I have the best pericope group bar none. We alternate locations each week and make every effort to question the text, each other, and even challenge our perceptions. So much of any faith journey seems to involve tackling perceptions and misperceptions.
Mark 8:27-38 tells us that,
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.” (text from NRSV)
As I said, I have the best pericope group bar none, and our faithful group tackled v. 31-38 of this text—–and our wrestling match with the text produced the sense that “suffering” is an alien concept for many. From this perception that suffering is alien we created an amazing array of thoughts as to how we, like Peter, have a hard time with a suffering Messiah since that suffering Messiah makes it plain in v. 34 that suffering is coming our way—after all, why else would one “take up their cross” if not to suffer?
Peter does not like hearing what Jesus says about suffering any more than we do. Peter named Jesus, Messiah, in v. 29 and opts to take him to task over the suffering matter in v. 32.
What got to Peter and what gets to us as well, I suspect, was that Jesus tossed “….a shot of truth [into our] denial cocktail,” to quote naughty genre novelist Jennifer Salaiz.
Many sip a cocktail of denial that seems to say that being a Christian means a life of no pain, no trouble, only blessing, and most of that blessing being financial. Some even say foolish things like if you are suffering then get-right-with-God. Or if you “accept Jesus” then all your trials, worries, and challenges will disappear. Would that it were so, but it is not the message of the Jesus who encounters us in Mark 8. This Jesus says, “Messiah suffers, deny yourself, so grab your cross, and follow him,” and presumably in this suffering way. Messiah offers a suffering pattern that involves a cross.
“How ’bout a shot of truth in that denial cocktail.”
Perhaps what we are called to deny, rather than to deny the “Suffering Messiah’s pattern,” is us—the self.
Maybe we are called to deny our very self.
- To deny the part of us that says, “I am not important, not as important as others,” means to suffer.
- To deny the part of us that says, “I am most important,above all others,” means to suffer.
- To deny the part of us that says, “I am self-made,” means to suffer.
- To deny the part of us that says, “It’s wrong of me to have doubts,” means to suffer.
And as we deny the self, we find our cross to take up.
- To take up your cross in the face of self-disparagement means to say, “I am important. Jesus calls me. I am priceless,”
- To take up your cross in the face of self-congratulation means to say “Jesus is Messiah. I am not, even if my sense of giftedness is too much my focus.”
- To take up your cross in the face of self-creation means to say “I am nothing apart from God. My intellect, health, ability, all came to me from somewhere outside myself.”
- To take up your cross in the face of guilt over doubt means to say, “I do not have the answers. I have few certainties, yet I will step into the unknown anyway, because the mysterious God invites me, calls me, there.”
When we own our denials and our cross all that is left for us to do is, “FOLLOW.”
Two Greek words are used in Mark 8 that give a picture of “Following” from “Behind.” The words being used for “follow” are ἀκολουθείτω & ἀκολουθεῖν and ὀπίσω means “behind,” as in “from the rear.” Followers come up behind Jesus and where and as he travels so do they.
It seems that this is the first time Peter begins to grasp the scope of what it means to follow Jesus. I can’t blame Peter who pulled Jesus out of line and set himself ahead of Jesus, earning him a primer in what-it-means-to-follow-from-behind. Most of the time I am angry when Jesus leads where I’d rather not venture. Yet we are blessed to receive from Mark 8 a primer in what following Jesus looks like. Peter may be the face of everyone of us that wants to follow Messiah in some way that only goes into positive places.
This is why I take issue with preachers who make following Jesus only about the good stuff. They deny the cross that they are called to bear. They deny the path of Jesus when it comes to suffering. And, not so surprisingly, they generally have large parishes filled to the brim with people who are more than happy to dwell in their self-made sea of denial. Their parishes are large because people will do anything possible to avoid pain to self—anything—even attending a parish where the preaching never touches on the reality of self-denial, of learning that we each have our own cross, and that whatever that cross looks like it must be borne in the footsteps of Jesus. For a Christian to do less than this pattern, is to take Jesus behind the woodshed, and to risk his rebuke. The world can only see the pattern of Messiah if Christians walk the walk of Messiah. And to walk that walk we must follow from behind.
For Christians, there are no provisos, no escape clauses—-“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus does not say, ‘If any want to become my followers…”
- …let them cleanup their lives then deny, then follow.
- …let them earn a million bucks and get a house in Tahiti, then deny, then follow.
- …let them understand all mysteries, then deny, then follow.
- …let them sort their sexuality, then deny, then follow.
- …let them sober up in a 12-step program, then deny, then follow.
- …let them tame their anxieties, then deny, then follow.
Those are our crosses. They fit our backs even if we deny them. (Those and more besides.) They are what we carry as we follow. We bring the whole sordid amazing mess of who we are. Anne Lamott says, “You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.” Seems like a grand thought to ponder as we follow from behind.