Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.
I really enjoyed seeing all the “first day of school” pictures on Facebook! Everyone dressed in their brand new clothes with their new backpacks filled with fresh notebooks, pens, pencils, and crayons. Just a few weeks ago, stores were filled with sales of schools supplies and full to the brim with all the college dorm essentials. Futons, pillows, lamps, crates, mirrors, rugs, bean bag chairs, matching sheet sets, everything you see in the “perfect dorm room” pictures can be yours at your local Target!
|Not real life, so much.|
Often we begin each fall like a second New Year. There are new classes and schools to attend, new initiatives at work, new routines at home. We try to put our best foot forward, strategizing for how to be a better student, better parent or grandparent, a better teacher, a better leader and role model at work and at home. We have the best plans and make the best preparations…
… And we usually end up falling flat on our faces.
… Like Peter.
Though we are at the very beginning of the academic and program year, in this morning’s gospel we find ourselves in the very middle of things. The disciples have been following Jesus around for about half of the book of Mark by now. They’ve seen Jesus heal people, walk on water, and feed thousands. They’ve heard him preach the good news and tell stories about the Kingdom of God. They’ve seen him defy the religious authorities and risk everything to share the good news. And now we’re halfway through the Gospel of Mark, halfway through Discipleship 101 if you will, and Jesus decided to check their progress with a little surprise midterm exam. “After I’ve done all this,” Jesus asks them, “who do other people say that I am?”
To this, some of them respond with “option A,” a return of John the Baptist, who had at this point been beheaded by Herod for his subversive preaching. Other disciples go with option B - Elijah, considered by many the greatest prophet. And still others respond with option C, always a safe bet, one of the other prophets, which, you know, covers the rest of the bases.
Ok, so Jesus started out with an easy one. It was basically an opinion poll. Now it’s time for Jesus to see how much the disciples have been paying attention in the last eight chapters. Time for the second, and most important question: “But who do YOU say that I am?”
Which option will they pick? Option A, John the Baptist? B, Elijah, or C, one of the prophets?
It is Peter, oh our favorite disciple Peter, who is somehow able to see right through Jesus’s little quiz. Peter goes right for option D, hidden in plain sight for this entire gospel.
“You … you are the Messiah!” Peter answers.
Ding ding! We have a winner! Confetti! Balloons! That’s right, Jesus IS the messiah! The one to save Israel! The one who has been foretold! Way to go Peter!
And then… Oh Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter. You couldn’t stop there, could you? Perhaps inflated with actually getting something right, Peter then proceeds to tell Jesus HOW to be the Messiah.
“Now look here, Jesus. You are the Messiah, and that has nothing to do with all that other stuff you just told us. There will be none of that SUFFERING stuff, none of that REJECTION stuff, and ESPECIALLY none of that DYING stuff! Haven’t you read the scriptures, Jesus? The Messiah is supposed to ride into town on a big white horse and show these Romans who’s boss! No, no, Jesus. You’ve got this Messiah thing all wrong.”
To which Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan.”
We tend to be so hard on poor Peter, but we’ve all been there too, wanting to choose the cleaned-up version of Jesus. “Surely Jesus did not REALLY mean for us to welcome those people.” “Surely Jesus doesn’t REALLY mean for us to take up AN ACTUAL cross.” “Surely Jesus doesn’t REALLY mean for us to LOSE OUR LIVES for him, like actually die, right?” Right????
We tend to be so hard on poor Peter, probably because Peter is us. We would all prefer to live at the beginning of the story where everything is still shiny and new; or to skip all the way to the end, where everything is nicely wrapped up.
But we don’t live our daily lives there, at the beginning or at the end of the story. We live in the middle. And the middle is messy. And what totally stinks is that there is no way to skip it or fast forward ourselves through it. (See Brene Brown's new book Rising Strong).
The middle is the dark place where you don’t know what’s going on, and nothing makes sense, and no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to make any headway. All your excellent preparations and your good intentions don’t count for anything, and honestly you have no idea if this whole mess is going to turn out OK or not, and it feels like you must be the only one stuck down here, face down in the dust.
But you’re not alone down there. The mess in the middle is exactly where Jesus chooses to be.
The good news is that to be a follower of Jesus, we don’t have to have it “all together.” We don’t have to wait until we’ve picked ourselves up after a fall. We don’t have to wait until our schedules get less crazy. We don’t have to wait until our lives look more like the perfect dorm room in the Target catalog.
But the flip side is that following Jesus is not a path OUT of the messy middle, either, like Peter thought. Peter saw Jesus as a ticket OUT of oppression and right INTO the seat of power for some payback. But that is not the road that Jesus walks, and it is not the road that Jesus calls us to. The road that Jesus calls us to is one he himself followed to it’s very end: the road of self-denial for the sake of others, the road of losing oneself for another’s gain, the road that looks to the world like a road of shame and weakness, everything we all would much rather avoid. A road that leads to a cross.
Following Jesus may lead us directly through the valley of the shadow of death, but in truth, we could not have a better guide than the one who has walked this road BEFORE us, and who continues to walk this road WITH us. Even when, ESPECIALLY WHEN we fall flat on our faces.
Peter took a chance, opened his big mouth, and had a big fat fail. For every step forward on this road, he seems to take a step backward. And Jesus had to know that this would not be the last time that Peter, and the rest of the disciples, would fail Jesus, big time. But still, Jesus does not reject Peter. In fact, when Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan,” he’s telling Peter – not to leave - but to get behind him IN ORDER TO BETTER FOLLOW HIM. Get back in the line, Peter. You can’t follow someone if you are not letting them actually lead.
If we say we follow Jesus, if we, along with Peter, say that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord, and Savior - are we really ready to let Jesus do his job?
Because if we are, we better buckle up because this road is going to be anything but boring. You may lose the world but you will gain your life. You may win a cross but death will lose its sting. You may lose your life but you but Jesus has won the victory over the grave.
So let’s get ready… to fall flat on our faces. Who’s with me? Can I get an AMEN?