The Pastor’s Pen – February 25, 2018

However it is a choice each one of us is asked to make at some point…a choice to seek to gain the world at the cost of truly living…or to seek to live…no matter the cost of truly loving…


…human thoughts…and a divine call

February 25, 2018

Scripture: Mark 8:31-36

Sometimes we need to just look carefully at a passage of scripture in order to hear how it might in fact be a message for us…to pick apart the words and the phrases and to try to see what was happening at that moment…and to let go of our previous experience with that particular passage in order to perhaps hear it in a new way.

When I first read through the scriptures listed for today I was not sure what to focus on, not sure how passages that were so familiar could be shared in a way that was not just a remake of previous thoughts or messages.  For it is a habit at least of mine to hold a position or understanding of particular passages from past engagements with them that if I am not careful, may color my next reading of the passage and discourage the ability to see the text in a new way or in a new light.

Such was the case with our passage from Mark.  It is a very familiar passage to all of us I am sure where we find Jesus rebuking Peter for his attempts to correct Jesus’s words and where Peter is strongly cautioned when Jesus tells him to, ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’.  Surely we remember that moment in our past hearings of the gospel and surely we felt as well that Peter must have surely been out of line to elicit such a strong response from Jesus.  What could Peter have possibly been thinking in being so bold as to stand up to the Lord so strongly?

And I think that I have always gone there myself, understanding this particular passage as one in which Jesus was trying hard to prepare his disciples for the trauma of days soon to come and needing them to focus on his final instructions explicitly.  And so, frequently after reading the passage I would come away with a feeling that Peter was once again in the wrong, and that his impetuousness had again blinded him to the significance of the moment, much as he did in last week’s reading with his interruption of the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain…a moment seemingly shortened by his outburst of self-assuredness.  And once again I would have brushed right on by this passage without looking to see if there was a deeper message that could speak to us here and now.

And by grace, that didn’t happen this week.  Not because I had a sudden new insight, but rather because I had nothing at all!  I came away from reading through all of the selections for the week and found myself going right to and through all of my previous understandings…long held thoughts and opinions I have most likely already shared with you.  In short I was left still wondering what to say, and what to look for.  And somewhere I remembered how very important it is to let the text of the bible speak its own message rather than trying to read into it something you wish it was saying.  And so I went back and read through the message from Mark’s gospel real slowly…trying to put myself in the place and time, into the actual setting of the moment, just to see if there was something I had missed.

And that is when I saw that Peter’s worried words of deep concern at what Jesus was saying were spoken from a place of him not knowing the end of the story…not knowing that Jesus would in fact actually rise again on Easter morning…not knowing that everything Jesus was trying to tell them had to happen in order for God’s saving work to be accomplished.  In fact, I think Peter was doing just what I am sure many of us would have done in the same circumstance.  He was merely looking at all he knew, at all he had experienced and gone through…at the three years he had walked with Jesus though some very low valleys and up some very high mountains and trying to tell Jesus that the story they had been living together simply could not end in tragedy and death but rather had to go on and into the fullness of the ‘kingdom’ Jesus had so often spoken about.

In other words Peter was simply reacting to what seemed to be an unacceptable outcome or ending to the amazing journey they all had been traveling alongside of Jesus for so long.  He ‘corrected’ Jesus in what he was saying because he felt there had to be more…because he wanted there to be more…because he needed there to be more.  And that is an emotion I think we all can relate to.

And so I went back and reread the gospel passage very slowly again, looking for what was said, and perhaps more importantly what had not yet been said and at the feelings that must have been forming in the minds and hearts of Peter and the rest of the disciples as they heard Jesus try to tell them he would soon suffer and even be put to death.  I tried to break the passage down into exactly what had been said, without the bias of knowing the end of the story that so often allows us to judge the disciples for what seems to be weakness or a lack of faith…a habit we must find a way to set aside in order to let the bible speak clearly to our own hearts.

And as I did so I realized with a start that Jesus had turned to Peter and rebuked him because his thoughts were ‘human’!  Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  He is saying that Peter’s common sense understanding of what Jesus was saying to him was somehow not enough!  He was asking for his followers to somehow set aside the limitations of their own minds and their own understandings and to allow other, totally non-human, in fact divine understandings to somehow come in and take their place.  Jesus criticized Peter for being human…for reacting normally to a situation after he had taken into consideration all of the facts that were apparent to him!  And still somehow, we are able to smugly judge Peter for weakness?  I think we need to look even closer to what was actually being said if we are to truly fathom why Jesus reacted to Peter as he did.

And to start, we should look and try to understand exactly what Peter was hearing in his ‘humanness’.  What were these ‘human things’ that Jesus accused Peter of setting his mind on?  Well to start with, Jesus told him that a time was coming when Jesus himself would have to suffer deeply.  And not only that, but that the whole of the religious establishment of the day; the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes were all going to reject Jesus and to dismiss him as nothing more than an imposter and false prophet.  Those things would have been hard enough for Peter to imagine, but on top of those claims Jesus told his disciples that he would be put to death.  And that my friends, was certainly the deal breaker for Peter.  For there could have been no way that he could grasp the enormity of this claim by Jesus let alone try to imagine a future or a pathway forward without their Lord and Master.

Well, one may counter, Jesus also told them he would rise again on the third day!  And I am here to tell you, that if you had told me that I too would never have believed it either.  For up until this point Jesus had been a real flesh and blood human leader…they knew something of his past, they knew he was the son of a carpenter, they knew he was from Galilee….why on earth, in spite of the amazing things they had seen, would they be able to believe without a doubt that after Jesus was put to death he would somehow come alive again?

This was it…these were the things Jesus told his disciples that then prompted Peter to protest that there was no way they were true, earning Jesus’ sharp rebuke.  These were things that I propose, would make every one of us react the same way.  And yet somehow Jesus was calling his disciples to an even deeper trust in him and a willingness to step off into areas of faith and belief that were far beyond anything they had been asked previously.  Instead of thinking from within the framework of human logic and common sense alone, Jesus told Peter to let go of those limitations and instead to try and think from within a divine framework.

And in laying out exactly what that meant or what that might look like, Jesus shared what was arguably an even more difficult path for his disciples to follow.  For not only had they been asked to let go of everything they had already and finally ‘figured out’ over the previous three years, not only were they being asked to let go of all they had hoped for in terms of personal good fortune resulting from their close relationship to the one they believed was the new and coming King, they also had to let go of everything they thought their Hebrew faith had predicted and promised from of old.  This was just not the way it was supposed to work out.  They were being asked not only to accept that Jesus would have to suffer, but that they as his followers would have to suffer as well, as he told them to ‘pick up their own cross and follow after him’.

So much for ‘good news’ as far as the disciples were concerned.  This had to have been such a complete reversal of all they had hoped for and believed in up to this point.  After three years of seeing Jesus make his way through every sort of situation and every instance of danger without so much as a scrape, to be told that all that was past had to have completely floored them.  Jesus was calling them to a level of faith and trust that required that they let go entirely of their previous understanding.  This man, whom they had come to believe was in fact the promised Messiah, was now asking of them the impossible…or so it seemed.  And if it was not clear at that point it was made so as Jesus continued on by telling them that, ‘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.

There could be no doubt that Jesus was asking of them something far greater than any of them had bargained for.  This was life and death stuff, he wasn’t kidding.  He said he would suffer and die and that they would suffer as well, before going on to tell them that in order to save their lives in the eyes of God they had to be willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.  They were being told that only a full unvarnished commitment to the faith and to following after the ways of, and in the footsteps of Jesus would suffice to somehow yield the blessed life that only moments before they surely thought they already were in line for.

But the final kicker in the words of Jesus had to be the next ones as he informed his followers that the things they had previously been seeking after were in fact not to be the object of their desire…when he informed them that even if they were able to gain the whole world, it would only result in the forfeiture of their own life.  And it is here more than anywhere else that this passage begins to disturb the edges of our own sensibilities.

For up until this point we are able to keep all these hard statements within a historical context…as though Jesus said these things to his disciples, and not to each one of us.  Up until this part in our reading we have been able to empathize with the disciples shock with what Jesus said lay ahead of them (again, because we know the end of the story).  We are able to feel for them as they were being asked to consider walking forward in this radical new understanding of the faith not only without the one who had been the focus of all the resistance to the message, but in fact totally without him at all.  We are able to share their sense of disappointment, perhaps even anger at being told that the safe and secure future which they had together come to believe was just ahead, was no longer an option whatsoever.  And we are able to stand in at least mild support of Peter for being so impetuous as to try and tell Jesus he was somehow mistaken and that in fact the future was nowhere near as difficult as Jesus seemed to be indicating.

These men…these who had walked for what seemed like a lifetime alongside of the most holy man the world had ever known, were now being told that everything they had hoped for, everything they had dreamed of…all of the safety, all of the security, all of the protection, all of the fortune that their relationship with Jesus had led them to believe was theirs…was not at all as they had imagined it.

And it was not as though there was no longer a life of grace to be had in relationship with Jesus…for Jesus said that any who chose to follow after him…any who chose to carry their cross along behind him would in fact gain their life, would in fact be saved.  It was just that his disciples from that moment on, were no longer permitted to see only with human eyes and think only with human thoughts.

For truly what does it gain us to save ourselves and our loved ones, to store up for ourselves sufficient treasure to last into the foreseeable future, to surround ourselves with the trappings of a king in his castle…if in doing so we let go of the call deep within our heart to pick up our own cross and follow in the footsteps of the one who walked all the way up onto Calvary’s brow?

Must we all suffer?  Must we all die in the service of this one we call Lord and Savior?  Does ‘gaining our life’ always mean losing the world?  No, I don’t think so at all. However, we would do well to remember the cautionary tale we have heard here…we would do well to seek only after those things that are good and holy…those things that extend the love and grace of our God…those things that serve to usher in the kingdom of God for all people.  We would do well not to put our trust in things of this world but rather to fill our cup daily with deeds of goodness and love offered to others.

For though Jesus told his followers that he would be leaving them and that they would need to carry on, he also told them he would be with them always and would never abandon them.  For his message of grace and forgiveness, of justice and freedom was given that we might put all of it into practice in the cross-bearing lives we are asked to live…that the promise of a new day of peace might one day emerge among us and last forevermore.

It is not an easy choice whatsoever…and nothing could be more frightening than the words Peter and his fellow disciples heard from Jesus that day.  However it is a choice each one of us is asked to make at some point…a choice to seek to gain the world at the cost of truly living…or to seek to live…no matter the cost of truly loving…

…Jesus is ready for your answer whenever you are ready to give it…amen

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

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