September 3, 2017
Last week we heard Peter make his famous confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Christian faith will be founded upon this confession. But left to our own understanding of what that means, we invariably miss and distort the point. We fall back on our own ego-centric, self-serving ways of understanding who God is and what it means to be a “Messiah.” And we ignorantly assume that what Jesus means is exactly the kind of power, wealth, and popularity that Jesus himself rejects back in chapter 4 when Satan offers them to him.
Even Peter does this. Which means that Jesus has to unpack what it really means to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. What it doesn’t mean is that Jesus would take political power for himself in a successful violent revolution in Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus knows what he’s really in for when he gets to Jerusalem: he tells his disciples that he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus knows that his ministry is so profoundly counter-cultural and so threatening to the religious and political authorities, that they will not allow it to continue. In order to preserve their power and prevent people from following him and organizing in his Name they will have no choice but to engineer his death. It is inevitable.
The Lord knows that there is nothing more offensive and dangerous to powerful leaders than people who are awake and gathering together in support of one another. Nothing is more alarming to them than that people start living according to Jesus’ teachings of sharing, forgiveness, welcoming, healing, and non-violence. Because if people start living that way, if they start following Jesus, the power of the rulers — which is maintained by fomenting fear, anger, and hatred between people — is over.
Human leaders will do everything they can to prevent this from happening. Where Jesus teaches welcoming and acceptance, they said that those disgusting, lazy Gentiles — which is to say, anyone different — should be feared and excluded. Where Jesus teaches non-violence, they said a huge Roman military is necessary to protect from terrorists. Where Jesus enacted an economics of sharing together in God’s abundance, the rulers said that the only system that works is when rich people continue to get richer. Where Jesus includes and elevates women, they said that women should stay subservient and powerless. Where Jesus embodies liberation and forgiveness, they insisted that slavery, torture, and mass incarceration were necessary to deter crime. Where Jesus teaches that the Law is about love, they made it about control and the preservation of their own power.
Jesus also knows that human rulers have always rid themselves of people like him by means of the legalized murder of the death penalty. Many of the prophets end up as enemies of the elite, and so will he.
Hearing Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, Peter objected. He even rebuked Jesus! Maybe he thought Jesus was being cynical and negative about his prospects, and it was Peter’s job to build him back up into a more positive attitude. Maybe he thought he would be Jesus’ cheerleader or self-esteem coach. In any case, Jesus snarls back at him that he is no less than Satan. “You are a stumbling block to me;” he says, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In other words, Peter saw things from the perspective of his ego and conventional thinking. He was thinking like everyone else. He was thinking according to the standards of fallen humanity. And that made him a stumbling block. He was getting in Jesus’ way. He was obstructing Jesus’ mission. It becomes clear that he didn’t understand his own confession of faith, which he made just a few verses earlier.
Peter did not understand that not only is Jesus’ death inevitable given what he is doing, it is also necessary. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus here predicts that he will die… and be raised on the third day. Peter apparently neither heard nor understood this last clause about being raised. But it is of course the key to everything.
There is a famous quote about revolutionary movements: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Jesus would amend that saying adding the words “then you die” before “then you win.” Because the winning for Jesus comes only after death. Otherwise it is not a real transformation or change, just a new adaptation and adjustment in the old power arrangement. Which is what most revolutions are. For all their lofty propaganda, they simply catapult a different group of self-important, self-serving leaders up into the palace. They may have a slightly different narrative justifying their rule, but because they have done no spiritual work, which is to say, they haven’t died, the effect on the ground is largely the same. As Pete Townsend once sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Only the finality of death closes the book on the previous identity sufficiently enough that the new thing that emerges is really different, higher, and better.
But, you know, even this has been self-servingly misconstrued by the powers-that-be to push redemption, liberation, healing, freedom, forgiveness, and joy way ahead into the afterlife or even to the end of time. Such an approach reduces Christian faith to at best a matter of spiritual procrastination where instead of embracing God’s Kingdom now we wait patiently biding our time for the sweet by-and-by. Indeed, many people, generation after generation, have accepted this watered-down, domesticated, neutered, vapid as what Christian faith is.
That’s because we are deliberately misled about what death really is. Our egos are terrified of death because they think it is utter annihilation and obliteration. But if Jesus’ analogy of the grain of wheat is correct, then that’s not what death is at all. Death is a transformation into a new kind of life. here is even some continuity between the seed and the plant, the acorn and the oak tree, say. They have the same dna. The oak-tree is simply the final form of the acorn. It is the acorn’s destiny. But in order to get there the acorn-self has to die so the oak-tree-self can sprout, emerge, and grow.
I have mentioned before the famous quote from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “When Christ calls someone he bids them come and die.” It is not what we want to hear any more than it is what Peter wants to hear. Yet it is the core of discipleship. There is a sense in which in order to be faithful to Jesus we have to embrace and even love our own death.
To some this makes Christianity seem incredibly depressing and morbid. But when Bonhoeffer hears Jesus say, “Come and die,” it is not an invitation to slit our wrists or jump off the Driscoll Bridge. Real discipleship is about being called by Jesus to “come and die…” so that in the process God’s Kingdom may emerge in us here and now. Real discipleship is about letting go of our acorn-self, our grain-of-wheat self, so that our new, amazing, apparently impossible self, our oak-tree-self, which was always our real Self and true destiny, can emerge.
What has to die is our old self, the self that finds its meaning and purpose in wealth, power, and popularity; the self that expresses its existence in what it can consume, own, control, keep, and demand; the self that is primarily motivated by fear, shame, and anger; the little ego-self driven by our personality, that is limited in vision by ignorance, crippled by desires, deaf to the voices of others, and defiled by sin. In other words, it is maimed by all the conditions Jesus explicitly heals in his ministry, when people come to him with bodies broken by them.
Here Jesus intentionally connects his death with the death he is requiring from his disciples. He goes right from a prediction of his own execution to the demand that his disciples also “deny themselves and take up their cross and… lose their life for [his] sake.” He clearly does not want anyone to come away with the wrong idea, as if he is dying so we don’t have to. What is really going on is that he is dying to show us the pathway to resurrection. He is dying so we can too, and emerge with him in new life. That’s the whole point. That’s why the initiation ritual for entry into the Christian faith is… Baptism: a symbolic dying with Christ and rising again with him. It is the pattern of growth into resurrection life
So, yes, Christianity is focused on “life after death.” But that life after death begins to happen now, in the giving up of our old, ego-centric, selfish existence in practices of repentance and discipleship. Jesus even warns us to get busy with this work now, because if the Son of Man comes in his Kingdom before we taste this death, that is, before we know who we truly are, it could be too late. We will not recognize him because we will still be trapped in our old, shallow, fearful identity. The oak-tree will appear and we will not be able to imagine that it has anything to do with us acorns. In fact it will scare the living daylights out of us.
Paul writes that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” The point is resurrection. The goal and destiny of human life is…. life! With that as our future, it almost doesn’t matter what we have to go through to get there. Our old self only sees the death part. It can’t imagine anything on the other side of it. The Christian life is about cultivating a better and truer imagination, convincing ourselves that, though we may be acorns today, will be oak-trees. And the Christian life is about losing, releasing, giving up, letting go of our acorn-selves, which die… so that the new Self, Christ-in-us, the Image of God in which we are created, emerges into its fullness and glory.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’