We like to think the world is shaped a certain way, don’t we? That life is predictable, and that everyone else is pretty much the same as we are.
I remember the first time I found out that the world was not shaped exactly the way I thought. When I was in 7th grade, a Jewish teacher spoke to one of my classes about Judaism. He told us about some of the customs and holidays, as I recall.
He also told us a little about Jewish theology, and what differentiated Christians and Jews–specifically that Jews didn’t believe in Jesus as the son of God. I led a pretty sheltered life. My father had been a minister. I went to church three times a week–once on Wednesday and twice on Sunday. I figured everybody pretty much believed like I believed.
So, at the end of class, during the question and answer time, wanting my view of the world reinforced, I asked, “But you believe in Jesus, right?”
He was very nice about it. He didn’t look at me like I had two heads. Very patiently, without explicitly saying so, he explained to me that my understanding of the world was inadequate. He said, “No. Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God–or at least that he was the son of God in a way that’s different from you or I being a son of God.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Different. The world became a stranger place that day.
Reality, as Postmodernism has been busy trying to explain to us, is a slippery thing. Our expectations of how the world is situated often come up inadequate.
I guess I realized I was an adult when I found myself in East Tennessee with a new wife and no job at the ripe old age of 22. I’d graduated from college four weeks earlier, and then got married just two weeks prior to loading up my grandfather’s Chevy pickup and launching out into the great unknown of, what I took to be, adulthood.
We moved to Tennessee so I could go to graduate school. There was a little money left over from the honeymoon, which I thought would last us a month or so, providing we could eat on fifty dollars a week. I figured a month would be plenty of time for us both to find jobs and start living like grown-ups.
It occurs to me now that foresight was not a virtue I possessed at twenty-two, because I did not, as I had anticipated, find a job. My wife, at nineteen, already much more readily employable than I, found a part time job as a hostess at the restaurant in the Holiday Inn. Her income, it will not surprise you to know, didn’t turn out to be enough to sustain us. And so, with a nearly empty refrigerator and no prospects for employment on the horizon, we packed up the truck and headed back to Detroit to live with my in-laws.
We didn’t stay too long—though her parents couldn’t have been nicer. After four months we’d both found jobs making sufficient money to move to a small apartment—her working in a doctor’s office, and me in a Speedway.
I spent a great deal of time while we were in Tennessee, assuming that somehow, magically, something would happen that would take care of all our problems–some job that would pop up out of nowhere, some rich benefactor would show up and sort out our financial situation. I thought that was how the world worked–at least for me.
But what I finally realized about our predicament was that nobody was going to live our lives for us. Being an adult takes courage and some intentionality, a commitment to hanging on when hanging on seems impossible. The world isn’t magically fitted to make sure everything comes out all right.
But that’s hard. It’s a difficult thing to readjust your assumptions about the way reality is ordered.
Peter and the disciples in our Gospel for this morning experience a similar jarring readjustment to their expectations about the way the world works.
By the time this scene takes place, the disciples have been following Jesus for some time. In Mark’s gospel, if you’ll remember, the disciples don’t get very much right. They’re constantly missing the point. But by now they figure they’re getting a pretty good handle on what this whole business is about when, out of the blue, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”
They give a variety of answers ranging from John the Baptist to Elijah. So he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”
Not bad. He’s trying. At least he’s caught a glimpse. Chalk one up for the perpetually misguided.
We’re not surprised, though, when Peter still doesn’t get it as Jesus begins to tell them what it means to be the Messiah–to be rejected, and to be killed, and to rise again in three days.
Peter rebukes him.
And we see Jesus, shaking his head, “Get behind me Satan!”
Up to this point in the conversation, everything is going pretty smoothly. The disciples may not understand the finer points of what’s going on, but they’re at least starting to get the drift of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. Messiah. Now, that’s something they can hang their hats on.
Messiah wasn’t a fuzzy term used by socialites over tea and cucumber sandwiches. The disciples know what Messiah means—with all its political significance.
But Peter has a problem; a problem, to be sure, not unlike our problems, but a problem nevertheless. The way his world is constructed, he cannot conceive of the Messiah dying. Messiah’s don’t die. They conquer and rule. They tear down and they build up. They kill, but they are not executed like common criminals.
The way Peter’s world is shaped, there’s no room for anything like Calvary, and crosses, and losers, and death. By the very way that Peter perceives reality there’s no way he can see the Messiah standing before him, ready to die.
Here’s the kicker, though. After Jesus chastises Peter, he turns to the rest of the disciples and to the crowd and begins to tell them what it means to follow a Messiah who’s rejected, who is killed, and who is resurrected again on the third day. And I think that this is the part that really confuses everyone, makes everybody uncomfortable.
“If any want to become my followers, let them 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 world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their own 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 glory.”
“Whoa, wait a minute! It’s one thing to talk about you dying, but it’s something entirely different to drag us into it. If you want to suffer and die, fine; but how come we have to get our hands dirty?”
And that’s really it, isn’t it? We know that if we serve a Messiah who suffers and dies, then we’re also called to come and take up our crosses. If Jesus is who he says he is, then that changes everything, doesn’t it?
And don’t be mistaken, everyone takes up a cross—it’s just a matter of which one. Everyone is willing to give their life for their Messiah, it’s only a question of who or what that Messiah is. We’re all dying for something, for someone. The question we must all answer is: Is your Messiah worth dying for?
I’m not necessarily being romantic about this either. Obviously, there’s martyrdom–giving your life away in one grand gesture. But, as Fred Craddock points out, the matter of giving up our lives is usually much more pedestrian, much less cinematic and glorious:
"We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $1,000 bill and laying it on the table–‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’
"But the reality for most of us is that [God] sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out .25 here and .50 there …
“Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, .25 at a time.”
The world, as we know, is exploded by the death of Christ. All the myths to which we have clung so tenaciously are ignited by the fire of discipleship. That, of course, is what makes Lent such a hard time for us.
It’s difficult to come to church on Sunday morning during Lent and be told that you’re mortal, due at some point to die, and then to go home and turn on the T.V., only to be told that if you buy the right exercise equipment and refrain from eating Doritos, you can live forever.
It’s hard to be told in church that you’re a sinner saved by grace, only to go home and find out that you are a specially endowed, if sometimes misunderstood, individual saved by your own efforts.
The new world established in the wake of Christ’s death doesn’t look like anything we find proffered as reality by the world. Unlike the world, as one author notes, “Jesus doesn’t promise us that by following him, things will go better for us. Rather, he promises us that nothing worse will happen to us than happens to him. We follow him, not because he will make us feel better. We follow him because he is true, he is the way to God.”
The payoff, of course, lies in verse 31, tucked all the way in the back—almost out of sight: “Then he began to teach them 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.”
Did you hear it? That little snippet changes everything. That tiny clause shatters all our perceptions about what’s real; it crushes our worlds as we’ve built them. In our minds, even if it doesn’t make sense for a Messiah, we can follow everything up to the last part—you know, the rise again after three days part. That’s the final brick in our vision of reality that is unceremoniously dumped on the rubbish heap of misdirected perceptions—death can be conquered.
In Christ, death has no power. Death reaches for us, clutches us in its grasp, but the real conceptual framework that Christ shattered, the new vision of reality that comes to us in Jesus is that, no matter what the world may tell us about being in charge of our lives, we all die, but the truth of Easter is that death will not have its way with us.
We have a way of wanting the world to conform to our expectations. Jesus, as messiah, heads in an unexpected direction.
The problem with expectations comes when we find out that the world doesn’t always live up to them.
On the other hand, when it comes to Easter and the death of death, having your expectations shattered about the way reality’s ordered is the best news there is.