Last week we witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, a shift in the gospel narrative: Jesus is finishing his work to announce the kingdom of God is near, and is beginning his work to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is on the way from small-town Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, from the margins to the center, where he will perform his ultimate act of kingship. But before any of that, Jesus must prepare his disciples, his 12 closest students, for what is to come.
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
“This adulterous and sinful generation”
If we’re to understand some of the impact of this morning’s passage, we must consider the place in which this episode takes place. Jesus has led his disciples to another Gentile area of the Galilee region, the area surrounding Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was the location of a major spring of water that came up from a great hole in the earth, a deep cave in the rock. This spring was ideal for shepherds watering their flocks, but the spring receded, and the sheep would often wander into the remaining cavern and die. This danger led the more superstitious shepherds to name this cave the gates of hell, an opening to the underworld Hades. Soon shepherds began intentionally sacrificing their sheep there, throwing them into this cavern, in order to appease the Greek shepherd god Pan. Today this cavern is called “Pan’s Grotto,” and it is believed to be the site of much of the ancient worship to Pan, along with other gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman myths.
In Greek mythology, Pan was a lusty and frolicking god, always making music and playing pranks. The cult-like worship of Pan, we gather, was much the same, involving animal sacrifice, to be sure, among other abhorrent rituals. The revelry and debauchery in honor of Pan would have shocked the disciples, good Jewish boys. They must have known the reputation of this region, and I’m sure they were increasingly uncomfortable among this “adulterous and sinful generation.”
It seems that Jesus has a mission here, a purpose for coming to this region specifically, for Mark to mention it. All of this region’s strange rituals and disgusting practices were done out of fear for what the capricious and selfish gods and goddesses might do to them. Greek and Roman myths are full of gods behaving badly, toying with humans for their own amusement and schemes. Jesus seems to set up a contest here, a comparison between the man-made gods of the world, fashioned in the image of humanity, and the Son of the one true God, God-made-man, who fashioned humanity in his image.
“Who do you say I am?”
It is here that Jesus asks his disciples for his public approval rating: “Who do people say that I am?” It turns out there is some confusion: he’s either the new incarnation of John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod, or of Elijah, who was long dead but prophesied to return, or of some other prophet come to shake up Israel from its spiritual sleepiness and to declare the Word of the Lord. The crowds following Jesus see what he does, but they cannot discern who he is. The public is unable to see deeper, unable to perceive Jesus’ true identity: the very Word of God, God made flesh. They are interested in hearing what Jesus says, but they’re not committed to following him, embracing his way of life as their own.
Therefore, Jesus is looking for more than public opinion: he asks his chosen disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” While the crowds get it wrong, Jesus is inviting his disciples to see him for who he really is, who he has been saying he is all along. And Quick-Draw Peter gets it: “You are the Christ,” or Messiah. A preposterous confession to make of your Rabbi from Nazareth, that he is the anointed King of God, but that is what Peter, and the other disciples, are slowly discovering to be true. Peter and the other disciples are able to perceive who Jesus is, his relationship with God and his calling to reign over God’s kingdom on earth; but they have signed on with this new King with the expectation that they will be awarded positions of influence and power within his new kingdom. If Jesus is the divine King as they understand – the chosen agent of God who will restore Israel’s political autonomy and might – then it makes sense that they have placed their hopes on his political mission. But if Jesus is an entirely different kind of divine King, then the disciples must change their understandings of Jesus’ mission, and reconsider their positions and expectations as they follow him.
Jesus breaks the news to them here, now, in plain language, that this is exactly what they must do. Essentially, he tells them, “True, I am the divine King you were promised, but this is what ‘King’ really means: a terrible ordeal of shame, torture, and death; and then, new life, and the kingdom come in power!” The disciples expect the kingdom to come without any need for suffering or shame, rejection or pain. They cannot fathom how such suffering could bring about God’s kingdom, and Peter openly rebukes Jesus for even suggesting such an offensive thought. And it is offensive to hear that the gospel, the good news, includes the call to suffer, and even to die. Jesus rebukes Peter openly, even calling him Satan, the great enemy of life, in order to emphasize that this is exactly what must be, and any other route to the throne is false and self-serving.
“Take up your cross”
Next, Jesus draws together a crowd of people to teach, and Jesus goes one step further: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Friends, we follow a Lord and Savior who laid down his life, took up his cross, and demonstrated self-sacrificial love; we worship him and follow him by doing the same, often in places where such worship looks particularly foolish.
And it is foolish in this world to embrace suffering. Suffering in our world is considered optional, that you can choose whether or not you are unhappy; and if optional, why would anyone opt to suffer? In fact, there are countless products and events and distractions created specifically to help us either numb ourselves to pain or avoid pain altogether. Some of these things are benign, harmless, even helpful and good, but many of the things we turn to in our anxiety or distress have undetected dangers to us. Our food is pumped full of fats and sugars to satisfy our anxious stomachs; our media is pumped full of celebrity gossip and so-called reality TV to numb our anxious minds; our homes are filled with the stuff we have purchased to help us feel secure and self-sufficient. Even the good things we need can take on unhealthy and even addictive properties. They entice us away from the gospel’s invitation to live abundant lives in service and worship to our loving Creator God, who has promised to give us all we need, and gave us the ultimate gift: his own Son Jesus Christ. It has become all too easy in our society to trade abundant life in Christ for a shadow of life, a hollow shell of the existence we were created for. The call to take up our cross is an offensive one, a scandalous one, and one that is easier and easier to discard as fanatical or radical; but the call still resounds: “deny yourself; take up your cross; follow me.”
At the same time, many of us have had little choice whether we will take up our cross, because crosses have been thrust upon us. Our suffering certainly isn’t optional. We did not get to choose whether or not to embrace suffering; the suffering was given to us, forced on us. The unexpected loss of a loved one, the paralyzing loneliness of aging or divorce, the exhausting anxiety of unemployment, the silent strangulation of abuse, the looming threat of death: all of these things happen to us, and our natural instinct is protest, to lament to God and our neighbors that this isn’t fair. This isn’t the way life was supposed to be. This isn’t what we deserve. Hear this morning that our sufferings break the heart of God, and he gives us permission to come to him with our laments, our anger, and our confusion. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. This isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.
But at the same time, Jesus doesn’t tell the crowds and his disciples, “Lay down your cross, I’ve got this. Take up your life, and take it easy.” That’s the American gospel, not Jesus’. Instead, Jesus tells them and us this morning, “take up your cross, follow me. Lose your life, and gain mine.” Jesus Christ came into this world to suffer, in his whole life, but especially during these next few weeks of Lent, on his way to the cross, for us. He did choose suffering, he did embrace loss, and loneliness, and anxiety, and abuse, and death, for us. And the mystery of this, the powerful and strange and transforming mystery, is that Christ’s voluntary sufferings on our behalf give our own sufferings meaning and purpose. Christ’s death on the cross for the sake of each one of us means that our own sufferings can become a place where we encounter the heart of God for us. It may be a terrifying encounter, it may mean that nothing can be the same afterward, it may change us, because that’s what is means to see God face to face, but that is what our suffering can become because of the cross of Christ.
No one wants to suffer, and God does not want us to suffer. But suffering is a part of our daily lives now because of the presence and influence of sin in the world. The good news of the cross is that the reign of sin is defeated, and even suffering falls within God’s plan to renew and restore the world, because he orders all things in such a way that all things must work together for the good of those he loves, those he calls to himself. It is not God’s will that any should suffer, but when suffering is given to us, we can bravely and faithfully embrace it; we can obey Christ’s invitation to take up our cross, because God is at work to redeem our sufferings and transform us by them into Christ-like people, agents of renewal and transformation in the world.
So when loneliness or anxiety seize you, and your first instinct is to turn on the television to see if someone else has it worse than you, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and ask God to meet you in the loneliness. This may be terrifying, to admit loneliness, but in taking it up instead of running from it, you may discover that God can transform painful loneliness into holy solitude, a place where you and He can meet together and a small piece of you can be restored. Such small and quiet acts of obedient and faithful self-denial are a peculiar and even offensive witness to a way of life that is utterly foolish, and yet utterly hopeful.
“See the kingdom of God come with power!”
I realize that what I have preached this morning might sound foolish, naive. It may even offend some of you, to hear this new, young pastor tell you that you must embrace the inconsolable pain and terrible sufferings you have had to experience. The wisdom of the world says that pain must be killed, or numbed, and if you can’t do that, then at least pain must be hidden away so that no one else has to deal with it. In our world, to embrace suffering, to put pain on display, will offend people, because it will hold up a mirror to the pain they are working so hard to conceal. But Jesus Christ invites us to be foolish, even offensive, in the eyes of the world, to take up the crosses we’ve been given, and follow him.
And in Lent’s journey of suffering and weakness and crosses, Jesus Christ holds out hope to us. Jesus Christ tells his disciples that all these things must happen, and afterward, he will rise again, and the kingdom of God will come with power. The disciples seem to not hear this last bit, this message of hope, because they are too scandalized by the suffering that must come first. Let us not miss the message of hope this morning. If Christ our King has initiated a new kind of life, a new way of living where suffering has lost its sting and death itself is defeated, then we must hold on loosely to the lives we have, and wait expectantly and actively for the one to come. And during Lent, waiting will look like taking up our cross with the expectation that even suffering itself can be transformed into a place where we meet our Savior Jesus Christ face to face, as he joins us in suffering and transforms us to be like him for the sake of the world.