A Reflection on Mark 8: 27-38: “On the Road to Discipleship”
I had a friend once who really wanted me to die. In fact, you might say he was trying to “kill” me. Now you might think that doesn’t sound like a very good friend, but it turns out that was exactly what I needed. In fact, he was a literal answer to a prayer. And no, it wasn’t because I had a death-wish!
Now many of you have read about parts of my story on here before. It was the early 2,000’s and I had this powerful experience of God that made me become a believer. But the idea of become a true follower of Christ, a disciple of Christ, that was another matter altogether. I’ll be straight up. It was a struggle. I was used to my partying lifestyle, I was used to doing things my way, I was used to getting whatever I wanted. Remember, I’m an only child, so I was spoiled pretty rotten. In short, I was pretty self-absorbed. Now in the end, none of that brought about good results. I struggled with depression for years, and I felt like I was stuck in this lifestyle that I just couldn’t get out of. It was tough. I was literally reading my Bible, books of theology, and going to church by day and partying by night.
So I started reading this book by Saint Francis De Sales called “Introduction to the Devout Life.” It’s one of the most powerful books on spiritual formation and Christian discipleship ever written. Now in it, he talks about the importance of “spiritual friendship.” He says we can’t grow as Christians unless we have a spiritual friend that through a united love in Christ will “bind souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them.”
I realized that was what I needed. And so I started praying for it. God, help me to find a spiritual friend. God answered that prayer. One night I was at church and this guy excitedly started calling my name. Surprised, I stopped to talk to him…and I was like…”uh, do I know you?” Turns out, I’d gone to high school with him. We had met in high school. I didn’t remember him but he remembered me. So we exchanged numbers and we started hanging out after that. It didn’t take long before we were inseparable. He quickly became more than a friend; he was a brother. It was through his help and his influence that I was finally able to leave my old life behind.
He brought me to his Bible study and I started making other Christian friends…people who accepted me as I was. People who knew my past, but knew Christ could free me from it. God gave me my “spiritual friend.”But he was always trying to kill me. There was one night I’ll never forget as long as I live. It was in the middle of the summer…this beautiful evening…we’d just gotten out of the Saturday evening church service. We’d been singing some awesome praise songs so my spirits were soaring. And I’d heard a wonderful sermon that made me feel really good.
In short, I was riding high. Then we were heading home in his red pickup truck, windows down, just enjoying the summer breeze…and he says…”what are you gonna do when you get home tonight?” I told him I was going to write. Most of you guys probably know by now that I’m a writer…I’ve been writing ever since I was in the 7th grade. Well, I was working on a sci-fi short story and I was anxious to get home and work on it. So I started telling him all about my story. But my friend…he was always pretty blunt.
As I’m telling him about my work…he suddenly cuts me off and he says…”Well, you know, that sounds pretty good. But why do you write that crap? Why don’t you give your writing to Jesus? You have this talent and you should be using it for Him, man. You could be writing sermons. You could probably be another C.S. Lewis if you wanted to be. So why do you waste your time writing that garbage?” Oh man….it was seriously like somebody punched me in the gut. That’s my writing. Are you kidding me? He may as well have asked me to cut off my arm. I guess that’s what a real spiritual friend’s supposed to do, right? I didn’t know that at the time.
Hell, I was too egotistical. I just brushed it off and kept right on going with my sci-fi stories. My friend wanted me to die because he was driving me forward on the road to discipleship.
And that thought brings us to our Gospel reflection for this blog entry. It reminds me of the season of Lent, where we’re wise to ponder not only the crosses in our sanctuaries, but the picture of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem as He calls His disciples to take up their own crosses and to walk with Him on the paths of love and service. May the God who is One in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit guide our understanding as we study His Word.
I suspect that Peter was probably feeling a lot like me when I got out of the church that night so many years ago. Maybe there was an uplifting praise song in his head. Maybe there was a warm summer breeze that afternoon in Caesarea Philippi. And you know he was feeling good too because he’d just gotten an A+ on Jesus’ pop quiz about His identity. He was having that windows or top down, riding high experience on the highway too…the only thing missing was the red pickup truck. But then, like a true spiritual friend, Jesus gives him that all too familiar discipleship punch to the gut.
He starts saying He’s going to have to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now the thing is, this would have made no sense to Peter. You know, we can point to stories like this and laugh at him and say he wasn’t the sharpest sword in the arsenal…but that’s because we know the story. It isn’t fair.
The reality is he, just like virtually everybody else in first century Israel had a completely different understanding of what the Messiah was supposed to be. They were expecting a superhuman leader who would overthrow the Roman Empire, re-gather God’s chosen people from the four corners of the globe, and make Jerusalem the center of the world…establishing this perfect and unending reign of God. That’s what they were looking for.
And everything they’d seen up to that point fit the bill to a tee. Here’s Jesus casting out demons, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, calming storms, walking on the water, feeding multitudes…and oh yeah…raising the dead. So in short, they wanted a God of power and might.
They wanted a God who’s going to put an end to suffering….not march right into it. And you know what? If we’re being honest with ourselves…we can relate to this. Those televangelists flying around on their private jets…they got all that money and wealth….because their bastardized version of the Gospel sells. God wants you to be healthy and wealthy all the time. Pay to come to my crusade and my touch of the spirit will heal you of whatever ails you. Say a few prayers and donate to my ministry and God will make all your wildest dreams come true. Believe it like you already have it and money’s just gonna come pouring in.
This stuff infuriates me. It doesn’t matter that it’s completely detached from reality…it sells because it plays off our ego. It sells because it tells us what we want to hear. On that road to discipleship, how many times do we pull up to the drive-thru and we say I’ll take a crown with no cross, thank you very much?
Peter’s just like us. Is it any wonder he “rebukes” him? Now when it says that…I think it means Peter pulls him aside. He puts his arm around Him and he says, “Now Jesus of course I think you’re the Messiah. But you’ve got your facts wrong. You’ve got to stop saying stuff like this or you’re going to lose all your credibility. Start acting like the Messiah! Tell us about all the good things you’re going to do. Let’s not hear any more nonsense about suffering and dying!” And so Jesus gives Peter the ultimate discipleship punch to the gut: “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Here, Satan, through the mouth of Peter…is telling Jesus to take the easy way out.
But Jesus doesn’t bite. Instead He throws down the gauntlet. He says look, you’re going to come to a fork in the road….you’re going to have to either set your GPS on the earthly things or the heavenly things. The road to discipleship is a one-way street, and it’s through the cross.
And yet, when I say that…I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got to tell you what it doesn’t mean first.
Now in case you didn't know it already....I’m a sci-fi geek. So naturally I love my Star Wars…especially the originals. And one of my favorite characters, if not my favorite…has always been C-3PO. It’s because he cracks me up. His constant “we’re doomed!” cynicism is hysterical. But there’s one scene in the original movie that I think is profound. He’s walking through the desert with R2D2 and he says of being a droid, “We seem to be made to suffer…it’s our lot in life.” He’s just a machine…he’s not really worth anything. And if we’re not careful…we can adopt that attitude about ourselves. It’s a spiritually dangerous mistake.
See, it’s not the extreme opposite of the prosperity gospel. I’ll never forget this classroom debate in seminary and the topic was “Is it better spiritually to be poor?” and one of the students was talking about how she knew this Pastor that had bought an expensive motorcycle. She was talking about it….like it was the unpardonable sin. As if to be a true disciple we have to take a vow poverty and live like monks with our heads down…dead to the world…gloom and doom like our old buddy C-3PO. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, you better not want to have “fun” in life.
No, point blank…this text isn’t telling us to go out and become monks or nuns. That’s a spiritual gift. Some people are called to that. It’s not for everybody. Jesus isn’t saying we have to give up this or that. He isn’t saying you can’t go on vacation or buy a motorcycle. Furthermore, this text isn’t telling us that every time we suffer or something bad happens to us that we’re supposed to just adopt this defeatist attitude and say it’s our cross or it’s our lot in life. Can suffering be redemptive? Yes. Absolutely. I’ve experienced it in my own life too. But that doesn’t mean we should treat everything as a “cross.” Jesus isn’t saying “go out into the world and get beat up every day!” I have to set the record straight because the meaning of this passage has been butchered throughout the centuries and it’s been used to perpetuate abuse and manipulate others.
We’re not called to be victims. We’re not called to embrace abuse or suffering as some kind of twisted mark of virtue. We see Jesus freeing people from bondage of all kinds throughout all 4 Gospels so anything else is a false gospel. No, when he tells us to take up our cross, He’s telling us to do the opposite of what the world expects of us. Verse 33 can also be translated as “You are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do.”
Worldly things. Peter was ready for prestige, power, and dominion. He was ready to claim King David’s throne. He was ready for ruling the nations.
Worldly things. The Super Bowl was just a few weeks ago…I’m still excited about that Eagles win, but you know, a lot of people watch the Super Bowl for the ads. If you’re not a football fan…you still tune in for all the new commercials every year.
I’ve got to be honest I didn’t really care for the ones this past year…I didn’t think they were all that funny. But it’s amazing the power that these things have over our lives.
They spend so much time, energy, creativity and money on these ads….why? Well, it’s because they’re designed to make us feel inadequate so we need to go out and buy something new because it promises to make us feel better about ourselves. And I’ll tell you what…social media does this too. Somebody you know updates their status to say “In a relationship” and it makes you feel all the more lonely. Somebody else uploads pictures of their new car and it makes you wonder why your 10 year old car is always in the shop. But here’s the thing: all of that stuff is a lie. And social media, well, so much of that is a fake snapshot of life. You see only what people want you to see. We see the supposedly perfect lives of others and it depresses us…when in reality…it’s all smoke and mirrors.
In our culture, we’re beat up and run down. We tell ourselves that we’ve got to be ambitious, decisive and energetic…and so we become totally self-absorbed. We end up spending all our days…worrying about ourselves and whether we measure up or not. One of my favorite Christian writers, the great Henri Nouwen summed up this dilemma perfectly when he said “Everything in me wants to move upward. Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I’m a part.” In other words, we project our own desires onto our relationship with God and we seek to make God in our image.
We want to tame Jesus…domesticate Him…make Him harmless and comfortable. We want Him to give us easy solutions to all our problems. We want Him to fill in all the blanks of the things we think we need in life. That is of course, if we have time for God at all. Even in my own life, I can easily think of how quickly my hours and my days just evaporate. And so before I know it, I’m making sure my alarm is set for the next day. All too often, I live my life as if I’ve been shot out of a canon. All too often I miss opportunities to be thinking about the Ultimate Concerns. I’m just too busy devoting my attention to trivial things. All too often I miss opportunities to take up my cross because I’m too focused on what’s already on my to-do list.
But to take up the cross means the opposite of what we expect and what we think we need. What this passage means is that we’ve got to set aside our own interests in order to ascertain God’s interests. The Lutheran Pastor David Lose calls this the “inverted logic” of the Kingdom of God. The logic of the world tells us from an early age the only way to find security is through possessions or power. But the logic of the heavenly…of taking up our crosses….says that we’ll only find lasting fulfillment as we give of ourselves, put others first, and take up burdens on behalf of one another.
In short…we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves. What I mean by that is we have to enter into this paradox that admits…we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know what’s best for us. So we let go of who we are, we let go of what we’ve been…and we enter into what Paul Tillich calls “The New Being.” This isn’t about self-annihilation…it’s about receiving a new identity all together. We surrender what our consumer culture defines as “life” and we’re reborn into the abundant life God wants for us. Let’s trade the illusions and the smoke and mirrors for the real thing. See, when we make that exchange and we start down the true road to discipleship, we’ll see that life is the better life. We’ll see that our greatest joys…the times when we feel most alive….don’t come from things we’ve bought or earned….they come when we put our relationships first. They come when we’re doing acts of service. They come when we make sacrifices caring for others.
My sisters and brothers, everyone who is reading this blog today....I want you to remember that you are part of a royal priesthood…the priesthood of all believers. Take up your crosses and follow Jesus on the road to discipleship. It may be as simple as listening rather than speaking first. It may be as simple as shoveling snow for your neighbor. It may be baking some cookies and delivering it to someone who’s day it’ll brighten. It may be calling someone in the hospital. It may be just being present and sitting with someone who has dementia and isn’t even aware that you’re there.
This is what Jesus means when He says “Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.” Thank God, for those who help us die to ourselves. You know, I think we really do need a spiritual friend just like Saint Francis De Sales once said. Most of the time we choose our friends because of common interests and sometimes because they tell us what we want to hear. We like our friends to make us feel good. But now we know that’s more of the worldly thinking that Jesus is talking about. We need a friend who holds us accountable.
We need a friend who points us in the right direction and sets our spirits on heavenly things. I’m blessed I had my spiritual friend Brian because he did all of that for me. Yes, I’m that selfish dude who’s used to getting his way. But more than a decade after we had that conversation on that warm summer evening, I finally listened to his advice. I took all my writing…years and years worth of short stories, novels, poems, plays…I put it all in a box and tucked it away in a closet. In tears I said out loud, “all I have, all I am, is yours God.” I offered up my writing to God.
I said if it was His will, I’d never touch a keyboard or a pen again. And now…here I am…writing sermons every week…writing theological papers, essays, and articles…..using the talent God gave me for others…just as Brian said I should be doing. Every week, every time my fingers touch the keyboard…it’s an act of surrender…of going down the road to discipleship…and let me tell you….I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. May Almighty God help each one of us to be His true disciples, taking up their own crosses and walking with Him on the paths of love and service. Amen.