Summary: Jesus instructs us, if we want to be a follower, to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow.
2 Lent B Mark 8:31-38 16 March 2003
Rev. Roger Haugen
Just verses before we have Peter declaring, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!” Jesus is the Messiah, the one who has come to save his people, to lift them above the “oppressor’s rod”, to bring about the Kingdom of God where the people of God will be safe, secure and vindicated from all their enemies. Peter and his brother Andrew had left a thriving fishing business and the security of their home to follow this man. They staked their future on the assumption that this truly was the Messiah who would restore the fortunes of Israel. Finally all the laments and hopes of the Psalms will come true.
We share Peter’s hope. The world is a mess, we need leaders who will vindicate us, who will put all things right. People who will take charge, “Tell it like it is.” A Messiah. Someone who can bring peace and security to our world. Someone chosen by God to bring peace to the Middle East, someone to provide stability and justice in Iraq.
Someone to put oppressors in their place and set the captives free. Should not religious faith, after all, protect us from suffering, bring security and give us victory?
Some years ago, one of our Synods hired a consultant to administer psychological evaluations of all seminary students and candidates for ordination. The profiles showed that almost all of the candidates were independent, self-starters, strong egos who liked being up front. “How were these candidates going to fit into an organization which required humility and obedience”, he asked the Synod committee? The committee answered that these were just the kind of leaders our Church needs.
We know how Peter feels. Peter wants to be a leader, not a follower, he knew exactly how Jesus should act, what his goals ought to be, what was acceptable and what was not. We want a leader who will save his people, but do it in a way of which we approve. We want a Messiah who will put evil in it’s place once and for all. We want it done with style. We make big plans for Easter worship, when lots of people show up, but Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are far less attractive.
The human standards of leadership cannot be applied to God’s action in the world. God’s idea of leadership is not to be confused with Peter’s or ours. Peter had assumed the normal expectations associated with a Messiah. For Peter he is a figure of hope, not a figure of failure but of success and power. We know these hopes and dreams.
To these assumptions, Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.” It is possible to have the words and devotion and yet miss what Jesus is all about. Peter and the disciples are always on the other side of the page when Jesus talks about suffering and death. They do not understand, and neither do we. Peter attempts to force Jesus to avoid the suffering, and is scolded.
The leader we are given, the leader that leads to new life is one who suffers, one who is rejected and one who will be killed. He is a leader who will rise from the dead, and in that is our hope, our salvation. Power does not win over evil and death, victory is won through submission, suffering and death. Peter and the disciples shake their heads in confusion and so do we. Jesus presents for us an alternate way of living, an alternate way of being that is defined by God and not by anything else. Instead of thinking only of ourselves and believing it is good to collect wealth and avoid any path which leads to suffering, we are being challenged to be generous, giving of ourselves, even when it might mean suffering.
What are we to do? Jesus states it rather bluntly. “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” In response to Jesus’ suffering, rejection, and death our response is to be no less clear. To quote that great theologian Mark Twain: "Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand."
To deny oneself is to give up our sense of self that we have created with the help of the culture in which we live. The self which says our importance and value comes from the wealth we generate, the wealth we collect. This is the self which seeks to define our value against someone else. To deny oneself opens us to live the self that God created us to live. Free from all those forces which seek to shape us in their image. As an old Confirmation curriculum states it, we are “Free to Be.”