Then 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.”
He 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. 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.” – Mark 8:31-38
Peter is a complete mess-up.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we see his fear gets the best of him when Jesus asks him to walk on the water. In John, we see that Peter is the one who cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest. And in all four Gospels, we see that it is Peter who denies Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.
And so it’s probably no surprise to us that it is – indeed – this very same Peter who is the mess-up in our text for today in Mark. And as we watch this scene unfold, many of us may even roll our eyes at him, wondering whether or not Peter will ever learn.
But the thing is, I think that Peter tends to get a bad rap. Because – to be quite honest – I get Peter. I understand where he’s coming from.
You see, Peter is the first disciple to be called to follow Jesus. He is in the ultimate inner-circle. And he puts his complete trust in this rabbi, leaving behind everything he had and knew to become Jesus’ student and to follow him day in and day out.
And my guess is that it probably didn’t take Peter very long to realize that he put his trust in the right teacher, because in Mark’s Gospel, after he calls a few other fishermen to follow him, Jesus immediately begins to impress the crowds. He teaches on the streets and in the synagogues on the Sabbath day with great authority. He rebukes and commands unclean spirits, and they obey him. He performs many miracles, healing people with a wide variety of illnesses and ailments, casting out demons and forbidding them to speak, and even restoring a little girl on her death-bed back to life. While on a boat, he rebukes the winds and quiets a storm. He walks on water. He turns a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands. He gains quite the following of those without power and pushes the buttons of those in power.
This rabbi is not just like any other rabbi. This rabbi teaches, preaches, and acts with great authority and influence.
This must be the One the Jews had so long been waiting for. The One who would liberate God’s people from oppression and suffering. The One who would come to take on the worldly crown, claim victory over the powers that be, and turn the Roman Empire upside down, releasing God’s people from its captivity.
And it is this long expected Savior who chose Peter first! Peter can pat himself on the back a little bit, because that’s got to count for something!
And so, when Jesus stops the disciples on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and asks who they say he is: it is Peter – this first-chosen disciple, eye-witness to Jesus’ great acts, and Jesus’ close friend and student in the inner-most circle – who confidently and boldly blurts out the correct answer: “While some say you are John the Baptist or Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets, I say you are the long-expected Messiah!”
DING! DING! DING! And the prize deservedly goes to Peter, the first-chosen, most studious disciple who knows Jesus the best!
But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He explains that soon he is going to have to endure great suffering. He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And he will be killed. And after three days, he will rise again.
I can totally picture Peter in this scene. I can see his confidence in who he believed Jesus to be immediately get squashed, and I imagine his doubts starting to kick in about whether or not he was right about this guy. I can feel the fear creep in as he starts to think about his teacher undergoing such rejection, humiliation, and suffering, and I can feel the pain shoot through his body as he starts to think about losing his dear friend to death.
In this moment, as Jesus reveals the impending tragedy to his dear friends, I can imagine this first-chosen Peter, as he grabs Jesus’ arm and angrily pulls him aside from the other disciples before Jesus gets the chance to say anything more. I can hear his rebukes to Jesus, as if they were my own: “What are you doing, Jesus!? You have been teaching and preaching with authority! You’ve performed miraculous acts before our very own eyes! You are the MESSIAH! The One with divine power that can dominate over all worldly powers! Why on earth would you allow these things to happen? There must be another way! We put our complete faith in you and gave everything up to follow you! Why are you choosing to forsake us now?”
I can relate to Peter so well in this text because I have been there before.
Like him, I have found myself thinking at times that since I have dutifully sacrificed a lot in my life to follow Jesus, it is only fair that Jesus calls me to do only the things that I want to do. And when Jesus suddenly tells me I need to let go of my traditions or my insecurities or what feels comfortable and I need to make a few more sacrifices or do some things that are out of my comfort zone, I feel Jesus has abandoned me.
Like Peter, I have found myself at times thinking that I am a first-chosen disciple, one in the inner-most circle, who knows Jesus and Jesus’ mind more than anyone else. And therefore, when someone disagrees with me, it is I who has the authority. I am the one who has all the answers about faith, theology, politics, what changes should occur or traditions should remain in the church, how one should choose a particular lifestyle to live. I am the one who is right.
Like Peter, I have patted myself on the back a few times, thinking that this call to following Jesus was all about me. What accomplishments I’ve made. How many people I’ve gotten to come through the church doors. How many twitter and facebook followers have liked my blog posts. How many times I’ve volunteered at the food pantry, attended church worship or events, or participated in protests and marches for justice. And so when Jesus all of a sudden reminds me that following him is actually just that: about following him, I just want to grab his arm, pull him aside, and let him know he’s got another thing coming.
Like Peter, there have been times when I have stood confidently before God and before others, boldly proclaiming who I thought I knew Jesus to be, only to be completely thrown off-guard when Jesus shows me I have gotten him so wrong.
Like Peter, I have found myself at times to put trust and faith in God’s existence only if God proves to be all-powerful. To believe that God is with me when things are going well in my life, but when things take a down-hill turn, to believe God has suddenly failed me and disappeared.
It’s easy to believe that the Gospel is all about us. That it is about our willpower and our accomplishments… How we can hold it together on our own. That it is about how many followers we gain. (And by golly, look at how much more faithful we are compared to those folks who haven’t accomplished as much as we have. Who don’t do as much leading, volunteering, worshiping, or justice-making as we do.)
And it is easy to believe that the Gospel is just about an all-powerful, quick fix God. One who will immediately come to our rescue when things go wrong and make everything okay. One who only came in the flesh to authoritatively and magically calm storms, heal people’s ailments, drive out demons, and turn a few loaves of bread into thousands.
I want this to be the Gospel. I want the Gospel story to end right then and there.
But it doesn’t.
As we see in our text in Mark: Jesus tells the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi that the Gospel continues into Jerusalem and toward the cross.
I think we all have this tendency to want to avoid that dreadful journey and that horrific cross. To skip right over it and go from waving the Palm branches to singing the Halleluiah chorus.
But the thing is: we can’t have the resurrection without first going through the cross.
And Jesus knows this. So Jesus responds to Peter: “Get behind me, Accuser! Don’t try to get in the way of my journey toward the cross. For you are thinking, as humans do, on worldly things. You are not thinking on divine things, as God does.”
Then Jesus calls out to the crowds, gathering them in as he explains what it means to be his disciple: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself, take up his 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.”
Now, this statement has often been used to make a few particularly dangerous claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of herself or must give up her creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created her to be. And in this important statement, Jesus is not glorifying or condoning self-mutilation, abuse, injustice, or human suffering.
Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.
He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us.
We must deny our constant desire to have power over others. We must stop trying to save our egos and pride by striving to always be first: to be the most successful, to have the biggest home, to be the smartest, to be the most faithful. We must give up our need to always be right.
We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.
But the hard reality is that we – as humans – were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.
To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross.
For the early disciples, the cross represented death. And as we now know… What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.
The old has gone, the new has come.
To follow Jesus, we must take up our own cross by following Jesus’ way of the cross.
As we saw while Jesus was wandering for those 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus, himself, had the ability to claim victory over worldly power and glory for his own benefit. But, despite Satan – the Accuser’s – strong persuasive skills, Jesus denied this temptation to have dominion over all. And we see later that as he continues toward the cross, he completely empties himself of all this glory and power, dedicating his life (and death) to one that was not for his own self-gain – but rather to one that was for others.
Our text in Mark for today often reminds me of someone who was really special to me. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.
The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”
I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.
And I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”
We must follow Jesus toward the cross by walking with others who are suffering and helping them carry their cross when it is too hard to bear. We must – as Barbara Brown Taylor says in the book we are reading as a congregation this Lent – learn to “walk in the dark” and begin to see God’s presence in those times when we – too – feel lost in our own suffering, doubt, fear, and failure.
But the thing is, when we travel this journey with our crosses on our backs, like Peter, we will continue to be mess-ups… No matter how much we give up to follow Jesus; no matter how far on the inner-circle we may think we are; no matter how often we go to worship on Sundays, pray throughout the week, read Scripture, volunteer, stand up for justice: like Peter – we will mess up over and over and over again.
But this is exactly why we cannot skip over the cross. Because we need the cross. Because we cannot save ourselves. Because we need our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer to rescue us.
So, no matter how much we may relate to Peter as we hear this difficult call to discipleship… No matter how much we may want this whole Gospel to be about us… How much we may want God to be in our own image… Or how much we may want to save ourselves and avoid the cross…
Let us deny our old selves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on this way.
Let us learn to let go. And to let God.