’re not told what Peter says, but we know he will later deny Christ three times when feeling threatened in the presence of the same scribes and chief Priests that put Jesus to death. For Peter, following Christ is a shameful pathway, too high a price to pay for the confession: Jesus is Lord. His feet refuse to follow his lips.
Undeterred, Jesus rebukes Peter’s controlling attempt: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In the span of just five verses, Peter goes from perhaps his most significant moment with the Lord to his most alienating one.
“Satan”? Really? Were the names Beelzebub and Jezebel not available? This sounds like a bit much coming from the mouth of the Son of God. After all, he had just told Peter he was a “rock.” But when we last saw Satan in the gospel, he was tempting Jesus in the wilderness. There, he didn’t so much challenge Jesus’ dominion as he tried to get him to succumb to worldly versions of it: pleasure for pleasures sake, riches, fame, power over others, mastery over death – these are the pathways of worldly salvation Satan prescribes. Not so with Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” This, the disciples are told, is the way of the cross. It is the grammar of faith that weds internal spiritual reflection with external Christian action.
Peter’s feet will continue to struggle to follow along, but by the time we see him in the book of Acts, we find him confronted again with the prospect of death at the hands of those same scribes and chief priests that killed Jesus. There, his boldness in life catches up to his boldness in words. There, he proclaims the gospel of Christ with no hint of shame whatsoever. There, he is ready to go where his words take him, and eventually, this will, in fact, lead him to his death, his very own cross.
But what does this mean for us?
In this season of Lent, we practice putting our bodies through the rhythms and patterns of Christian self-denial. We do this so that we can see the words of our Psalm today show forth in our lives: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. […] All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust […] Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
St. Joseph’s, today we live in the time between two destinations, between Christ’s cross and his resurrection, between all things being made new and our slow participation in those things. Yes, this is the walking path, the adventurous journey we’ve been given, in which our praise begins to show forth not only with our lips but in our lives. Sure, the ways of the world are all around us in our jobs, our social structures, our economies, and even our individual footsteps. The patterns of this world will always tempt the church to conform to its ways. Like Peter we will often say one thing and do another, most of the time without realizing it. We will too often succumb to the satanic impulse to dictate to Christ what our proclaiming him, “Lord,” should mean.
What a great grace we have been given, then, during this season of Lent! By turning the ways of the world upside down, little by little, in our practices of prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor, we take on the bodily grammar of the cross. We become the kind of agents who do in our lives what we say in our worship. For it is only when we walk the steps leading to our Lord’s Table today that we discover the heavenly banquet in which we learn who Jesus really is.
And there’s more.
Only at this table are we told who we really are. Only then, do we receive not just the answer to the question of Jesus’ identity, but to the question that haunts all of us in this age – the question of our own identity. Here, in the presence of Christ we receive ourselves; we are given new names; we are called Christians – little Christs – a name that gives us a beautiful pathway for our feet. Let us follow that way this Lent, a way that can often feel a little harsh, but a way, nonetheless, that ultimately manifests the gentle compassion of our God.
After all, we are the “future generation” we hear about in our Psalm today. Peter’s witness has been carried forward in us, making our lives possible as the rock upon which death cannot prevail. Thanks to God for the difference Christ would make in Peter’s life. Because of him our way is not Satan’s way, but the way of the cross.