St John’s, Decatur
As the presidential election season heats up, we hear a great deal about the religious faith and practice of the various candidates. They seem to be trying to outdo one another in establishing their Christian credentials, which is a little difficult for one of them, who practices a religion that most of the Christian world doesn’t believe is actually … Christian. What I find strange about all this is how few people seem to realize that to be a Christian is not really to be conventional. To be a Christian is actually to be rather an oddball in the world. Christians navigate through the spiritual universe using a different map than the world uses. Christians navigate through the moral universe using a different compass. Simple words like success, health, peace, happiness, shame, embarrassment, and suffering—these each mean one thing in our culture, our society, our day-to-day world. But in the Church, among Christians, within the community of faith—they have very different connotations. To a Christian, what the world counts as “success” is a false god, an idol. To a Christian, much of what the world sees as “happiness” is spiritually destructive. To a Christian, what looks like shame or embarrassment to the world is known to be glory and honor. To a Christian, suffering is not failure, it is the very path to life and joy and victory.
The Christian faith, in fact, makes an audacious claim. It claims to make sense of human experience. It claims to provide a map that orients us and give us a sense of direction within the chaos of the world. It claims to be a lens through which we can look at confusion and see order. It makes the astonishing assertion that victory is found in surrender, healing flows from suffering, strength is located in weakness, leadership is most clearly expressed in service, and life cannot be secured except through death. When Jesus declares, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” he is, in effect, saying, “If you’re going to be a Christian, get ready to be ashamed and embarrassed, get ready to feel like an oddball, get ready to be ridiculed.” In the imagination of Jesus’ listeners, “taking up [a] cross” was a potent symbol for embarrassment and shame. Yet, Jesus also indicates that all this is necessary, that it’s all according to plan. St Mark tells us that “Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The Son of man must suffer. Jesus’ death is not an accident, it is necessary. It’s part of what he came here for. It was the first item on his job description.
Now, the inescapable implication in this is that, if we’re not looking at the world by means of this map, if we’re not seeing our experience through this lens, then we’re not really seeing reality. We are looking at the world from a limited human perspective. We’re like a race horse wearing blinders—our field of view is restricted, there’s important stuff we can’t see. Or, better yet, we’re like the proverbial committee of blind men charged with the task of describing an elephant: One of us lays hold of the tusks, another one grabs the trunk, and others are groping around the feet, belly, and tail. We’re all going to give very concrete descriptions of what an elephant is, and we’re going to be very sure we’re right, but we will, in fact, all be wrong. So we make important decisions about our lives, and the lives of others, based on faulty and incomplete information. Then we wonder why our lives are such a mess. We’re not seeing the way God sees. We’re not thinking the way God thinks.
The good news is, God has made it possible for us to see the way He sees, and think the way He thinks. He has made Himself accessible to us, and He has done so by coming down to our level in order to make it possible for us to be taken up to His level. He does so in the person of Jesus, who is at the same time completely divine and completely human. Through Jesus, God invites us and enables us to participate in, to share in, His very life.
Now, there are many ways by which we might relate to Jesus in the hope of taking God up on this invitation. During the time he walked this earth, Jesus had what we might today call “groupies.” These were people who followed him around, but at a safe distance, and with no commitment or accountability. Jesus still has groupies. Many of them are warming church pews on any given Sunday all across the world. Interest? Yes. Fascination? Yes. Commitment? No. Responsibility? No.
Another way of relating to Jesus is as an objective scholar, of either a professional or an amateur sort. Scholars analyze and compare various scriptural manuscripts, and examine other literary evidence from the time, and compare it all with archeological research, and come up with learned opinions about what Jesus really said or did or intended, in distinction to what the gospels say Jesus said or did or intended.
And then, of course, there are those who are just plain skeptical, or too self-absorbed to care very much, and they relate to Jesus from a position of indifference or unbelief.
But, if we really want to take God up on the invitation to share his life and sees what He sees and think what He thinks, then the most important thing we can do is to place ourselves in relation to Jesus as disciples to a master. Jesus resorts to some pretty drastic language to make precisely this point to his favorite apostle—Peter. After Jesus tells them all very plainly what lies ahead—that he’s going to be increasingly rejected by the Jewish authorities, and eventually be killed, but rise again after three days—after Jesus makes this announcement, Peter has a fit. At the first opportunity, he pulls Jesus aside and tells him to cut it out with that kind of negative talk, that it’s bad for the group’s morale, and how are they going attract newcomers with Jesus predicting disaster all the time? But Jesus comes right back at him: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Get behind me, Satan. It’s the “Satan” part that gets our attention, isn’t it? I mean, to have Jesus liken him to Satan must have really brought Peter up short. Jesus apparently thought that shocking language was called for. The cross was so central to his mission that he could have very little patience with anyone who questioned that destiny, whose behavior might compromise God’s grand plan for the salvation of the world. But let’s not get too distracted by the name calling, because the real meat here is in what comes before it— “Get behind me.” Jesus wasn’t merely telling Peter to go away with his crazy ideas. He wasn’t just shooing him off. Nor was he, as it might perhaps seem, rejecting Peter, turning his back on Peter. Rather, Jesus was telling Peter to get back where he belonged—behind him, as a disciple, as one who follows.
And Peter’s challenge is also our challenge. In Christ, God offers us life—abundant life, His own life. In Christ, God offers us the truth—an accurate map of the spiritual and moral universe we inhabit, a universe full of pitfalls and alluring deceptions. In Christ, God takes the blinders off our eyes, and allows us to see that too much friendship with the world is enmity with God, that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. But this gift is not available to us if we relate to Jesus merely as groupies—interested observers who won’t make a commitment. This gift is not available to us if our relationship to Jesus is merely academic—that of a disinterested scholar. Nor is it available to us if we are skeptical, or scornful, or indifferent. The gift of seeing the way God sees and thinking the way God thinks is available to us when we get behind Jesus, in the position of disciples. Seeing reality from God’s point of view is available to us when we are ready to embrace the cross, to know the way of the cross to be the means of life and peace, to take up our cross and fall in behind Jesus, ready to suffer shame, embarrassment, and ridicule from a world that will misunderstand and hate us—ready to absorb that misunderstanding and hate and return nothing but love. It’s not an easy road. It really isn’t. But it’s a road worth traveling. It’s a road that will lead us to our true destination. Amen.