Last week I began a conversation with you about Lent. I told you that if a practice wasn’t bringing you closer to God, then you shouldn’t do it. Partly I said that because we’ve been living in the wilderness of Covid for nearly a year, and partly it’s due to the underlying question that often gets unasked; “What’s the purpose of Lent anyway?” Or, asking it a different way, how are we supposed to engage faithfully with Lent as a season of preparation? Theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes that after his baptism at the Jordan, Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness “asking himself … what it meant to be Jesus.” And then, Buechner says, our time in Lent should allow us to ask the corollary, that during Lent “Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
In a sense, what Buechner suggests for us is to get at the heart of who God has created us to be, who we have been, and who we are becoming. If that’s what Lent is really about, then giving up chocolate might not be the best indicator of that; it might not be the fullest measure of how we are becoming more faithfully disciples of Jesus. Our text from Mark today however gives us some insight from Jesus on what it means both for him to be himself and what it might mean for us to be his followers.
I suspect you may recall the story leading in to this one. Jesus and his disciples have come near to the village of Caesarea Philippi, and he has asked them who people think he is. After their varied responses, he makes it more personal: “And who do you say that I am?” Peter gets it out first, “You are the Son of God, the Messiah.” Peter gets an A+ on that answer, the gold star of the day, because he has seen Jesus for who he really is. Or has he?
Because immediately after Peter says this, Jesus begins to explain how he would need to undergo suffering, face rejection by the leaders and be killed. He then tells them that he would be raised from the dead, but I don’t think Peter heard that last bit like he should have. He was still hung up on the suffering, rejection and death part. So he goes over to Jesus, puts his arm around his shoulders to bring him aside and says, “No way, Jesus. This is not how it’s going to be! I just said that you were the Messiah, and we all know that the Messiah we’ve waited for throughout the history of Israel will help us overthrow the Romans.” I imagine Peter and Jesus looking down on the village of Caesarea Philippi, a village named by and for Philip the Tetrach, son of Herod the Great. It’s clear just in the realm of the geography what being the Messiah might include. He wants Jesus to get things back to the way they are meant to be without the political powers of an outside government lording it over them.
Jesus sees that the other disciples are watching all of this play out. He then looks directly at Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And then Jesus rounds up the other disciples and the crowd, and he tells them exactly what it means to be his follower. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
In these verses Jesus answers that question Buechner puts forward. One way for Jesus to fully be Jesus is not to become an earthly ruler although he had all that he needed to do just that. Rather he is to allow his life to be taken from him in the midst of deep sorrow, pain and rejection which would then lead to his overcoming of death and being raised from the dead. For Peter, and likely the other disciples, this is not what they had imagined when they followed him. They expected Jesus to fight fire with fire, to overthrow the Romans with power and force just like every earthly kingdom had done before and would continue to do for millennia afterward. If you want to overcome your enemies, you must use force. The more excessive and humiliating the better to drive home the point.
We still breath this air in our world today. It is, as Brian McLaren puts it, our nation’s and even much of our world’s “framing story.” The story and narrative from which we find our collective meaning; the core of who we are. In reflecting on the good news of Jesus in contrast to the message coming from the Roman empire, McLaren writes this: “The empire’s ‘good news’ is a framing story of peace through domination, peace through redemptive violence, peace through centralized power and control, peace through elimination of enemies. It involves the gods legitimizing those in power so that resistance to their sacred religion becomes not only treason but heresy.” He continues, “Jesus’ alternative framing story… involves God bringing down those in power so that the poor can be legitimized, and so the religious collaboration with the empire can be exposed as hypocrisy. The empire uses crosses to punish rebels and instill fear and submission in the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Our understanding of what it means to bear a cross is all figurative at best. Things we have to deal with like a grumpy boss or the lingering effects of an old injury when we go for a hike. For Peter, Matthew, Thaddeus and the rest of the disciples, picking up a cross entailed literal death. It was the way the Romans humiliated and kept the people they oppressed in check. Executions were always in public places, and the officials would often leave the bodies hanging there for days to let people know that this is what happened when you messed with the Roman government.
What Jesus was saying to the disciples is that his way was not the way of the Romans—his was not the way of overthrowing them using the same techniques they used. Rather his was the life giving way of peace. Of lifting up the lowly and making sure the poor were taken care of. Of bringing comfort to the ones who had experienced illness or grief. Of proclaiming a message of hope to those who lived in fear.
Even now I think we have a hard time believing this. We’ve seen what happens to those who engage in nonviolent calls for peace in standing alongside those who are oppressed. It rattles the authorities. It exposes the hypocrisy. And it gets people killed. So we tend to think that it won’t work longterm, believing instead that if you want to find lasting peace you need to use force to achieve it.
Maybe what we need then is a reframing of our own central story. A shifting of the narrative that we base our lives on from the gospel of empire to the good news of Jesus. And perhaps that’s the beginning of our answer to the question Buechner suggests we should be asking ourselves. Of giving voice to the times we live and don’t live into the way that Jesus followed. Or reflecting on how we want to hold onto the way of peace while living in a world that ridicules that position. Or in seeing that the poor get a bum deal in the way our systems work and wanting to change things, while also wanting to be sure we are taken care of first. Or simply asking ourselves how we’ve taken up our own cross like Jesus in order to become like him.
Reflecting on these ideas is not easy work, to be sure. I suspect many of us might have responded like Peter when Jesus began to explain what his kingdom—what his messiahship—was really like. But this Lent if we can explore more fully how God calls us to become and live as faithful disciples, then we might well discover new life when we arrive at that empty tomb.