By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 8:27–38 (NRSV) 
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mt 16:13–20; Lk 9:18–20)
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
(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.”
What do people say about you? I know that we try to not worry about these sorts of things, but we should be honest we really do care. At times it is important to know what some people think of you. I recently had a job interview, and that is one area where I really want to know what people say about me. I have even asked for people to freely tell me about myself, not because I am vain, but I want and need to know if I am fulfilling the expectations that people have of me.
Jesus is not a vain person, he is very humble. In this case humility is being honest about yourself. But Jesus also has a problem. You might not be able to see it, but Jesus has a problem. His disciples and everyone else, have some expectations about who or what they want him to be. The Hebrew people had been waiting and studying about their coming Messiah for centuries, if you were to ask them a question they could quote scripture describing this anointed one that was to come. And each group had their favorite description. The problem is that they were interpreting these things through the lenses of their culture. They were reading those prophecies, reflecting on them, and considering them not in the context that they were given but in their own. Everything was through Israel, and for Israel. What happens when Israel is now longer an independent nation? Well then, the prophecy in their mind must mean that the coming king will reestablish the nation, so the expectation takes on a different form.
We all do these things. In our quest to know God in a deeper more meaningful way, we consume scripture. This is not bad, I will encourage you to read as much scripture as you possibly can, because it will provide you with hope and give you a different perspective on life. But this quest to know God without discipline can cause us to neglect certain things. The main thing being that these words were first written to a culture that was different than ours. There are similarities and there are things we can learn from them, but first century Israel is vastly different then 21 century America. It is vastly different than 21 century Israel even. Paul wrote letters to churches in Corinth, Philippi, Rome, and Colossi each of those cultures had strengths and weaknesses that were similar and different than all the other churches around them. The letters were shared and read at each of the churches, but the cultures within and around those churches were very different. They each had different challenges to face.
We often approach scripture, and we want it to do things that it was not written to do. Scripture is a collection of books, written for different reason, using different styles and forms. We often want it to be the rule book, a science book, or a history book and those things are there, but often they are written in a form that does not translate into language of today. Scripture is a collection of books of teaching, it is often a conversation between a mentor and their protégé. It is more often stories encouraging us to become more aware of our surroundings than concrete hard facts. Even the gospel writers tell us the could not possibly write about everything Jesus taught or did. Scripture writers used poetry, parable, narrative, and several other styles to express truth.
Why am I saying this? Because when we approach scripture as science, we are approaching it through a culture that did not exist at the time of its writing. The scientific method as we know it, was not yet developed. If it was not developed they could not express truth in a scientific manner, instead they penned their observations and experiences in poetry because it amazed them and that was the best way for them to express it. When we approach scripture as we read a history textbook, we are applying things to scripture that were never intended because the study of history in our current era was not how ancient writers approached the subject. If you were to look at the writing of the ancient Egyptians you would find that their leaders were always amazing, they always won wars, and they never faced hard times. Of course, if you were to look at the history of Babylon or one of the other empires of ancient days we would learn that at times Egypt was defeated and at times they faced famines. The same can be said about the history in scripture, it does not tell everything, there are many things that are left out of the narrative. But the truth is there, because the writers wrote in such manner that they wanted us to learn from the stories of both the good and the bad. This past Wednesday we discussed Samson and his trouble with women and the Philistines. We discussed just a small portion of his life, we do not even know how old Samson was, but we do learn something from the story.
We have trouble at times separating our cultural perspective from scripture. And when we do this we might have trouble seeing the truth as it is. But we are in good company, even the disciples had this struggle. Who do people say that I am, Jesus asks. They list off names of people. And then He asks who do you say I am? They respond by saying you are the messiah.
Jesus then begins to teach them about what this means. He tells them that he will face a trial, that he will suffer at the hands of the elders or the leaders of the faith. He tells them that he will be killed and that he will rise again. He tells them plainly. And Peter rebukes Jesus. A rebuke is not just a little thing, it is basically a curse, it is a demand for destruction. It is the same word and feeling that is used to describe what is done when to the demons that possess individuals. Peter rebukes Jesus. He is saying stop right there Jesus. We just called you the messiah, the messiah will not be killed, the messiah will not be opposed by the elders, the messiah is the messiah. You will unite the tribes of Israel and crush our enemies under your foot. That is what the messiah will do, so stop with this dying talk.
You see, Peter and the other disciples, were reading scripture through the eyes of their culture. They were building their faith on the teachings and the interpretations of the elders that were more about wishful thinking than reality. Just like the various teachings of dogma in many religious groups, they are teachings of interpretation. Many are very good things to live by, but we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on them. The elders are human. They like each of us can at times have difficulty with scripture. They like all of us may not always take into consideration every possible factor surrounding the writing. They might take a poem and read it as a history, when the writer was speaking not about actual events but the emotions the events were inspiring.
Jesus looks at Peter and the others and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Think about that response for a moment. Peter had rebuked Jesus. He rebuked him because of his great love for Jesus, he rebuked him because of his great love for his nation, for Israel. Peter rebuked Jesus out of devotion. But what was his devotion to? Was it to God, or man? Was it to faith or the institution of human interpretations of faith?
Jesus then calls the crowds to join the disciples. He realizes that there is something that everyone who wants to follow his teachings is missing. His closest friends have an idea about who he is that is not accurate, and if his closest followers do not understand then neither do the others. He calls them to gather and he teaches them what it means to be a true follower, a true disciple.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He begins. I want us to sit with this for a moment, sit with it while we still reflect on the response that he gave to Peter. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. This is not just a little statement. He is saying that no matter what is going on, no matter where you are, no matter what the situation is my followers will find themselves on the side of the minority. They will find themselves opposed to authority because the power of the worldly kingdoms are focused on different things than God. The world systems, no matter what they are do not deny self. Every system of the world is dedicated to fulfilling the desires of a self. That self might be the king or ruling class, or it might be the people, but every worldly system is focused on a form of self. Jesus says if you want to follow me deny yourself.
To deny oneself is a change of perspective. It does not necessarily mean that you give everything away and live as an impoverished monk, but it means that your focus is on those outside yourself. Your work and your life are dedicated to making the community around you reflect the one you follow. If you own a business, you run that business in such a way that those that work for you or partake of your services will see a glimpse of Christ. If you happen to earn a profit, you invest that profit into expanding the kingdom of God. You do that by expanding your business, giving raises, hiring more employees, becoming more efficient, giving toward community improvements or any other way you are led. Because if you own a business your business is your vocation and ministry. It is not a sin to profit in business, but it can be sinful if your only focus is yourself at the expense of others. But most of us do not own businesses. Most of us work for others so how can we focus on others? You serve as if you are serving the Lord, is what scripture teaches. When you work you work as if that box of cereal is the very manna from heaven. You place it on a shelf as if it is filled with divine power. When you are asked to do something you do it, and you do it not just for selfish recognition, but to make the one you are serving look good. And if you are the manager you manage in a way to make those you manage look good. And to those you provide the precious goods for, you make sure you present only the best because it is not about yourself but about them. Even in retirement you do not stop. You continue to live for others. You invest your time and your resources to continue to improve those around you. You read to children, you volunteer when you have the energy, you visit and listen to those around, you make space for others.
The idea of living for others is not to difficult to see. And we know that when we live that out in our lives it often comes back as a blessing to us as well. When we work hard we gain more opportunities to serve more and often that leads to profits that can allow us the ability to do even more. The problem with self-denial is we often forget that we must take care of ourselves, so we can care for others. We can give so much that we burn out. We can work so hard that we make ourselves sick, so we cannot forget about ourselves, we simply must be honest with ourselves.
The part of Jesus’ teaching that often causes us to faulter is the taking up the cross. Jesus used this phrase for a specific reason. The cross is a powerful symbol. It was the symbol of oppression, of authoritarianism, it is a symbol of death for all that oppose the desires of those that have power. To take up a cross is not simply carrying a piece of wood, it is being forced to carry a piece of wood as punishment. To take up a cross is to stand in opposition to oppression and to stand for justice. For a follower of Christ to take up a cross is to literally oppose Rome, but not for the sake of Israel but for the Gospel.
Often, we hear this verse quoted as a cliché, “this is a cross I must bear.” When all that means is we do not want to change the way, things are, and we will live with it. That is not what Jesus is talking about. To take up the cross means we see something that is wrong, and we will not stand for it. We will sacrifice everything we have to bring about change. We will oppose an injustice even if it means those in power will demand our life as payment. The cross we bear is the ministry we have. It is that thing in our community that we just cannot let continue, so we change it. Just down the road from here is a community that has tiny houses built for homeless veterans. Why is it there? Because someone, could not stand to live in a city where people who served their country would be allowed to sleep on the streets. Did they have to do this? No. They gave their time and their labor to correct an injustice they observed. Those involved carried a cross.
There are injustices all around us. And they should break our hearts. Jesus is telling us if you want to be a follower you must deny yourself and take up a cross. You must be aware of others not only yourself. You must be aware of situations within your community. You must be able to see through the surface into the deeper things. And you must say this cannot stand. I can list of several things in our community that we should not let stand. Our education systems are failing our children, what are you going to do? We have veterans sleeping in the streets, what will you do? We have people living in abusive relationships, will we just let them happen or speak up? We have people whose lives are exploited for the pleasures of others, can this be allowed? We could continue to make a list of the countless injustices in our community. We could spend the rest of this day listing them off, and when we stop and drive home we could continue to add things. Each one of them is a cross, a cross that someone should bear. But which one is the one that you cannot let stand? Which will cause you to say, No More!
I am not saying that we each must become what certain media outlets call social justice warriors. But what I am saying is that that is ministry. Jesus looked out on the crowds one day seeing a multitude of people and he had compassion for them, and he feed them. Jesus saw all those people coming to him seeking many forms of healing and he had compassion for them and he healed their various diseases. What moves us to that degree? What causes our hearts to ache to the point we must act? That is our ministry, that is the cross we bear. And if we refuse to take it up, we are rejecting Christ.
We began today with Jesus asking the disciples what people were saying about Him, and who they said he was. He then spoke about what that really meant, causing the followers to rebuke him. Jesus endured that rebuke because he had compassion. Jesus came down from Heaven to be born of Mary, he being God became human for us. He lived among humankind enduring the entire spectrum of life: the preborn, an infant, toddler, adolescent, and adult. He lived, he taught, and he had compassion for us because we were like sheep without a shepherd. He showed us how to live a life with God, and he lived that perfect life for us, with us. And he expressed his greatest compassion when while we were still enemies of God, he took up the cross and died for us. He took on our sin and our shame, he took our life on his own shoulders and provided the way of redemption. He died and was buried, then he rose on the third day just as he said he would. He had compassion for us. He gave it all for us. And he said if you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.
This is more than just saying words, it is changing your life. It is more than just giving to a charity or the church, it is getting involved. It is more than becoming a member it is giving your life totally to change the community we live into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Will you follow and get your hands dirty?
 Image from: https://www.regnareproject.com/take-up-your-cross-a-short-introduction-to-lent/
Thanks for your thoughts on the cultural constraints that surround us. You may like to read my recent post at https://thiswasthetruelight.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/the-power-that-transcends-cultural-forces/. Just as a side note, my quote from Penington is well worth looking up. I used to drive 200 miles to sit in the library at Friends University and read from Penington’s works. I am not sure anyone else ever used those volumes. I never had competition.
Thank you for sharing!