Sermon for February 25, 2018: The Way of the Cross (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
“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.”
Rebuked Peter? ‘Ya think!
I think we have all been in a setting, at one time or another, where we’ve regretted saying something a little too directly, or in a way that openly humiliated someone else. We have done this with opponents and found it bad enough, but it was always so much worse when we did it to someone we loved, someone who trusted us.
But look at this gospel. This is unimaginable. Peter, who Jesus called the rock, the one, who many believe, upon whom Christ would build his church. Peter the Prince of the apostles, given the keys of the kingdom.
“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.” Peter must’ve felt so belittled, been crushed, and devastated. As Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
But what had Peter done? What had he said? Yes, he rebuked Jesus, but why had this provoked such a response from Jesus?
The Gospel of Mark is quite abbreviated, compressed, and is scant on many details. It is the shortest Gospel after all. Other Gospels fill in the details of this incident. We learn that Jesus says he will be betrayed, suffer many things, be rejected and killed and Peter says: “God forbid, Lord, this will never happen to you.” Was that so wrong a thing for Peter to say? Did that deserve so strong a rebuke? – Evidently it was.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is never described as being subject to mood swings, or certainly not cruel. It seems that Peter hadn’t made simply one of his legendary gaffs or made some simple mistake. Peter, probably innocently, had proposed a course of action that was – so wrong, so misguided, it was evil.
He was utterly rebuked, in language that cannot be forgotten, because it was meant never to be forgotten by Peter, not by the disciples who overheard, and not by those who would read of this moment, even today.
Jesus has said this before, “get behind me Satan.” When he was in the wilderness, tempted by Satan and he commands his adversary: “get behind me Satan.”
As Jesus was explaining how the Messiah must suffer, die, and rise again, the situation repeated itself. You don’t have Satan with horns, hoofs, and the smell of sulfur appearing, you almost never do. As C. S. Lewis, our great Christian apologist, points out – it’s a lot subtler than that.
Faithful, compassionate, the “Rock” himself, Peter, tells Jesus there is a better way to Messiahship. One that is safer, more comfortable, maybe more glorious, and much more human. To alter the will of God to a more human way. Jesus no longer sees Peter, he sees Satan. Even for Peter it’s possible to say all the right words about Jesus, he had just proclaimed Jesus Messiah, and yet still miss what it means to be his follower. Peter seems to have forgotten Isaiah’s insight that God says: My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.”
The exchange with Peter prompts Jesus to gather the people following him along with the rest of the 12 disciples. Jesus tells those gathered that if they wish to be a follower, a student, or disciple of his, they must deny themselves take up their cross and follow him.
My homiletics teacher at the School for Deacons would often remind us students that we should proclaim the “Good News” in our sermons, but where is the good news in that? Deny ourselves and take up our cross so we may follow Jesus?
Deny ourselves and pick up our cross – that sounds difficult, maybe even painful. But what does that mean and why must we deny ourselves?
Ourselves, our need, like Peter, to rearrange our Salvation. – To have it done our way. To follow our human nature that has been named original sin.
Quoting part of the Episcopal Church’s definition of original sin in the Episcopal Dictionary: “Original sin may be understood as humanity's innate self-centeredness. A consequence of this condition is human weakness and fallibility relative to sin. Another consequence is the influence of human sinfulness in our history and environment, to which we are subjected from birth.” (1)
Our self-centeredness, our human nature, this setting our minds on human things. Isn’t this Jesus’ critique of Peter’s rebuke?
Our culture’s tendency is to reduce Christianity to the therapeutic values of comfort, self-esteem, and warm, fuzzy feelings. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with those things. They do have a place in our lives. But if they become the exclusive values that guide our choices and determine how we understand our Christian faith, we run the risk of failing to hear and respond to the message at the heart of the Gospel. That message is established in the way of the cross.
CS Lewis and his book Mere Christianity describes Christianity this way:
“Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’ (2)
So how do we to deny ourselves? What do we do with ourselves to have Jesus give us himself? – By taking up our cross, putting ourselves – our self-centeredness - on our cross.
Our Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting, and self-denial teaches us to do just that. By this discipline we can daily put ourselves on our cross and walk in the way of the cross.
The way of the cross is the central paradox of the Christian life. It says that we find our true selves by denying ourselves, that we save our lives by losing them, and that we enter eternal life by dying. The way of the cross is so deeply counter-intuitive and runs so hard against the grain of our natural instincts for self-preservation, that many recoil from it.
Blessed Paul writes “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
When we earnestly practice our Lenten discipline, and it becomes our daily routine, we learn to daily die to ourselves and become little Christs.
The Friday collect for morning and evening prayer speaks of the paradox of the way of the cross:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (3)
That is the Good News!
An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians," Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.
Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 81-82). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Oxford University Press. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Kindle Locations 659-661). Oxford University Press - A. Kindle Edition