Mark 8:31–38 (NRSV)
(Mt 16:21–28; Lk 9:21–27)
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, 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 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.”
There are a few things more exciting than learning. I have often told my friends that think being a preacher would be a boring job that bible study is one of the most exciting things one can do. Every week I am constantly learning something new, looking at things from a different perspective, and having my eyes opened in ways I never though. What could be more exciting than that? I can spend hours in study and discussion, and for the sake of everyone’s back sides I usually stick to my notes because if I were to adlib too much we might be here all day. It is not that I know so much but every person sees something just a bit differently which corporately can give us just a bit more understanding and more perspective than we had before. This is one of those types of passages. It is layered in so many ways that one could write volumes and still not see what could be seen through the eyes of the Spirit in totality. Every day that we live adds another layer of depth, every year provides more contrast, and for the past 2000 years have added and built such a beautiful colossal within the scriptures that we can step back and stand amazed. Or we can become so accustomed to what is before us that we miss the beauty.
How can I say that this passage is beautiful? How can one stand and say that the prediction of death and execution has a powerful and awe inspiring portrait? It is because the darkness accents the light, it enhances the beauty by adding contrast and depth. It is the shadows, the trials, and the struggle that provides the character to a painting, the soul to literature, and the passion in poetry. It is the sacrifice that provides the back drop to the passion of the gospel.
Jesus tells his disciples that the religious establishment will reject him, curse his very existence, and try to divide the people from him as far as they possibly could. Imagine yourself hearing this announcement for the very first time. Hearing that everything that you thought you stood for would ultimately come to an abrupt and painfully bloody end. Every disciple of Jesus saw him as being the anointed messiah. This title held with it a preconceived idea. Visions of vast kingdoms, immense wealth, prosperity beyond the wildest imaginations of a finite mind. They envisioned the messiah as being a king that not only was equal to the greatness of Solomon but would advance well beyond. To get just a glimpse of the power that Solomon had one must really look into the pages of history. Israel has always been at the center of, and at the cross roads of empires. It has spent its entire existence as the disputed land between empires, because it is this land that divides the east and the west. It is Israel that sits on the most efficient route over land that made it possible for the riches of India to make their way to Egypt. This route allowed the merchants a route that did not require the threats of dehydration in the windblown sands of deserts or the uncertainty of travel overseas. Those that controlled the highway controlled the world. Solomon in his greatness was able to manage trade beyond the abilities of empires three times his size, but those that could not manage trade between empires fell victim to the powers of others. But Solomon was also a product of time. During his reign the empires to the east were weak, and the ruler of Egypt was also not in a position of power. Solomon filled the gaps between and allowed Israel to become more than just a tendon in the great body of humanity.
The view of the masses and the disciples did not have the knowledge to see the larger picture. They saw the greatness of Solomon as being the goal, but did not see that Israel’s greatness was not empirical rule but in its connectivity. Abrahams promise was not to become the father of a nation but the father of nations. Connecting and uniting the empires of the world, and giving them a hub from which they could revolve.
The disciples did not see it this way. The religious leaders did not see the place and purpose of Israel in this manner. They wanted to be the center but not as the unifier of humanity, instead they wanted to be the dictator or the seat of power. But power only comes from knowing one’s place and purpose.
The religious leaders were posturing to assassinate their rival, for what reasons? He challenged their understanding of who they were and what their position in life was. The disciples, namely Peter, directly challenged Jesus saying in other expressions of this story, “God Forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus’ response was, “Get behind me Satan.”
I want us to consider this for a moment. What if everything we think we know about God, everything we think we know about Jesus, and the Spirit, what if everything we think we know about ourselves and the world we live in is wrong? Charles Shultz depicted this in his Peanut’s comic strip where Snoopy says that he has the best title for a theology book he is endeavoring to write, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” We could be very zealous for the Lord and yet be totally wrong. We could have every check mark in every box, and have totally missed the point. We could have the most well thought out systematic theological paradigm and be as far from the truth as the ancient Gentiles. Jesus may be saying to our certainties, “Get behind me Satan.” Do you see the layers the contrasts and the highlights coming into view?
During the first century the religious leaders had in their minds that the Messiah would fit their carefully and meticulously crafted theologies, yet they were wrong. The disciples that had left everything they knew to follow Jesus, thinking they were in the court of the next great kingdom of Israel were wrong. Totally wrong, so wrong that they were not even in the same book let alone on the same page. They were reading the gospel not through the eyes of God but through the eyes of the deceiver. How exactly can we be so certain? Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?
I am not saying that the pursuit of knowledge is a sinful pursuit. I am not saying that the study of theology is something of Satan, what I am saying is that these things should be engaged not as an absolute, but as an ever growing conversation that are layered and built upon with each individual that has entered into the conversation. That at the very center there must remain the guarded reality that we might be wrong and that we must be open to the possibility of learning something new.
If we may never truly know for certain the fullness of truth, where do we place our faith? How can we live our lives? Where exactly do we stand and can we stand for anything? This is where the beauty of this passage comes into play. Jesus says to the people, “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?”
When the leaders of the people came to Jesus and asked what the greatest commandment was Jesus answered them, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NRSV) We can stand on these two commandments. If all of our posturing and all of our energy and debate is focused on these two things then the focus we can stand firm.
Every theological stance must hinge on these two commands, every action and stance of every issue must consider these two factors, every word we utter should be pregnant with these two very important teachings. Love God, Love Mankind. If we are certain of something but it does not include within the theory love for God and love for mankind it is not worthy of our energy. If it weight more heavily on one side or the other we have missed the point, and if it does not elevate all equally we have probably skewed the truth in some way.
Jesus says that if we want to call ourselves his followers we must put these things in to action to such a degree that we would sacrifice our very existence for the hope that someone else might know the truth. He did not say this lightly. This is not just colorful words expressing metaphorical abstract ideas. He is literally saying, if you want to be my follower you must be willing to suffer the most excruciating pain not for yourself but for those people that may not agree with you. Why?
We live our lives toiling away trying to get ahead in life, we amass wealth, we try our hardest to get whatever we can get through whatever means we can (hopefully legally) but no matter how much wealth you have there will be a day you will spend every last dime and more for just one more day of life. And the sad reality is that all the wealth in the world can only extend the inevitable. We are dust in the wind, a life lived for selfishness will still end in dust. What is the alternative? What if instead of pursuing the wealth of man we were to bear the cross of Christ and give everything we had so that others could hear the gospel? What if each of us lived our lives so that others might live? What would we see happen? Again the layers of the ages begin to show the depths of this passage. There were times where people did live like this. Though every person told them they were crazy. People like the apostles left secure careers and faced certain death to take the gospel of Christ to the edges of the known world. People like St. Patrick, St. Francis, St. Ignatius, George Fox, William Penn, Brad Carpenter, Kathryn Linville, and Kathi Perry all left the relative safety and security of a known life to take the message of Jesus out into the world with little regard to their own comfort and in some cases the comfort of their families. Some left great wealth to live a life where they gave away everything including the very clothing on their backs. Some aspired to be great warriors for God participating in a Holy Crusade only to find their true calling was found living a life totally opposite from the direction they originally walked. Some spent their last dime on the hope that others could live within a land devoted to two commandment of loving God and Loving mankind. What exactly do the sacrifice of these men and women show? Their very lives and sacrifices bring depth and color to an ever changing and growing portrait of humanity. They take up the cross and face whatever challenges that presents them not for themselves but for the sake of others and the extension of the Gospel of Christ.
They lose their lives for the Gospel but what have they gained? What profit is there for such a sacrifice? Do they now live in a kingdom surpassing the wealth of Solomon? Do they live at ease? No but in every case they have left in their wake a movement that reaches throughout time that encourages and unites all of humanity to one central hub, a hub that revolves around two simple commandments Love God and Love mankind.
Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to earth, but it did not look the way that everyone thought it should, because the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of man. God created the world and announced that it was very good. It was perfect everything worked together for the mutual benefit of everything else. The plants fed the animals and mankind tended the plants, while God walked with them in the cool of the evenings. The perfection that God created was blemished by the desires of man to make themselves equal to God, thinking that maybe God was holding back and that there was more to be had. This selfishness cost them life and relationship. In their selfish pursuits they brought in death and all that they live for will end in dust. Throughout history God encouraged a realignment of perspective telling us that our pursuits should focus on two simple things loving God and loving others, we would get it for a while but then we would again get our attention diverted. Jesus came to redeem, to restore the kingdom that God created in the beginning. He came to realign man’s perspective yet again. Telling us that God loves us. And that God is willing to give all he has for us.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as friends I encourage us all to consider Snoopy’s theology book, “have you ever considered that you might be wrong.” Consider where the areas of certainty in life are falling and if they are fully devoted to the only two commands that hold true power in the Kingdom of God. And if your actions are speaking the gospel to those that may have a differing perspective. Israel though they were at the center of the ancient world and are still in many ways at the center of our contemporary world, are not there for power and dominion over but are there uniting the east and the west. Connecting the empires as the world turns and through whom connecting the kingdoms of the world to God. Love God and Love man, beyond that you might be wrong.