Picture, for a moment, the scene of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples have traveled through the villages of Caesarea Philippi, twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee – still largely Gentile territory, in what is now called the Golan Heights. Jesus and the disciples are having a conversation about his identity; he wants to know what they have heard, what is the word on the street about him. They report that some people think he’s a prophet, or Elijah, or even John the Baptist. And then he asks the more important question: who do they, the disciples, his closest associates, understand him to be? As usual, Peter blurts out the answer: “You are the Messiah.” He got it right; you’d think Jesus would give him a gold star or something. But instead, he tells the disciples to keep that information to themselves, and then goes on to let them know what they are in for, following the Messiah the Son of Man (one of Mark’s titles for Jesus): great suffering, rejection, and death before Jesus’ rising to new life on the third day.
Peter takes Jesus aside; we don’t have any specific words recorded in Scripture, but the conversation probably went something like this: “Jesus, are you nuts? You can’t say stuff like that; everyone will run away; no one will follow you; your mission will be a disaster; this is not what being the Messiah is all about!” And Jesus rebukes Peter in the strongest words: “Get behind me, Satan! You’ve got the wrong end of the stick on this one.” And then Jesus calls not only the disciples, but the crowds of on-lookers and begins to teach them what it will mean and what it will cost if they are going to follow Jesus. They will have to take up their own cross (that instrument of Roman execution), lose their lives, identify with Jesus and his purpose, in contrast to the world around them.
This passage comes in the very center of Mark’s Gospel – fitting for THE central question for anyone seeking to follow Jesus: Who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus? What does it mean that he is the Messiah in a way that is different from the cultural expectations? And how does being his follower help us to talk about and live what is real?
In American society, so often we measure success or importance by how many hours you work/how little you sleep, by how much stuff you have amassed, by how many people have to get out of your way – just because you can make them. And in the New York area in particular (and I’m going out on a limb here) I think we’ve often confused being proud of our children and their accomplishments and wanting them to live up to their full potential, with almost living vicariously through our children in such a way that it can slide over into almost an idolatry that puts tremendous pressure on kids and families – where worth is dependent on grade-point average, or sports stats, or college acceptance. And families and students often find themselves with large deficits of time, and money, and peace of mind as they struggle under the pressure of pursuing these goals. That’s not to say that these desires and goals are not good, but they are not the most important thing.
The most important in life is the quality of your character; what kind of a person are you: honest, compassionate, just, loving, faithful, creative, kind, brave, willing to accept the mistakes you make and learn from them, a good sense of humor, an ability to not take yourself too seriously (humility). This is true for all of us, this who we want our children to grow up to be; this is what is real, good, true, enduring. But we (and they) will never get there if we avoid our limitations, if we avoid suffering, or pain, or grief, or death. In our society we either gloss over suffering and death, or we call people who face those truths heroes, as if they were doing something outside of the normal human experience.
That is why Jesus rebukes Peter, and in front of the other disciples. They have to be very clear, as we also do, that Jesus’ vocation as Messiah embraces suffering, and pain, and failure, and heartache, and death; not to glorify it, but to recognize it as part of human life. The only way to get to resurrection and new life and the fullness of God’s Kingdom is through heartache and death.
When we don’t let ourselves and our children know the reality of limits and failure and suffering – however much we want to shield them – when we always try to rescue them from the consequences of their actions, they will grow up to be people who cannot handle life. Note – I am not talking about exposing children to abuse, danger, belittling, bullying, or lack of love.
This runs counter to our culture – at least here in the New York suburbs. Jesus is telling us something very different from the messages we get from our society. Yet we rarely get an opportunity to talk with one another about what is real, about what life is truly about, and how we as Christians can support one another in the endeavor life, and perhaps let our lives be an example to our neighbors of an alternative, a different option than the stress and pressure that can be so hard to bear.
Did any of you see the Late Show Thursday night? Stephen Colbert interviewed Vice President Joe Biden for twenty minutes – an eternity on network TV. These two men share some profound similarities in life experience. Stephen Colbert was the youngest of eleven children, and when he was ten years old his father and next two older brothers were killed in a plane crash. When Joe Biden was thirty years old his family was in a terrible car accident on their way to Christmas shopping. His wife and daughter died, leaving two sons – one of whom was very seriously injured. That same boy, Beau, grew up to become an attorney, served with the Army in Iraq, and was awarded the Bronze Star – yet didn’t want anyone to know, or even know his last name, because he didn’t want any special treatment. You may have heard that Beau Biden died of a brain tumor earlier this year.
Both Colbert and Biden are also active and faithful Christians, members of the Roman Catholic Church. During the interview they were not so much a wildly successful comedian/talk show host and the Vice President of the United States, as they were two men talking personally about love, death, grief, faith, and family in a very real way – open and vulnerable. Biden mentioned that his wife, by way of encouraging him, had left a quotation taped to the bathroom mirror: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Soren Kirkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian wrote that.
Faith sees best in the dark. That is a truth our world does not want to know about, but it is what Jesus meant when he said that those who want to save their life must lose it, and those who want to follow him must take up their cross – that symbol of failure, suffering, humiliation, and death.
We need to face what is real, to embrace with courage and grace the truth about ourselves, our humanity and God’s redemptive love; to share with one another our vulnerabilities, our faith, our doubts, our imitations, and failures, and fears – as well as our joy and hope and strength and prayer. That is the way to follow Jesus, to live in Christ, to find meaning and richness in life.
Let us pray.
Take up your cross, then, in His strength,
And calmly every danger brave:
It guides you to abundant life
And leads to victory o’er the grave. Amen.
~ Hymn #675
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost