Mark 8:27-38 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Modern Americans live to avoid suffering. That’s what a writer named Charles Taylor says about us. In a book called the Secular Age, he writes at length about how we as Americans and westerners for the first time ever in history have moved from a general belief in God to a general belief in what’s called naturalism. What that’s saying is that there is no God underlying the universe, there is only physics. And since there’s only physics (not God!), we have come to believe that its our job to maximize happiness for ourselves and minimize suffering – to seek comfort and safety and to avoid suffering at all costs. In other words, the goal of the average American is primarily suffering avoidance.
This is why I can sit down at the pool in the summer and hear women talk about how they left their marriages because they weren’t happy, or why in the modern world therapy is so necessary. We not only think it’s up to us to nip the sources of suffering in the bud. We also think we’re the only ones interested in managing the suffering. So we must do what we have to do to remove suffering sources so we can go back to our supposedly happy ways. There’s just one problem. It’s not working. We’re not happier. Just look at the statistics. We’re more counseled and more medicated than anybody before in world history and, yet, strangely we’re just as sad, discontented, depressed, and dying as we’ve ever been before. Our goal of suffering avoidance isn’t working.
Then again that’s not going to stop us from trying, will it? It’s interesting to think about how Jesus sets us up to answer that question. Because he takes us on a very confusing journey. We find ourselves tooling through the countryside with him when he starts this easy, flowing conversation with us. Offhandedly he says, “Who do people say I am?” (v. 28) Fun. Easy. Light stuff. “Well, Jesus, they’re batting around all kinds of different ideas about your real identity, but they’re all agreed on one thing. You’re the reincarnation of somebody important. Maybe John the Baptist. Maybe Elijah. Maybe, “one of the prophets.” (v. 28)
And then Jesus lobs us that fat underhanded pitch of a question: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (v. 29) And Peter just knocks it out of the park with his orthodox, right-worded answer. “You are the Messiah.” (v. 29) And then it just gets weird when Jesus suddenly gets super serious. And, yes, this was super serious. Mark uses the same word that’s later used in this account for rebuke. It’s a big, tough word. It’s the sort of serious warning I might issue my daughter when she tries to run her three-year-old self out into the street. It’s a powerful, total, shut down. He says, “Don’t you dare breathe a word about this Messiah stuff to anybody.”
It only becomes clear why Jesus puts the clamps on their ancient Twitter accounts by what he says next. Because he makes it clear that they had no clue who he really was. Sure, they used the right technical term to describe him, but they had the wrong theology behind it. They had the right words to say about him, but held to the wrong beliefs about him. So Jesus for the first time in his ministry begins to tell them what to believe about the Messiah. He must suffer a lot. He must be rejected by the best and brightest of our society. He must be killed. He must rise.
And that’s when it happened. Belief systems epically clashed. It was the life of ease and victory in this life vs. a life of difficulty and victory in the next life. It was Jesus the Messiah saving us for this world vs. Jesus the Messiah saving us from this world. It was Jesus the Messiah of suffering vs. Peter the Apostle of suffering avoidance. So, yeah, it was totally inappropriate and totally unheard of for any disciple of any teacher in that time to tune up his Rabbi, but that didn’t mean Peter wouldn’t try. His entire belief system was in danger of getting upended. So he takes Jesus aside, “to rebuke him.” (v. 32)
And everybody knows what happened next. Honestly, it’s one of the most memorable encounters in the Bible. It’s not just a fluke that the encounter is described in great detail three times in the Bible. Three. It’s not just an accident that Jesus undoes Peter’s aside and lashes out in front of all of them. It’s not just a fun fact that this moment sticks in our mind’s eye like nobody’s business. That’s exactly what the Holy Spirit wants. He wants us remembering this incident. He wants us struggling through its meaning. He wants us seeing Peter whack a very, very angry bee hive. He wants us hearing Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan.” (v. 33)
And why? No, it’s not because Jesus missed his morning coffee. No, it’s not because Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the bed. And, no, it’s not because Jesus is a meanie or even because Jesus failed to understand that Peter was well-intentioned and was actually only trying to protect him from harm. Anytime you see Jesus rise up with power in the Bible. Anytime you see him strike. Anytime you see him exorcise demonic thinking as he does here. He’s doing it for salvation ends. He’s doing it not only because if he doesn’t he’s in danger of losing us but also because we are in danger of losing ourselves. He’s doing it because he must exorcise wrong believing from us.
And for the record, identifying what must be exorcised and what is to be believed couldn’t be clearer. Did you notice that? That’s not only an inner thought that Mark had, it’s also one he felt compelled to point out to us in writing, “He (Jesus) spoke plainly about this.” (v. 32) Jesus used the word must. Must suffer. A lot. Must be rejected. Must be killed. That’s not understand to understand. It’s clear. Suffering must happen. It’s not a nasty, unfortunate side-effect of this life, it’s a necessary part of it. And it always has a purpose and a goal. It’s always heading somewhere. It’s lead to rising. Purposeful. Necessary suffering.
Especially for the Messiah. Just think what would’ve happened if Jesus caved to Peter. Just imagine if he had said, “Yeah, Peter, I think you’re right. I think I would be better off avoiding the deep suffering that’s coming. I’m going to go into suffering avoidance mode.” Just think. If Jesus actually listened to Peter, not only are we still hell-bound, but by his disobedience he would be too. And now just think what happened because he didn’t. Because he said, “No, Peter, you’re wrong. I’m not going into suffering avoidance mode. I’m on the road to the cross and not even Satan himself is going to knock me off of it.” Just think. Forgiveness, life, resurrection: these are what made Jesus’ suffering necessary and purposeful.
And, no, it’s not good theology. It’s not true believing to think that purposeful, necessary suffering was unique to Jesus. As much as we might wish it it were, it’s not just the Messiah in his role of sin bearer who must suffer. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (v. 34-37) In other words, the suffering of Jesus’ disciples isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of following him or a hole in his sovereignty or a withholding of his love. Suffering is an essential and purposeful part of discipleship.
The reason for that has everything to do with our ψυχή. That’s the word that Jesus used here a whole bunch of times. It’s translated a couple of different ways, but it’s actually the same word. It’s actually an English word we still use. Ever heard of psyche or psychology – the study of the true self? That’s the way a biblical scholar by the name of Eugene Peterson translated this idea. He did that in a widely read paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. He said that by losing yourself in Jesus you end up finding your true self. In other words, Christian psychology says that you won’t find yourself on the Appalachian Trail or in heading out to see the world big, wide world or in a career move or a political position. You’ll only get more completely lost. When Jesus enters, I die to me. I live for thee. That’s when we find the true self we were created to be.
You know what the trouble with this is? It causes great inner turmoil. Every fiber of your natural self will fight it. Every inch of this individualistic culture will war on it. That’s just honest. I was thinking about this earlier this week when I was listening a Christian song. One of the lines in one sang about Christian surrender and how beautiful it is. And truly when we lose ourselves in Jesus, it is a beautiful and miraculous thing. It’s just that it’s not really a surrender. It’s much more like Gettysburg than it is Appomattox. It’s much more like continuing the war than signing treaty terms. At least, that’s what Jesus seemed to think. It’s the denial of a treaty. Not the signing of one. It’s the wearing of the pain. Not the removal of it.
I’m telling you. It really is. It’s believing that this Jesus who suffered and died for me owns me. Even my sexuality. So I go to war. I close my internet browser and kill off the images there. I move out from under my boyfriend’s roof despite all the very difficult entanglements because – well – I believe the gospel. Jesus will keep me and love me. I’m telling you that’s not surrender. That’s war. It’s speaking up for Jesus even though that lady keeps insisting, “he’s only a good man.” It’s befriending that awkward lady, letting other people see you with her, and losing social capital in the process. It’s even denying the self-pity over depression or anxiety that we desperately want to wallow in, and instead trusting God’s love in Christ no matter how we may feel.
Sound exciting? It isn’t. That much we know. It’s interesting to watch what happened in Jesus’ ministry after he began to teach stuff like this. His popularity plummeted. If you read the Gospel of Mark, Jesus becomes more and more of a lightning rod until what was left was an empty cross, a filled tomb, and not a single disciple to be found. All of them had run. Some quite nakedly. Why do I point this out? Because I totally get how hard this is. In fact, it’s my cross to have to teach this. There’s a part of me that would just love to talk pick fun and light Scriptures so that every Sunday was gum drops and rainbows, but I just can’t. And I think you already know why.
Because just like those ancient disciples, I’m so captivated by this Jesus who teaches this. I’m so captivated by this Jesus who doesn’t deny suffering, but embraces it for me. I’m so captivated by this Jesus who was so committed to suffering that not only did he disagree with Peter, he blasted Peter. I’m so captivated by this Jesus who not only came to end all my suffering forever, but also came to redeem my current suffering. To make it count. To make it matter. To make it so much more than an unfortunate side-effect of life. To make it more than just the worthless firing of my nerve endings and empty anguish of my soul. Jesus makes every cross count, especially his own. Especially his.
Because of where it leads. I actually think that was Peter’s primary problem when he took Jesus aside. He got so obsessed in his thoughts about the cross that he forgot about where it led. He worried so much about Jesus’ suffering that he missed what it was promising. He heard the part about suffering a lot. He heard the part about rejection and being killed too, but somehow he missed the rising part. He saw the cross, but not the crown. He obsessed with the suffering and in doing so forgot the resurrection. Fun fact though. He fixed that mistake later. When Peter writes his first letter to us hardly a word gets out of his pen before he starts marveling and going on and on about – you guessed it – the resurrection of Jesus.
Keep reading his letter and you’ll find out that Peter’s very 21st century-like goal of suffering avoidance had been completely exorcised from his thinking. You know what he says now? He says that what we really need to know about suffering is that we’re not going it alone. We’re together. He says that what we really need to know about suffering is that it has a purpose. It draws us closer to Jesus. And he says that what we really need to trust is that suffering will end in glory. Peace family, that’s not just a solid theology of suffering, that’s the very essence of Christianity itself. Amen.