Get Behind Me, Satan
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”
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. 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? 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.” Mark 8:31-38
We certainly struggle with making sense of the suffering that is so much a part of life. Because of suffering, some people refuse to believe in God, and those who do believe, ask, “Why”? And the “why” is met with what appears to be a deafening silence on the part of the universe.
While Christian faith does not answer the question, it does invite a distinctive relationship to suffering. In this morning’s gospel Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Not long before Jesus utters them, he begins to tell his disciples of his own impending passion and death. Peter takes him aside and begins “to rebuke him.” He says, “No way, Lord. That can’t happen. You can’t let that happen!”
The reply of Jesus is stunning in its directness, not to mention it’s harshness: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
Jesus will not be deterred from what he has to do.
He must be the TRUTH that He is and reveal the mystery of God as God is, no matter what the consequences. If Peter, his closest friend, will not journey with him, he will go it alone. Should Peter stand in his way, Jesus will place Peter behind him, where he cannot interfere and where can do no harm.
It’s only after these curt exchanges that Jesus gathers the whole body of his disciples and lays on them this hard teaching about cross-bearing. He wants his followers to have no illusions about what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The way of faithful discipleship leads, inevitably, to a cross.
The response of Christianity to the reality of human suffering is, on the one hand, that it is a part of life, a facet of being human, an inevitability of our intrinsic vulnerability, and on the other hand, and most importantly, it will follow faithfulness to the call of the reign of God, as certainly as the night follows the day.
In the gospel view of things, how we respond to the given of suffering and our acceptance of suffering as a part of faithful discipleship is what matters most. The process of living through suffering, of sharing the suffering of others, of taking up “the cross we have to bear or the cross we choose to bear in solidarity with another” can, astoundingly, lead to new life. It can be personally redemptive and bit by bit effect the transformation of the world.
Ours is the faith that boldly hangs the image of an instrument of capital punishment in our worship places. We even hang it around our necks. In these ways we proclaim to the world that there is no experience in this life that God’s love does not have the power to transform.
Our spiritual tradition charts a course not around suffering, but straight through it. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, will find it.”
As we mature as Christians, we come to discover that Christianity is more than a philosophy of positive thinking. We come to understand that Christianity’s God is far greater than a cosmic vending machine, whose sole purpose is to dispense answers to prayers as quickly as we can plunk in our quarters. We discover, in other words, that God has better things to do than to hover around us like some anxious maître d’ trying to meet our every need.
Peter’s horrified reaction – the reaction that triggers his rebuke of Jesus – is very understandable. For those who had long hoped for deliverance, the vision of a suffering Messiah is disappointing, unacceptable and even painful.
For us, embracing a suffering God remains that litmus test that is so mind-bending, that it ever pushes us to the borders of belief and to the precipice of unbelief. But the vision of a suffering God, of a crucified God, of a God who becomes one with us even in our most intense experience of vulnerability, our death, is the very vision that births and is the portal to eternal life and to the possibility of living a life infused with the magic and mystery of eternity even before death.
Yet, even for those who do manage to grapple with the notion of a crucified God, there is still the further challenge of taking up those crosses may come to us or those crosses that we are invited to bear on behalf of others.
Jesus encourages us not to flee pain, should it come our way, but rather to confront it and even embrace it. He challenges us to take it up and bear it, as he bore his own cross to Calvary. And to step up to bearing the cross of others, as the iconic Simon of Cyrene, recognizing that in our doing so, we bear with God, the pain and suffering of the world.
The spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis once said a profound thing about cross-bearing: “If you bear the cross gladly, it will bear you.”
And so yes, every so often circumstances unfold in our lives that radically challenge us. But they bear the potential of becoming the very vehicle for our transformation. I have known any number of people who have come through a life-threatening or potentially soul-vanquishing experience, not only to recover, but find a new vitality, purpose and hope for living. And those who willingly enter into the life threatening and soul-vanquishing experiences of others truly come to a new experience of life’s depth. Some will have been undone by the suffering, death and loss that the pandemic has caused. Some have responded to it, such they have been transformed by the very same suffering, death and loss.
Call them turning points, conversions, new births, awakenings, spiritual resurrections, call them what you want, but call them gifts from God. We are a species that has the ability to be transformed from one plane of existence to another higher level of being human; from one level of loving to another; from feeling little purpose to our lives to discovering God’s higher purpose for us and others.
When pain tempts us to cash in faith’s chips and walk away, remember that God is still transforming lives by the renewing of our minds, hearts and wills. Dare to believe that God is not finished with us, not now, not ever!
The Lord is telling us that transformation only comes from the giving of our lives, the taking up of our crosses, the bearing of the crosses of others, and the following of him into tomorrow.
“The losing of our lives for his sake” is another way of saying that we surrender our way, we relinquish our demands, and we submit our self-centered thinking into God’s hands.
When challenged by a genuine cross, if we seek to bare it in all humility and faith, we discover that truly, the cross bares us. And in times of suffering and heartache, we discover that we are far from alone.
The one who travels beside us, you see, knows all about cross-bearing. He offers strength we could never begin to muster. Such strength he gives us as a gift — a free, unmerited, unexpected gift of grace.
“The world breaks everyone,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and afterward many are stronger at those broken places.”
I don’t wish a cross for you, or for me, or for anyone else, but when one comes our way, may we discover the presence of the living Lord, the one who tells us not that he will lift all our burdens, but that he will surely give us the strength to face and carry them! And better yet, that He will bare us, as we bare them.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
February 28, 2021