Divine Things or Human Things -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B
Mark 8:31-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
31 Then he began to teach them that 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
I enjoy the blessings of middle class American life. I have a nice house in suburbia. I have a job (ministry) that pays fairly well (not high end, but I do okay). It is nice to have this lifestyle affirmed by my religion. I am quite inclined to save my life, rather than lose it. I much prefer a “theology of glory” over a “theology of the cross.” I like a Jesus who is meek and mild and doesn’t require too much sacrifice. If we’re honest, most of us living in middle class suburbia would agree. Preaching a message of sacrificial discipleship doesn’t go very far. We may be inclined to let Jesus spend some time on a cross, as long as we’re assured that it really didn’t hurt, and that it won’t require anything of us. That is, as long as Jesus is our substitute then all is well.
To understand what transpires in this passage, we need to look back a few verses where Peter boldly declared Jesus to be the Messiah. Peter could answer this way because he believed that he had been chosen to participate in a great work of God and national glory. Jesus was going to be a victorious king, and Peter would be one of his key advisors. Why shouldn’t Peter think this – that’s what messiahs are supposed to do (Mark 8:29). Then Jesus goes and messes with Peter’s construct of reality, by changing the definition of messiahship. Instead of leading a victorious army, he would suffer, be rejected by the religious and political elite, and be killed (oh yes he would be resurrected, but he was going to suffer, and that didn’t make sense).
When Peter hears Jesus speak of his coming suffering and death, he had to challenge Jesus’ thinking. This simply wasn’t right. This isn’t the way things are to work. This was foolishness! Peter’s response to Jesus’ revelations wasn’t exactly gentle. Mark says that Peter rebuked him. That’s pretty strong language. Peter got in Jesus’ face and told him that he needed to change his tune because Peter hadn’t signed up for that kind of a cause. If Peter thought he could rebuke Jesus, Jesus turned Peter’s outburst on its head and rebuked him in return. Jesus accused Peter of being a tool of the tempter. Remember last week’s gospel reading – how Jesus was tested in the wilderness. Mark doesn’t tell us the nature of these tests, but Peter’s challenge seems like a temptation to abandon the call as Jesus had received it (Mark 1:9-15). So Jesus let him have it: “Get behind me Satan!” Why, did Jesus say this? It’s because Peter was seeing things from a human perspective and not a divine one.
What is the difference between a human and a divine perspective? It is the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. As Joseph Small writes: “The theology of glory confirms what people want in a god; the theology of the cross contradicts everything that people imagine God to be” (Feasting on the Word, B 2 70). As we take the Lenten journey we are being asked to let go of the human things so we can begin to appreciate and affirm the divine things. The principle of fasting that has long accompanied the season is a reflection of this. Perhaps we might consider fasting from the theology of glory, and affirm a theology of the cross, which Joseph Small believes “declares that the church is not Christendom, faith is not certainty, hope is not optimism, and love is not painless” (Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2, p. 72). Another way of putting this is that the church, which enjoyed a place of public prominence not all that long ago, now lives in exile. To be the church is to be part of a counterculture. It is also to remember that God is still present and even sovereign, though in a rather subversive manner. We live in the world, but the world doesn’t determine our values and sense of purpose.
To live in the world, but not be of the world, is tricky. It’s not always easy to know where to draw the line. It is often easier to simply capitulate and let the world determine our identity and values, or to simply withdraw from society and create an alternative world that is designed to keep the faithful unstained from the world until Jesus returns. Lee Beach, in his book The Church in Exile, offers a third way. He points us to the story of Daniel and his friends who live in exile/diaspora. Daniel rises to high office in the Babylonian kingdom. He is a trusted lieutenant, but he keeps himself focused on the values that are defined by his faith. Beach writes:
Notwithstanding Daniel’s high office, the book is concerned to show how God’s reign can become a reality through the faithful witness of a diasporic community whose trust is not in mechanisms of political power but in the power of Yahweh. Again, such a witness can demonstrate the reign of God apart from the land of Israel (Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom, p. 90).
The way of Jesus, the way of discipleship, is not an easy road to trod. It’s not a safe road either. And yet, it is the way of God.
Jesus calls on those who would follow him to take up the cross, knowing that the cross is not a mere piece of jewelry, but an instrument of torture and death. The Romans used crucifixion to send a message to restive subjects. To follow Jesus is to give up one’s life, but in doing this, there is the possibility of finding life. To not take up the cross is to be ashamed of Jesus, who bears the cross, and therefore Jesus will be ashamed up of the one who is to ashamed of the cross to bear it as well.
The Lenten message is not an easy one to hear, especially when it comes with a call to take up the cross. It is a challenge to our easy sidling up to power. While certainly cutting against the grain of our desire for comfort, this is a liberating message, for it reminds us that by entering into human suffering God transforms and heals and sets free. Elizabeth Johnson speaks of the “liberating power of connectedness that is effective in compassionate love.” We see this connectedness spoken of here in Mark – by taking up the cross we are being drawn into the God who suffers on a cross. Johnson writes of Sophia-God who is in solidarity with those who suffer:
With moral indignation, concern for broken creation, and a sympathy calling for justice, the power of God’s compassionate love enters the pain of the world to transform it from within. The victory is not on the model of conquering heroism but of active, nonviolent resistance as those who are afflicted are empowered to take up the cause of resistance, healing, and liberation for themselves and others (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 270).
That is what Peter didn’t understand, taking up the cross can be empowering, even as living in exile can be, for in this we are connected to the one who tasted suffering even as we have. He couldn’t see this truth, for he looked at things from a human point of view and not a divine one.