Year B, Lent 2 February 24, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
What did Peter say to Jesus? Really, that’s quite a reaction, “Get behind me, Satan!” With an exclamation point. Jesus doesn’t use those very often. Just before today’s scene, we heard the Confession of St. Peter: “You are the Christ.” Or in Hebrew “The Messiah” or in English “The Anointed One.” That’s a big deal. The first in St. Mark’s gospel. The story picks up today with Jesus telling them what that actually means, what it means to be the Anointed One of God, and it is not pretty:
“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.” Understandably, this rather off-putting message upset Peter, so he took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. What did Peter say?
Did he say, “You can’t leave us, Master!” or “What will we do without you?”
Did he say that God would never do something like that, or let something that horrible happen?
Did he say that that is not what being the Messiah means? That the Messiah is about the power and glory of God, and not about suffering and death?
What did Peter say? At least he had the politeness to take the boss of to the side before rebuking Him. Jesus turned to the whole group and rebuked Peter back, “Get behind me, Satan!” (exclamation point)! “For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Ouch. You’ve been dressed down before. I have. It feels lousy. And in public. Ouch. By God. Ouch (exclamation point)!
A few times in this chapter the disciples had gotten it wrong, had not understood. So Jesus goes about setting the record straight, making sure no one has any misconceptions about what was going on, where they were headed, and what Messianic ministry was really all about. And so there would be no misunderstanding, He called the crowd in, too, so everyone got the message directly from Him. It I worth repeating:
“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?” Then Jesus adds a significant and credible threat to we who do not listen. “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.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. You don’t even need an exclamation point after that.
This is the message of the Cross. And it is like my Christmas sermon that Jesus is the gift that no one actually wants but that everyone really needs. What Jesus is teaching us here is that being the Christ is not what we would like to think it is. Being the Messiah is not how we want it to be. It is not a human way, it is a divine way, like to save our lives, we must lose them. Nothing human in that calculus. This is the paradox of the cross.
Martin Luther is very helpful here. He contrasts the theologia gloriea and the theologia crucis: the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.
The theology of glory is based upon what one theologian calls “what appears to be self-evident about life and on assumptions about the way a god is expected to act in the world.” The theology of glory is what we expect a god to be like. Kingly, right? Or Queenly. Royal, for sure. Scripture backs this up. From Revelation: “Splendor and honor and kingly powers are yours by right, O Lord our God.” Majesty. Dominion. Omnipotence. Isaiah’s words edify us in the Mass each week: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” (Exclamation point)! The theology of glory. Yes indeed. The power and the glory of God seems so self-evident; it what we expect God to be, something that makes us want to fall to our knees and worship. And sometimes God manifests that way, in splendor and light, in power and glory. Even our humble building lifts our spirits up! But not all the time. Not most of the time. Not hardly at all in Jesus Christ. That vision of God is how we want to see God. How God easily appears to human eyes, appeals to human sensibilities, excites human desires. But that is not the whole story. Or according to Jesus, that is not most of the story. Most of the story of God, most of the revelation of God is the cross of Jesus Christ.
The theologia crucis, the theology of the cross is not based on what appears to be self-evident or on assumptions on how a god should be. The theology of the cross is based on God’s, again, from the same theologian, “God’s self-revelation in the weakness of suffering and death.” The last will be first and the first will be last. God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.” The suffering of Jesus Christ and of so many of our brothers and sisters, of ourselves, all of us have, will or do suffer, in that very real, universal experience of human life, in that we comprehend God. In our brokenness and in the brokenness of others we see the face of Jesus Christ. We gaze into their eyes and them into ours, and we fill each other with tears of recognition: We are one in Christ. Does anything in our world, in this human world, conform to that ethic? Or even point in that direction? No, it is foolishness by any human standard. Ridiculous.
The theology of glory is what everyone wants in a god. The theology of the cross contradicts everything that we expect God to be, and leads us to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
Okay. Pretty hard stuff. It is Lent after all. There are many ways to know God, and some truly are glorious and beautiful even comfortable, but we will be on the path of destruction if we do not also dwell with Christ in the suffering of the Cross. To revel in the brilliance of Easter we must wallow in the agony of Good Friday.
That is not the way things should be by any conventional standard. There is no reason why it should be that way, but it is. God reveals God’s self in many ways, but God’s self-revelation in the horror, vulnerability and humiliation of the Cross is the most important to us as Christians, and it puts us in direct conflict with a world that worships success and accomplishment, wisdom and strength and all the other things we’d rather be thinking about.
Peter surely said something along those lines, that it was ridiculous that the Messiah would suffer and die, because that did not make any sense to him. That’s not how God is or works. It rarely makes any sense to me. But then again, our minds are “set not on divine things, but on human things” almost all of the time. Almost.
So when Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Get behind me my adversary, or tempter, what he is saying is no, you are not in line with my teaching. You are not aligned with me, get behind me, get back in line and follow me, follow me this way, the way of the cross because the way of the cross is the way, the truth and the life.
Our human natures are that, very human. They are creaturely. Meaning they are enamored with other created things, earthly things. Paul uses the word flesh, sarx, as opposes to nous, spiritual. Not just bodies, but all material things. Like a crow distracted by something shiny, the world is shiny to us, it distracts us. It is real, and beautiful, and wonderful, Jesus’ time amongst us sanctified the world, but it is not everything. Not by a long shot.
What Jesus does is teach us that we can surpass, overcome, rise above our human nature. We can lift up our eyes from the hills to the heavens beyond, the world beyond sight and sound, beyond smell and taste, beyond sensation to the realm of the spirit. Violence and lust, among other things, are natural, creaturely experiences. Ten minutes in a barn yard show you that. Our rooster is named Sir Timothy Runs-a-lot. We name all our animals after plants, hence Timothy, a key part of hay. Sir, because he is a regal fellow, an Americana, the blue egg layers. And Runs-a-lot because he runs from one end of the field to the other to pounce on a chicken, feathers flying, and then runs across in the other direction and does it again. And again. All day long! Back and forth, back and forth. It is comical, almost like fly-fishing for hawks. Through Earthly eyes (male earthly eyes), that could seem like heaven. What a job. But through divine eyes, not so much. Sir Tim is driven, consumed, possessed by his creaturely propensities and his eyes are firmly downcast, the next unsuspecting hen guiding his little rooster steps back and forth all day long.
We don’t need to follow in the little footsteps of Sir Timothy Runs-a-lot. We need to get behind Jesus and follow Him in a heavenly direction. That is not to say that our sexuality is bad or dirty or wrong, sex, like everything in the earthly realms, it is a means to an end, not an end itself. The end itself is in-line with Jesus.
Jesus teaches that we can overcome our earthly predilections, earthly distractions, earthly actions that get between us and God, that distance us or keep us separate from God. Those are just other ways to describe what we call sin. Even when they are very natural, like feeling lusty when encountering someone sexually desirable, or feeling violent when someone seems to be a threat or gets between you and something you want or need. Our cute little goats were vicious beasts if they thought one of their sisters was getting more grain than them. Or that little cute fuzzy kitty that sits there and thinks about murder all day long. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean good, or Godly.
Hence, to get in-line with Jesus, we need to deny ourselves, to deny aspects of our nature, take up our crosses (that’s foreshadowing) take up our crosses and follow Him. Now this is a dangerously misunderstood and misused notion, taking up our crosses. It is not about patiently bearing suffering. How many women have been told that their abusive husband was their cross to bear? How many addicts say of their addiction “It is my cross to bear.” Or any of us about our own limitations and shortcomings, “just my cross to bear” and absolve yourself of responsibility and just trudge along under its weight. I have a list of things about myself that I consistently shrug and say, that’s just me.
No. That is not what Jesus means. Taking up your cross doesn’t mean to revel in our suffering, or that we patiently, passively bear the evil acts of another, be it the innate violence of unbridled capitalism, the nihilism of a morally bankrupt culture or the blows of a thuggish partner. No, what it means is that you find that thing that gets in the way of you and God, that special thing that keeps you mired in muck. You know what keeps you down. Taking up your cross means you picking that thing up, confronting it, and carrying it in-line with Jesus on His long walk towards Salvation through the unimaginably narrow gate of the Cross. Do you think Jesus liked His cross? Saw it as a ticket to heaven in the fast lane? No. It was a hurdle. It was an obstacle. He was human. He was scared of death and the horrific pain that He knew would be inflicted upon Him. The agony in the garden, the dread He faced is a sorrowful mystery of the Rosary Prayer. Look at the stations. Take time to look at them after Mass or join un on the Fridays of Lent as we walk them in that terrible liturgy. He knew it would be the hardest struggle he would have and He faced it. But that was between Him and God, so He picked up His cross and followed the way He knew He had to go, and followed it all the way to God, whom he called Abba, His Father in Heaven, creator of heaven and earth. And Jesus Christ invites us to join Him.
What gets in your way? What cross stands between the you you appear to be and act like and the You created in the image of God, the one you are when you accept that you are already forgiven, that you are loved by the Foundation of Existence? Comparing yourself to everyone around you? Tearing others down to prop yourself up? Alcohol? Drugs? Those things are designed to get in our way of reality, Ultimate or otherwise. Does your mind and spirit follow your body in being distracted by your very natural sexual urges? Or food or stuff, Amazon Prime, do you solve your problems burying them with things, “If only I had the right x, it, I would be alright?” The escapism of entertainment? Art reveals God to us via created things, entertainment draws us away from this world and God into fantasy worlds. (Entertainment sells much better than art). Are you consumed with hatred for someone or something, be it in your very personal life or some figure far off, maybe in Washington? Is your hatred and disdain, as justifiable as it might seem through human eyes, does it help you be justified to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit? Does your drive for station, position, prestige let you compromise around what you know to be right? What is your cross? We all have one. At least one.
We were created in the image of God. But somehow, somewhere along the way we were corrupted, and the path to how it should be, how we should be, to God almost always seems harder than the other path, the path of earthly delight? Conventional wisdom? Go along to get along? Whatever you call it, it is often easier to take it than the way of Christ. I think that is what Peter didn’t get and rebuked Jesus over. The cross Jesus implores you to bear is whatever your chief stumbling block is. It might be something very natural, but Jesus calls us to rise above our base nature and embrace the divinity that lives in every heart. Including yours. May your Lenten journey help to reveal not only the cross you have to bear to get in line with Christ, but also the love of God that will give you strength along the way. AMEN