Proper 19

St Mary’s, RobinsonMark 8:27-38

Many, perhaps most, people in the world spend most of their time trying to get their immediate physical and emotional needs met—water, food, shelter, somebody to love and be loved by. A lot of us, though, have the luxury of turning our attention to what might be called the “big questions”—Why am I here? Why is the world the way it is? Why is there so much suffering? What does it all mean? What am I supposed to be doing or not doing? And when this life comes to an end, what, if anything, happens next?

Now, I’m going to assume that virtually all of us who are in this room this morning, and virtually everybody in the churches I visit from one Sunday to the next, do pretty much have their immediate physical and emotional needs satisfied. Sure, all of us do suffer, if not right now, then in the past and in the future. But precisely because our immediate physical and emotional needs are usually met, we assume that, in our quest for answers to the “big questions” of life, we start from our present relatively comfortable position, and then move onward and upward from there. We don’t think in terms of having to give up any ground in our comfort and security in order to chase down the meaning of life. When a football team is on offense, and it’s fourth down, and they’re out of field goal range, they’ll surrender possession and punt the ball in order to not have to play defense with a dangerous field position. Nobody wants to lose ground.

This is how the apostle Peter, and his colleagues, his “teammates,” thought about what they were up to as disciples of Jesus. They were a small band, but Jesus had lots of followers. If it were all happening today, he would have maxed out on Facebook friends and become a “public figure.” He would have so many followers on Twitter and Instagram that he would be considered an “influencer,” and all sorts of companies would be trying to get him to wear their gear when he takes a selfie.  He was getting more and more famous, and soon he would also be getting more and more powerful, and the promised Messiah would reign over Israel, expelling the Roman occupiers, and the present small band would have prestigious positions in the new administration, and when the TV series about the “successful” Jesus comes out, there’ll be flashback scenes from the humble beginnings of the original “Jesus movement.”

Then Jesus spoils it all. He shatters the dream. He rains on the parade, big time. Right after inducing his disciples, with Peter in the lead, to clearly state their faith that he is the Messiah, and they have visions of their future elite status dancing in their heads, Jesus delivers a gut punch:

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.

Talk about sucking all the air out of a room. Of course, Peter can’t stand the idea, and begins to act like a campaign manager whose candidate has suddenly wandered seriously off message, and it’s his duty to rein his man back in. Jesus is having none of it, though, and smacks Peter down like a boss: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter had crossed a line. He was not a senior campaign official, or a chief of staff. He was a disciple, and disciples belong behind the one whom they are following. The “Satan” part was just to make his point crystal clear.

For Peter and the other disciples, there would be no glorious ascent from comfortable obscurity there in Caesarea Philippi to glory in Jerusalem. You see, the cross was blocking the way to that happy ending, first for Jesus, then for the disciples as well—some of them, including Peter, literally. And so for us, finding the answers to the “big questions,” learning the meaning of life, figuring out suffering, “finding your bliss,” seeing the face of God … it doesn’t just build on the material comfort and security we’ve already got and then keep moving in the same upward direction until we achieve the goal. We don’t get to punt; we don’t get to keep our field position. What we get to do is let go of everything we’ve got. What we get to do is embrace loss. What we get to do is make friends with becoming a nobody and having nothing. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

On Fridays at Morning Prayer, and on Monday in Holy Week at the Eucharist, we encounter this magnificent collect: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

The way of the cross, the way of life and peace. This is a way that entails total surrender of everything that we might hold dear. It means giving up some things that are, in fact, inherently destructive: vices that enslave our bodies, the satisfaction of exploiting other people’s weaknesses just because we can, the ego gratification of always acting in our own self-interest with no regard for the common good, the impulse to resort to violence, whether physical or emotional, in order to assert our desires, and the need to control, both people and situations. All that is difficult enough. But the way of the cross also demands that we lay aside, at times, things that may in themselves actually be good, but are not the greatest good. We’re talking here about professional and career success, material wealth, social esteem, family reputation, anything that may stroke our ego and lure us into the sin of pride. To put it bluntly, following Jesus, which cannot be anything other than following him in the way of the cross, means writing God a blank check, giving God permission to break into our lives and rob us blind.

So the question on the floor, my friends, is this: How much do we want “life and peace?” How badly do we really want answers to the big questions of life? Because getting to that goal probably means allowing ourselves to be sacked by the opposing team’s defensive line. Our invitation today is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. The late New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller explains this image of taking up our cross as allowing ourselves to be “branded” by Jesus, the way cattle in a herd are marked by the brand of the rancher to whom they belong. The words “marked as Christ’s own forever” from our baptismal liturgy come to mind here, and in that context they are words of comfort and hope. But in the context of today’s liturgy, that have a more sober connotation. Taking up our cross, living under the brand of Jesus, requires us to surrender all autonomy and all self-assertion, in exchange for the lasting joy of being truly human, of knowing ourselves fully, of seeing God and not turning to dust. Like the song says, “The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back, no turning back.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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