Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, our gospel lesson from Mark recounted Jesus’s baptism, his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness by Satan, and his call that the time is nigh to repent and believe the good news, beginning his Galilean ministry. Jesus goes on to cleanse and to heal, to call his apostles and to preach to all, sprinkling in a miracle now and then because calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding thousands make quite an impression and aren’t actions of a run-of-the-mill preacher. And then, “quite openly,” “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Again, we know the story; he’s offering a foretelling to his followers so they can be prepared. Judging by Peter’s reaction, they need all the preparation they can get. Poor Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes the Son of Man. Imagine that conversation a minute.
Peter: “Jesus, c’mon. You’re doing amazing things. We need you. They need you. Don’t be silly with all this death talk. We know who you are (because Peter’s just called him out as the Messiah, Mk 8:29), but keep your head in the game.”
Jesus hears what Peter is saying. Dramatically, Jesus turns (away from Peter) and looks at his disciples, now doing the rebuking himself, not even looking at Peter.
Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter, who is so eager to follow, so willing to get out of the boat, anxious to mark the revelation of the Divinity, and to name Jesus as the Messiah he is, gets the brunt of Jesus’s admonishing. This is more than a cold shoulder, this is outright denial of what Peter represents in this moment.
And what is it that Peter does that is so wrong?
If a beloved friend and teacher says they’re going to suffer, be rejected, die, and somehow rise from the dead, it’s plausible to imagine a healthy dose of denial and skepticism. It’s not what we would want for someone we love and care about, and it’s not exactly something that makes sense. But it’s not Peter’s heart that Jesus focuses on: it’s his where his mind is. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In our own imagining, everything Peter might remind Jesus of is based on Peter’s attachment to Jesus here and now in their ministry. It could be Peter’s personal attachment to Jesus, or it could even be a more selfless thinking of all the good Jesus is doing everywhere he goes. This is a classic example of sticking to a personal agenda and either forgetting/ignoring/not recognizing God’s will or intent. This is us thinking, “We’ve got this.” At least Peter has Jesus with him. He knows who he’s keeping company with, but he’s lost sight of the magnitude of God’s work that will be accomplished not only in Jesus’ ministry but also through his death and resurrection.
This is hard for us to comprehend, and not just hard for us but for the disciples, too.
In Mark’s gospel there are a total of three times that Jesus repeats the same foretelling of his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In both of the other times, too, the disciples don’t understand, can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. They are attached to their finite, worldly thinking: they’re debating who’s the greatest or who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand (James and John have dibs). In both of the other times, there’s still the contrast between the focus on the human and the divine.
In this first foretelling, though, Jesus does a clever thing in turning his back to Peter. Because if you really want someone to pay attention, you pretend not to be talking to them. Jesus chides Peter for being focused on human things, not divine. Jesus knows that the disciples and the crowd don’t really understand, but, again, their hearts are in the right place. They need something to do. He tells them to take up their cross and follow him.
Is he talking about wearing pretty jewelry or carrying the cross around town or in the procession, showing off our cross so everyone can know how pious and devout we are? Of course not. The cross for these early people of the Way was a symbol of humiliation. If you were to die upon a cross, you had not only lost your honor and dignity, but you had dishonored your family and community. No one would willingly take up a cross because it would be shameful. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is telling them to do. Do something unpopular for my sake. Do something that is so far outside our comfort zone that we have to get over ourself, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t for our own sake but for something far greater. And if we’re too ashamed to do it for Jesus’s sake, he’ll also be ashamed of us.
What would that look like today? What would it look like today to do something that shows you are a follower of Christ? What do Christians do that is unpopular or disrupts the norm, crosses invisible barriers? Where/when do we risk not only being uncomfortable but also risk being judged by others, often negatively (not to mention how harshly we judge ourselves).
On Ash Wednesday, I saw that Father Roger and a priest he works with held “Ashes to Go” in their neighborhood in New York. We just had the traditional service here, but Ashes to Go provides an accessible invitation to a holy Lent and a mark of the cross to signify the day and one’s observance. In Hot Springs, my rector heard from a parishioner who had experienced it in Key West and thought we should do it, too. My rector thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. Obedient curate I was, I vested in my cassock, surplice, and stole, put up a sign, and stood beside the street with ashes from the service earlier. Folks drove up and walked up, happy to get their ashes. For others it was indulging in trying something different. For me, I’ve never more imagined that this was what it must be like to be a prostitute. A woman, standing by the street in downtown Hot Springs, offering something to passers-by, hoping they would want what I had to offer. And I wondered, “God, what are you trying to teach me in this?” I reminded myself this was a holy day, that this was holy work. Nearly everyone who drove by looked my way, saw me in my vestments, saw me smile at them. They couldn’t hear my prayer of blessing for them, nor could they hear the struggle within as I stayed out there, publicly displaying my faith, completely outside the safety of the church walls. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus means in taking up a cross: carrying the burden of showing our faith to the world around us, putting the beliefs in our heart into action in our lives for others to see. How else do we expect them to see Jesus?
Any time we reveal what is within, we step into that realm of the vulnerable. I definitely felt vulnerable. I felt like people were judging me, and this sense reminds me how attached I am to the human things, the self-centered, ego-preserving mindset that Jesus rebuked, even when our intentions seem good. Letting go of this, for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, is losing our life as we often understand it. It is through this loss of self that we gain eternal life through Christ. By bringing a proclamation of faith in the good news of Jesus Christ into the world–with our crosses seen and unseen–, we mark the space and time with the presence of Christ, bringing more light and love into the world.