September 13, 2015
by Melody Kroeger
Many of you might be familiar with the slogan – WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?” Based on a book written by Charles Sheldon in 1896, this popular slogan can be seen on bracelets and bumper-stickers. It appeals to the common human trait of empathy. We are encouraged to imagine ourselves in the shoes of Jesus as our model for the behavior that we are to strive for in true discipleship.
But, sometimes, I wonder about how or why we would think this is possible. The Jesus presented in the four gospels is multifaceted. Clever storyteller, compassionate healer, miracle worker. Fully human and fully divine. Maybe putting on the sandals of Jesus might be expecting too much of us. Rather, the person that I most relate to is – Peter, the disciple who takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for teaching the real and very great cost of discipleship.
Mark presents the disciples as complex and earnest characters in his gospel. Their stumbles along the way as they travel with Jesus and their experiences of miracles and healing, doubt and rejection, point to a very realistic picture of a mature struggle with faith. A mature faith isn’t a mountain-top experience but a long persistent quest for what our hearts know is true. And so we too feel the sting of Jesus’ words when he rebukes Peter.
After the feeding of the four thousand and curing the gentile woman’s child, Jesus is traveling again – this time toward Jerusalem and the cross when he the disciples “Who do people say I am?” The question seems to catch them off guard. They offer their answers: John the Baptist, Elijah or “one of the prophets”. These responses are not unexpected. Jesus had been baptized by John and most likely brought some of John’s followers under his wing, so the identification with the Baptist is natural. And the prophetic book of Malachi refers to the coming of Elijah as the forerunner of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.”
Then Peter perhaps remembers who it was that fed the four thousand and cured the gentile child, says, “You are the Messiah.” Mark has Peter use the Greek word Christos, “the anointed one” likening Jesus to priest, prophets and kings of the Hebrew Scriptures who were anointed with oil as a symbol of their divinely ordained roles.
During this period of great social unrest, Jews were actively seeking a Davidic king that would restore justice and the good fortunes of God’s people. Such a messiah would therefore pose a grace threat to the Roman rulers. Furthermore, if Peter thought Jesus was the longed for messiah, others probably did as well. So Mark’s readers would not be surprised when Jesus tells his disciples to not share this information with anyone – to do so would have been dangerous.
But Mark’s readers may have been as surprised as the disciples by what Jesus offers next – a prediction of suffering. “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.”
Peter takes Jesus aside and privately “rebukes” him – a harsh phrase meaning sharp disapproval or criticism. What lies behind Peter’s strong reaction to Jesus’ prediction? Perhaps Peter is waiting for a Davidic king to fulfill Jewish hope by kicking out the Roman overlords. Or maybe Mark is showing his readers the strong emotional ties – the love that binds Peter to Jesus. Peter doesn’t want his friend to suffer. This particular end is not what Peter envisioned when he abandoned his fishing nets and followed Jesus.
Whatever the reason, Jesus will have none of it. Looking at his disciples, Jesus says to Peter but also for all the hear “”Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is Satan. Rather, he recognizes that Peter is giving voice to the very real temptation to reject the suffering that must come before the resurrection. Jesus recognizes this voice. It is an echo of the voice he heard once in the desert tempting him away from a life of self-sacrifice by appealing to his self-interest and pride.
Part of our difficulty in grappling with Jesus’ rebuke to Peter comes from a post-Easter understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We know what happens. Jesus suffered died and was buried, on the third day he rose again, in fulfillment of the scriptures. We confess this. But do we really live – eyes wide open – to the full cost of discipleship and the inevitable role of suffering in the Christian life?
Herein lies the great lesson of today’s text. Jesus teaches “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark is telling his readers that we embrace the kingdom of God by the way we live our daily lives. If we give our lives away for the sake of others, the promise of the kingdom flourishes. And, when we give our lives for others in daily service – that service need not be dramatic. It can be as simple as the care for a child, answering the call to serve and protect, teaching and serving, healing the sick or caring for an elder.
A life given for the sake of others leads to the fullness of life. The disciples, like us, struggle to understand this central message of the kingdom of God, because it runs counter to the way the world recognizes greatness. In our reality, self-promotion, money and power are the way the world recognizes greatness. Those who see the kingdom of God clearly understand greatness very differently; how we measure out our lives for the sake of others determines how life in its fullness and greatness will be measured out to us.
And this central message cannot be reduced to a pithy saying on a bracelet or bumper sticker. Like the disciples, we learn that to be a follower requires more than simply proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. It means daily rising and dying to our own self-interest and pride and living for others. “For what will it profit …us… to gain the whole world and forfeit …our… lives?”