Text: Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)
31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.”
34 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. 35 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,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] 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.”
In school I got into swimming as exercise for a while. More than anything, I needed some way to fight off the extra pounds that my lack of self-control and the school cafeteria had generously contributed to my body. I’ll say there are a lot of things in swimming that I found to loathe – the smell of chlorine, the long cold walks back to the dorm, and just the pain of physical exercise. And yet, there was one thing in the exercise that I came to really enjoy. It was the breathing. Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoy breathing, I try to do it as often as possible, but there was something to the rhythm of it all. I’d take a breath, put my head under the water, push off the wall, and then it would begin. Kick, kick, kick, breathe, kick, kick, kick, breathe. There arose in all of it this strange cycle of expectation and experience. I would kick and push the water back until my lungs just burned for the air, and full of expectation of what was to come, my head would come up, and I would draw in that long awaited breath. Finally! But immediately, my head would go back down, and I would progress from recognition of that which I had waited for, right back to expectation. I think this passage, and actually the season of Lent in general, are all about this cycle of anticipating, and then recognizing that which we’ve waited for, only to once again begin anticipating.
In order to really get a hold of what’s going on in this passage, I think you have to keep the context of the greater story in mind. For generations, the Jewish people had been waiting for the long promised Messiah, the one who would certainly liberate them from the oppression of the Romans. They had waited for the Messiah who would retake the Promised Land for the Jewish people. They knew that there was coming a day in which God would install God’s reign over the nations, it was just a matter of when God would make God’s move. Then, along comes Jesus. Just within the chapter our passage comes out of, Mark recounts Jesus’s feeding of the 4,000 with only a few loaves and fish. Then he walks a little farther down the road, finds a blind man, spits in his eyes, and suddenly the blind can see. As if this weren’t enough, Jesus finally sits down with his disciples one day and spells it out.
“Who do people say I am?”
“Oh, Jesus you’re just like the prophets, John, Elijah, or Jeremiah.”
“Who do you say I am?”
In a moment of inspiration, Simon, soon to be Peter, jumps up and says, “You’re no prophet! You’re the Christ, the son of the living God!”
Ah, finally, the cat is out of the bag. Jesus tells the disciples, don’t tell anyone. We need to keep this quiet.
But you just know that one of those jokers ran out and called his mom.
“Hey mom, you’ll never believe this! Remember that guy I started following after a while back? Turns out he’s the son of God! Don’t tell anyone.”
“Oh, no honey, I won’t tell a soul…”
“Hello, Mariam? Listen to this…”
Word must have been blazing across the countryside. If nothing else, you better believe that the disciples were making some plans, and why not? It had finally happened! The Kingdom of God had arrived! Surely, it was just a matter of days, or a year at most, before the long awaited messiah would drive out the Romans and reclaim the land. Finally, the tax collectors would be made poor and the Jews rich. Surely, their suffering had finally come to an end, and everything would be made right and just. Finally.
And then, into the midst of the celebration, the excitement, the fulfillment at hand, Jesus raises his voice and begins to speak to the people.
“You know this isn’t going to go over well. The leaders of the faith will reject me. They’ll beat me. I’ll suffer, and I’ll die. But don’t worry, the grave is not the end.”
I can imagine as he said these things the wind began to fall out of the sails, can’t you? After all, the people came because victory was at hand. Power and triumph had arrived. It’s so much easier to recruit followers to victory, and power, and fame, than to suffering, isn’t it?
We should have known that this is where it was headed. I mean, think back to the very moment of baptism through which we confessed that we had joined this community. It’s a story of the resurrection, but it’s born out of death. We come to the water that represents all that is sin, and pain, and suffering, the water that represents quite frankly the tomb itself, and the pastor submerges us into all that we were. The pastor lays us down into suffering, and pain, and death, and it is there that Christ meets us, and it is from there that Christ raises us back up to new and fresh life. No one comes to baptism, to the resurrection, and stays dry. We all meet Christ in the waters of death and suffering. So why are we surprised, then, to hear Christ say that he resides near suffering, rejection, and death?
Peter and the disciples hear what Jesus is saying, and they elect Peter to speak what everyone is thinking. He takes Jesus aside, and says, “Lord, you have it all wrong. Don’t you get it? Your kingdom is not about suffering! It’s not about death. We can’t recruit to that! You won’t fill the pews or meet the budget if you’re preaching pain and rejection! Don’t preach about the expectation of the Kingdom of God, or waiting for the Kingdom, just tell me that it’s here now, and what great things I’ll get out of the deal!”
Oh, that the Lord would forgive me for the many times that I’ve tried to coerce the message of the Kingdom to fit my desires, and my perceived needs.
“Lord, things are getting a little tight financially here, and perhaps you’ve overlooked this, but I tithe…regularly. Now, if you’ll recall, by tithing, I am assured prosperity, and I need to double up my money here, so I’m just going to write a little check. If you could return double by the fifteenth, that would be great.”
Isn’t that the message we’ve all been fed for so long? If I pay into the Kingdom, then I’ll end up rich as Donald Trump with a ranch and a picket fence, and I’ll live a life of ease sipping lemonade for the rest of my days. Come to Jesus, where you’ll never want again!
How tightly I’ve held to the promise handed me from birth, God watches over us and keeps us safe, always! Truth be told, it doesn’t seem that God is very good at the job, does it? What kind of safety is this that sends us to Africa to confront Ebola? Does God not love those who contract such a painful illness? Does God not love those who have lost their lives as martyrs for refusing to deny the gospel? How many of our friends have been handed that painful verdict, cancer. And yet, the line continues, the Kingdom is here! The wait is over! You can take in the deep breath – we’re out of the water!
Somewhere along the line, we came to believe that the family life of the Christian is an easy one. That the kids never pick their noses, or repeat a foul word, or get pregnant. We came to believe that if a person is a Christian, their marriage will never be troubled, that relationships are clean and easy, and to say otherwise is a lie. And yet, I would just suppose that in this room full of Christians, good Christians, I could find one or two who might raise their hands and say, my relationships are a little tricky.
Jesus interrupts Peter, who speaks for the disciples and for us, and says to each of us in such a blunt fashion, “Get behind me Satan!”
At first the statement seems absolutely stunning, doesn’t it? We’re cast as the absolute epitome of everything that is against the Kingdom. That which seeks to tear it apart and destroy it. It seems at first like Christ’s utter abandonment of us. And yet, when we look more closely, I think there is something else here to be heard. This phrase, get behind me, is reminiscent of something else that is reoccurring in the gospels. Early in the story Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then to the young rich man, “Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.” “Be my disciples.” See, to be a disciple quite literally means, to follow, or more specifically, to get behind. I don’t think Jesus is telling Peter, the disciples, and us, that we are being left behind, or abandoned. Rather, I think Jesus is putting us in our proper position, following the leader.
Sometime back I received a call from my brother who long ago accepted the fact that he is a redneck. He proudly dons the term, and does all he can to be certain he is living into the title. He said, “listen, I’m getting a little trip together. We’re going frog gigging next week. Are you in or not?”
How can you pass up the opportunity to frog gig? I’m not sure how many of you have actually been frog gigging before, but the general idea is that you shine a bright light on a bull frog in the pitch darkness which blinds the creature, and then use a long spear like stick to catch the frog. This of course requires a couple of “givens”. First, frog gigging is a late night event. Secondly, in order to catch the frogs, you must go where the frogs live, and I can personally attest that bull frogs live in very unfortunate places.
Now, we pulled up to our site about 12am, and a half dozen of us piled out of the trucks, got our lights and gigs (our spears) ready to go, and headed off in a single file line into the dark thick woods toward a swamp. We walked into this narrow valley created by a stream with sheer cliff walls 15 feet high on all sides, and it wasn’t long before we came to realize that we were walking through the wallows of wild hogs. We could smell the scent of them in the air. They were close, but we had to get past them to get to the frogs, and so on we pressed, one following the other until we finally came up on the wallow that we knew we’d eventually find. There was the hog, laying in the mud and grass, fast asleep. Hogs are fast and violent creatures in the wild, and we knew we were in trouble. Running away would spook him, and he would certainly chase us. Pressing past would undoubtedly wake him as well, and so we did what all little boys dream of. We got our spears ready. For the record, what a terrible idea! Someone spooked the hog and he woke up, panicked, and took off in a sprint down a path into the darkness. Honestly, any reasonable person would turn around at that point, but the frogs were further in, and our leader just looked forward and said, “let’s go.” So, one behind the other we followed him further. It wasn’t long before we began to reach the swamp waters, and stepped into the silt and moss. First, it was just our feet that were wet and we pressed on, one after the other, walking through the darkness. We stopped for a second to catch our breath, and someone spoke out, “leaches…” We all began to look down and realized that our ankles and legs had these small red creatures that clung to our skin. The leader of the group looked back at us and just pressed on. I’ll not deny that at that point my resolve was wavering. Are frogs really worth it? My wife assures me that they are not, and yet, on we pressed! The water got deeper and it wasn’t long before we were waist deep, trudging through the silt, and thick moss. Every step, we would drag pounds of moss along with us in the water. All of a sudden, somebody yells out the one word I did not want to hear. “Snake!” Oh, my heart sank. If ever there was a moment of terror, it was then. I can handle leeches, I can handle hogs, but snakes… We shined our lights down on the water as we walked, and there in the moss, swimming around our waists were the snakes. The leader would call out, here comes one, get ready! Someone would screw up their courage and take a stab at the snake with their spear, and the creature would dive under the water. Oh great. What a horrible feeling. Now we’ve ticked the snake off, and it’s swimming around us in the dark and the moss. I’ve never seen so many snakes caught and thrown aside in all my life. And yet the leader pushed forward, and horrified as we all may have been at what was required to gig the frogs, we finally heard the words, “There they are! The frogs!”
See, the problem with getting behind Christ and following Him where he leads, is that Christ seems to lead me to places that I just really don’t want to be. I want to sit in the truck, or better yet, sit in my house on the couch, where there are no snakes or leeches, or hogs. Yet, Christ always seems determined to go where there is suffering, where there is much to fear, and rejection and death are certain. Christ seems to always want to go where there are problems.
I long for that breath of air. I long to bring my head up out of the pool and breathe. I long to hear that the Kingdom of God has arrived, and celebrate with Christ. And I’m given those moments! Make no doubt, there are days in which I see the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And yet, every time I see the Kingdom, the call comes from our leader, “Take a breath, we’re going back in. We’re going where the Kingdom, the breath of life, the resurrection, are still being anticipated!”
Following Christ leads me directly into the midst of the inner city. It brings me face to face with a failed education system. It confronts me with the truth that a generation who is uneducated will undoubtedly fall into the same cycles of oppression in which their parents fell. Christ leads me into direct confrontation with the facts of poverty, hunger, ignorance and addiction. What’s more, Christ refuses to let us walk blindly past. No doubt we’ve tried, and Christ has called out to us, “Get behind me! The Kingdom is headed over there, where there is no air, no breath.”
Surely, we’ve tried to lead Christ away from the broken relationships in our lives – past the friendships that once were, but are no more – past the strained relationships with parents who were never there for us in the ways they should have been – past the children who did not follow in the paths that we hoped they would, and now are more broken than we imagined possible. To us, Christ calls out, “Get behind me, we’re headed out to make the broken whole. The expectation of the Kingdom is at hand. There is a breath of air coming.”
Without question, we have long covered up from others, and from Christ, the brokenness within. The hate we hold for ourselves – the cutting, the depression, the lying. We have long denied the shameful sins that we hope will never be revealed, those sins, which we hide from everyone. We have attempted to walk Christ past that which we most fear to address, and yet our Lord cries out, “Get behind me, the Kingdom of God is at hand. We must go where there is suffering, rejection, and death.”
True, Christ calls us to follow Him back into the water. He warns us that there will be suffering, that the faith is not a pill which immediately does away with our problems, makes us rich, and healthy, and all of our relationships easy. The difficulties are made clear. However, equally clear, is the fact that we are in expectation. We are living in anticipation of the next breath. As we paddle along in the waters, we know that soon we are certain to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom. And so in this Lenten season, as we see the suffering in our world and in ourselves, the choice is ours. Will we allow Christ to lead us where we may fear to go? Will we surrender the depths of ourselves, and the paths of our lives to Him? Will we get behind Christ, or will we deny the continued expectation and recognition of the resurrection in our world?