Mark 8:31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.”
34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”
Back in the 80’s, the preacher Will Campbell was invited to speak at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City. Riverside is a prestigious congregation that meets in a massive, ornate, gothic cathedral that had been built by the Rockerfellers, while Campbell was a southerner who had been active in the Civil Rights movement. So years later Riverside asked him to talk on the subject of “What Riverside Church Can Do to Help the Future of Race Relations in America.” Will Campbell got up that morning and looked around the sanctuary and he said, “You’re asking me to talk about race relations but what you’re really asking is, what can we do to help…and keep all this?” Then he told them the answer to their question was “Sell everything you have, especially the church building, and give the proceeds to your black neighbors.”
Riverside still meets in their cathedral so they obviously didn’t take that advice, but I think Campbell hits on something really important here. We might be tempted to dismiss him as a provocateur or someone who’s too ideological and needs to be more down to earth. Why couldn’t he just give those folks some practical tips that they could apply to their lives? (He actually gave them a very practical suggestion. It’s just one they didn’t want to hear.)
When our lives are relatively comfortable, we usually only want just enough conversion, just enough repentance, to feel better about ourselves but not to the point where we have to give up much. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. There’s a writer named Augustine who tells in his Confessions about his youthful struggles with lust, and at one point he prayed to God, “Lord, make me chaste…but not yet.” And I think we all have something in our lives that we would pray that prayer for. Lord, give us justice and equality and freedom…but let me keep me stuff.
In our Scripture this morning, Jesus is about as blunt with the disciples as Will Campbell was with Riverside Church. He’s telling the disciples that he is going to suffer. He’s going to be rejected by all of the authorities in Jerusalem, and they are going to silence him. But three days later, he will rise. The tone of Jesus’ message is ultimately hopeful, but he’s not shy about the struggles he’s going to undergo, the conflict he’s going to have with the powers and principalities. There is life on the other side of death, a new beginning beyond the end, but that’s not going to come without struggle.
But it’s almost like Peter didn’t hear the hopeful part. “What’s that he said about rising?” “Who cares, did you hear all that stuff about suffering?” So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Jesus, you’re not going to die. God loves you and will keep you safe. Don’t talk about defeat, don’t talk about being handed over, don’t throw your life away. We need you alive.
To that, Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things.” That’s a pretty harsh response, but from Jesus’ vantage, Peter is speaking in the same voice as the tempter in the wilderness. He’s trying to tell him that there is no cost to the Kingdom of God. But more than that, he’s saying that things can keep on going the same way they’ve always gone. With some minor tweaks we can incrementally make the world a little better. We don’t need to start over, to die and rise, we just need to touch things up a little bit, put a new guy on the same throne, and then everything will be OK.
Jesus says to Peter, “You’re setting your mind on human things, not divine things.” Jesus doesn’t just want to reshuffle the deck, reset the pieces on the board. In Jesus, God wants to clear the board and play a completely different game. Peter just can’t see it, and I think it’s probably because he doesn’t think that’s possible. He thinks in human terms: he imagines in the framework that’s available to him and anything that doesn’t fit into that framework has to be dismissed. It’s not possible.
What do you think is impossible? Really. What do you think is impossible? An end to gun violence in America? The disappearance of nuclear weapons? No more homelessness in Durham and Chapel Hill? No more children in poverty? Racial justice in our communities? A world without borders? What do you hear about that makes you throw up your hands and say “I guess it will always be this way!” I’m sure all of us have grand social problems and then some very personal ones as well that weigh on us each day. There are a lot of “human things” that seem immovable and unchanging.
We set our eyes on human things and those things teach us what is possible. For the last 80 years or so, a lot of people in this country, particularly white people, have known an unprecedented level of stability, and that stability can make “human things” seem predictable and safe, but also inevitable. Our lives fit into these pre-made patterns and many of us know who we are because of them. There’s this story, floating around, that if you go to school and find yourself a job and just generally work hard and be a nice person, then everything will work out for you. You can live in a nice neighborhood and raise your kids to go to school and work hard and the whole thing repeats itself.
But also as a part of that story, stability is something you have to win again and again because there are evil forces that threaten it, that threaten the family, that threaten your safe neighborhood, that threaten the nation, and so to protect our stability, we need some violence, we need guns, we need borders, we need poverty as a threat because some people are inherently lazy and won’t work hard otherwise. And so at the same time that we throw up our hands and say “Why does it have to be this way?” another voice says, “Because that’s what makes this life possible.” The American Dream and security have always gone hand in hand, and they teach us what is possible and what is impossible: this story, which is common sense if you’re a part of the right “common,” says you have to save your life if you want to keep it, make the most of it, protect it and you’ll be alright. This story is powerful because it’s given some of us the whole world, but at what cost?
How can we help, and keep all this? You can’t, because the desire to protect our stuff is the reason most of those problems exist. What some of us call “life” is actually death for a lot of people, and so the only way to find life that is really life is to let other visions of life die.
Which is why we need to talk about guns. There’s been a lot of conversation about firearms in the last week since the massacre at Parkland in Florida. And it’s deeply troubling to me when I hear people, Christians, say that they need their guns to “keep their families safe” because “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” First of all, as Christians, we say that there is no such thing as a “good guy.” No one is righteous, not even one. There are only sinners saved by grace, always imperfect in this life. Now, if you have a bolt action rifle that you use to deer hunt, I’m not picking on you, but this idea that a gun, or many guns, “keeps my family safe” is the very embodiment of trying save our own lives, and that story—that guns make us who we are and protect us from who we’re not—is one we need to repent of, maybe by giving up our guns as a witness to a world that is obsessed with them. So as you hear friends or family members repeat that story, that guns keep us safe, I encourage you to ask them some hard questions about what that has to do with their Christian convictions. Because maybe our country’s obsession with guns means that some of us are clinging to our lives, at the cost of others losing theirs and maybe our own souls, as well.
“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?”
There have been a lot of abuses of these verses, where Christians who are comfortable look at people who are suffering, especially women and people of color, and say, “Oh that’s just your cross to bear. Stay in that relationship. Let your boss keep treating you that way. Keep your chains.” What’s so frustrating about those abuses beyond the ways they hurt people, is that what Jesus is saying is meant to work in exactly the opposite way, pointing to those who are comfortable and saying, “Your security measures are killing all of us. Take a risk. Risk that your neighbor might touch you, risk that you don’t need to maintain your lifestyle, risk that you’ll be less lonely without walls to keep people out. Risk your stuff. Maybe if you give away your extra cloak, and something happens to the one you keep, someone else will give one to you in turn. Maybe if you give up your guns, you’ll find the world isn’t such a scary place when you’re not viewing it through crosshairs. Trying to save your life is killing you and your neighbors!”
If we want to walk the road Jesus walked, there are some things we need to let die, some possessions we might need to give up. We need to die to suspicion of those who are different, we might need to die to fear about the future, we might need to die to ambitions of security, because those myths are imitations of life that are not really life. They breed fear and isolation and ill will toward the vulnerable. There’s nothing deadlier than being obsessed with safety.
But the good news is that on the other side of those deaths, the death of false life, is the life that is really life. Those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it. For those who are buried with Christ in a death like his will surely be raised to walk in newness of life. When we die to fear, we don’t cease but become brave; when we die to suspicion, we aren’t lost, but gain new friends; when we give up our possessions, we don’t want, but find ourselves holding all things in common; when we die to security, we wake to see that we are vulnerable to love as well as hurt.
How can we help…and keep all this? We can’t. But why would we want to? We cling and clutch to the very anchors that are dragging us down to the depths, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Other ways of life are possible. We can die to our clinging, clutching ways and rise again in love and generosity and the fullness of resurrected life together. We can lose our lives by hanging onto their counterfeit, or we can give up the counterfeit and find ourselves saved.
My friends, may we live openhanded lives, may we die to what’s killing us and call each other, and our friends and families, to new life on the other side. May we call our neighbors to take their fingers off their triggers. May we take up our crosses, not to maintain the patterns of this world, but in order to bring about a whole new world, a world where nobody uses crosses or guns or bombs anymore because we’re happy to lose the whole world but gain our souls. Amen.
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