A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2016.
Luke 13:31-35 & Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them that the Human One 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.” 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.
I wonder why Peter tried to silence Jesus. Was Peter rebuking Jesus because he said that the Human One must suffer and die or because he said this openly? Perhaps Peter was simply trying to get Jesus to be “realistic.”
Hey Jesus, if you tell people that they’re going to die if they live in the way you do, then you’re not going to get many followers. You tell them what they want to hear — there’s light at the end of the tunnel! You don’t say, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. This cross business, can’t we just put that in fine print or say it really, really fast — like in those ads for car financing deals, or the potentially debilitating side effects of a new drug. You know, follow me and you’ll have a place in the kingdom of God! (In sing-songy rapid-fire announcer voice: side effects may include, hatred by family, ostracism by friends, jail time, humiliation, and crucifixion.)
Or perhaps Peter was nervous because the crowds were in hearing range,
“Come on Jesus, tone it down a little. We’ll grant that you’re the messiah. That’s great! We all like to be on the side of a winner. But this business about the cross — even if it’s true — even if there’s some great sacrifice ahead, for goodness sake, use a little good sense. Don’t put all the risk out there. Tidy it up a bit. Say some more about loving your neighbor. And this time, skip the part about the neighbor being the enemy. After all most people are willing and happy to do a little good to friends and family. They’re not quite as eager to go out and risk their lives; so if you think that’s even a possibility, just be quiet — or at least, don’t bring it up until it brings itself up. It’s like you’re inviting it for Christ’s sake.
Or maybe Peter was not so worried that Jesus was talking about death openly, so much as he was talking about death at all.
Frankly Jesus, since Caesarea Philippi, you’ve been getting a bit depressing. Accusing all of us who have been with you from the beginning that we’re missing the point. That the blind people you heal can see God’s kingdom better than we can. You know, Jesus, we’ve already given up quite a lot to follow you. It’s not like there aren’t other groups that would want us around. I mean we could take our time and our money, such as it is, and go elsewhere if you know what I mean. Jesus, come on. Work with me a little here. (Pause. Then somewhat angrily…)
The problem with you, Jesus, is that you’re on an idealistic crusade. What!? Do you wanna go out there and get yourself killed? Are you eager for a cross, Jesus? You know, with your power, we shouldn’t have to suffer in order to do good. After all, isn’t God on our side? What kind of God let’s God’s chosen people be crucified? What kind of perverse God would set us up for failure? I don’t want to follow a tragic hero to his death! And neither does anybody else here, so roll with it. Ride this popularity thing out. Let’s do the most good we can, not burn ourselves out going up against Rome and the religious establishment. If we’re dead, what good will we be? We’ve got to play within the system.
Or maybe Peter just didn’t think the time was right — that they were already challenging enough things for now.
Look, Jesus. There are still a lot of sick people out there that need a doctor, Jesus. Let’s not get all hot headed and waste this opportunity. I mean it’s bad enough that you let Matthew, the tax collector, into the group — it’s really hard to convince the temple authorities that you’re here to help when your ministry is full of unclean people! Isn’t that a big enough problem to handle? I mean how are we gonna get health care for everyone if you go out and get yourself strung up. Come on, Jesus, you can’t be serious. You’re too important a person to be wasted for something that’s not going to change. Work with it. Take small steps. Maybe we’ll get it together as human beings? Who knows, say in a couple thousand years, no one who’s sick will be left to suffer alone. I mean the saying is “think globally, act locally” pal, not “think big, get yourself killed and leave your work unfinished!”
Or maybe Peter really did know what Jesus was up to. And he was just overcome by his own fear. Perhaps he wondered if he was worthy enough or courageous enough to follow.
You know I’ve been down this road before with you Jesus, in better days. I can see you’re eager to get to Jerusalem. We all know a conflict’s been coming, they’ve been out to get you for the last year. I suppose we should be pleased that you’ve made such an impression! I mean, being from Nazareth and all. But we don’t want to lose you, Jesus. We’ve learned so much. Think how much more you could teach us if you played it safe for a while; went underground; took a camel over to Samaria or somewhere else for a few months. Let things calm down so that more reasoned heads can prevail. We see where this is headed. Maybe the next governor appointed by Rome will be more sympathetic to our cause. Maybe we’ll be allowed a bit more room to do the good we’ve been doing. Wouldn’t you say that’s worth sticking around for? I’ll tell it to you straight. I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna run away either, but I love my life. I love you. I don’t wanna throw it all away. I can’t do it, Jesus. I can’t do it.
Jesus: “Get behind me Satan and follow! I command you to follow me. (Turn to the congregation loudly) If any would be my disciples, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s hard for us to understand the impact of these familiar words I think. After so many centuries of hearing them and a millennia since the cross was used for capital punishment, these words can sound ancient or theoretical, rather than pertinent to our lives today.
So what do we do with this passage? Well, we usually separate the invitation to self-denial from the call “take up your cross.” A typical individualistic interpretation of this passage calls for Christians to be “long suffering.” Surely you’ve been present when someone comments to a person who is ill, or living with a troublesome child or elder, “Well, we all have our cross to bear.” But if we are to be faithful to the text, we cannot retreat into this safe, metaphorical space. The cross Jesus refers to is not a personal cross — it is a political cross. The crucifixion was a political and military punishment that the Romans used on slaves, violent criminals and enemies of the state. It was a vicious ritual of public humiliation and killing as the crucified were often asked to carry their own cross to the execution site and then were hung naked at a prominent crossroads. When the crowds heard Jesus say, “take up your cross” they were horrified. The disciples (and we) are left with a decision to make.
So here we are on an unusually mild February morning and our children upstairs learning how to follow Jesus. Scare you a little? Despite our human tendency to romanticize, Jesus did not teach things like “be nice” or “make the world a little better than we found it.” He said, “be willing to follow me, even to your death.” Jesus expected that there would be a need to follow to one’s death because he spoke the truth to power, and invited others to do the same. Whenever we stand and speak the truth simply and clearly and unashamedly to the state that has the power to kill, or the corporation that has the power to fire, or the church that has the power to exclude, or the school that has the power to fail, or our peers who have the power to humiliate, we know what we are up against. Jesus is preparing his disciples and the crowd for the conflict that is to come.
This Lenten season Jesus invites us to travel courageously though we see before us the shadow of the cross. This is a serious and difficult invitation. But it can also be a joyous one, if we truly believe that God is facing the future with us. This can be a galvanizing moment if we believe that nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from God’s love. Today can be a day of new beginnings when we join in the journey to the cross that resists injustice, defies violence and transcends death with the power of the resurrection. For, after all, we know the end of the story. Thanks be to God.