Christ the King, Normal—Mark 8:31-38
Imagine that you’re the commander of an army. Your mission is to recapture a village that is currently occupied and controlled by your enemy. How are you going to go about accomplishing your mission? Will you simply mount a frontal assault and hope to overwhelm the defending troops? Should you call for airstrikes to soften up their positions? Should you send an emissary under a white flag and propose terms of surrender? Are the local townspeople inclined to view your army as attackers or liberators? How are the defending troops fixed for supplies—food, ammunition, medicine? The truth is, you can’t really make a good decision about some of these questions until you gather some more information, right? So, if you happen to be occupying high ground, and the village is in a valley, and you have a good pair of binoculars, that puts you at an advantage. If you can get satellite images, that’s even better. If you have a spy inside the town who can find a way to get information out, that’s extremely useful. If you don’t have any of these things, you’re operating blind, and it’s a big game of chance. You can’t see what needs to be seen.
Or, think back to a situation when you’ve said or done something really stupid, something you later came to intensely regret. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I’m sure everyone here can think of something that fits what I’ve just described. Now, that probably happened simply because you didn’t have access to all the relevant information about what was going on, didn’t it? You couldn’t see what needed to be seen. Wouldn’t you have behaved differently if you had seen the big picture, if you had fully known the consequences of your actions? I suspect you indeed would have.
This was the Apostle Peter’s position with respect to the prediction Jesus made of his own suffering and death. Jesus is alone with his disciples one day, and he decides the time is right to tell them something very strange: “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 then Mark the Evangelist goes on to tell us that Jesus “said this plainly”—no parable, no puzzle, just straight out. But Peter isn’t having any of it. He finds the first opportunity to pull Jesus aside and says, “Dude! You’re bringin’ us down. You’ve got to stay more upbeat and avoid all this negativity.” Or something like that.
But if Peter had hard words for Jesus, Jesus had even harder words for Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? Calling Peter ‘Satan’? Did he have to be quite that dramatic? In any case, what Jesus was trying to get across, I think, was that Peter had said something monumentally stupid, not because he was presumptuous or impertinent or disrespectful—which he probably was—but because he was running his mouth without complete information. He was judging Jesus without having all the facts. He was making plans for the advancement of Jesus’ “career,” the accomplishment of Jesus’ mission, without some very crucial information. Peter was no more qualified to advise Jesus than a military commander is qualified to move against an enemy position without any intelligence about what sort of opposition his forces will encounter. And the problem was not that Peter was just dense, or even that he was not fully informed. The problem was that Peter was not in the right position with respect to Jesus. So, what does Jesus tell him? “Get behind me.” Get behind me, in the position of a disciple. Disciples follow their master. From behind. The master is in front, leading. The disciples are behind, following. Get behind me, Jesus says. Get into the position of a disciple.
The good news today, in this liturgy for the Second Sunday in Lent, is that when we get behind Jesus, in the position of a disciple, we can see what God sees. Not everything that God sees, for sure, but enough of what God sees to enable us to serve him faithfully and to accomplish the mission that he has entrusted to us, and to make sense of the path that he has called us to walk in. When we get behind Jesus in the position of a disciple, we will see how suffering—our own suffering, to be clear, alongside the suffering of Jesus—we will see how suffering creates the raw material of redemption by which God reweaves the fabric of a broken world, how God makes straight that which has become distorted and twisted by the power of sin and death.
Following Jesus as a disciple is a lifelong discipline, marked by persistence and perseverance. It’s not one single giant act of commitment, one solitary life-changing decision. It is, rather, a lifetime of small daily decisions to embrace suffering—not to seek it out, but not to run from it either. A disciple is not happy about suffering, but a disciple learns to be content in the midst of suffering. A disciple embraces economic hardship when necessary, confident in the one who clothes the lilies of the field in such splendor, and who numbers the hairs on our heads. A disciple embraces social ostracism and ill repute, confident in the favorable opinion of the only one whose opinion counts in the end, bearing patient witness to the one who has welcomed us in love into his own family. A disciple, when called to do so, embraces bodily suffering, even to the point of laying down one’s life. I think here of the marvelous example of Pope St John Paul II, who, as his health declined and his suffering increased, became a martyr—a witness—even before his death through the courage and grace with which he consecrated his suffering to the purposes of God. And, of course, I also think of the brave Coptic Christians who were martyred only three years ago this month on a Libyan beach, with the holy name of Jesus on their lips as their heads were severed from their bodies.
As we embrace the vocation of discipleship, by getting behind Jesus and seeing what he sees as we join our suffering with his, our solace in the near term is the knowledge that we are participating in what God is doing. God is, as we say in one of the grandest of our liturgical prayers, raising up things which had been cast down, and making new things which had grown old, and brining all things to their perfection through his Son Jesus. If that’s what God is doing, then that’s the team I want to be on! And our solace in the long term is that we ourselves are not just observers of and occasionally participants in that redemptive activity, but are ourselves subjects of it. By the effectual working of his providence, God is carrying out in tranquility the plan of salvation in your individual life and mine. We are being made over in the image of Christ, being brought to our perfection by him through whom all things were made.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.