Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Now, simply on the face of it, can there be a more depressing statement than that? And yet, this is the essence of Christian discipleship. That’s why we need to look far beyond the surface of this week’s Gospel lectionary passage:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.” 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. 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? 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.” –Mark 8:27-38 NRSV
There is much of popular Christianity these days that leaves the impression that “happy days are here again” if only we will invite Jesus Christ to be our “Lord and Savior.” That, first of all, seems to me to put way too much emphasis on our personal choice (especially the “What’s in it for me?” question)–as if we’re somehow in charge of everything in life. We’re not. Stuff happens, both bad and good. There are forces at work far bigger than each of us. And so to say that Jesus is “my personal savior” comes off sounding not all that different from “my best friend” (and, yes, I know Christians who regard Christ in that way, too).
Like those first dozen of Jesus’ disciples, we’re often unaware of or unwilling to admit the seriousness of what it might mean to follow Jesus. For Peter and the other eleven to “pick up your cross” meant making a direct connection with society’s outcasts, those people regarded as condemned criminals and convicted traitors to Roman authority. It’s no wonder Peter sought to counter, if not correct, Jesus about all this talk of dying. How could God’s kingdom be brought into being that way? From our 21st-century perspective we can easily see just how clueless Peter was, so we need to be careful that we don’t assume he shares our vantage point.
Jesus was abrupt with Peter, to the point of rebuking him with the now-famous line, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Three years ago this week brought the TV coverage of the return to the United States of the bodies of four U.S. State Department officials, including the ambassador to Libya. (Of course, today “Bengazi!” has become something of a political football but it’s worth remembering that wasn’t always so.) I recall what a jarring interruption to regular daytime TV fare it was: four flag-draped coffins; military honor guards; solemn statements by the President and Secretary of State; a large assemblage of family, State Department colleagues, and government officials; four lives cut tragically short because they were doing their jobs and their duty.
I’m sure none of us wants to think that Christian discipleship might lead to similar ends, and it rarely does. But it can. The images of innocent people being beheaded by ISIS are only too real, after all.
Two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth asked his friends and disciples who the crowds–and they–thought he was. The answer to that question for us today is not what we do on a Sunday morning. It’s who we are and whose we are and why it matters to us.