By the Rev. Darren Miner
“Get behind me, Satan!” and “Let them take up their cross!”—these are the two standout phrases from today’s Gospel. Now, the word gospel, by definition, means Good News, but the Good News in these two phrases is far from apparent. One phrase is a harsh rebuke. The other phrase is an order to carry a deadly burden. No, the Good News is not apparent, but it’s there nonetheless.
Let’s start at the beginning. Today’s reading from Mark, chapter 8, takes place immediately after the Confession of Peter, in which that saint rightly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Despite the fact that Peter got that bit right, Jesus knows full well that he is not the kind of Messiah that Peter and the other disciples expect. They expect a military leader who will free the people of Judea from the yoke of Roman imperial rule and who will sit on the throne of David. Dashing the disciples’ hopes, Jesus begins teaching them that this Messiah “must undergo great suffering…and be killed.” Peter is understandably dismayed. So he takes Jesus the Messiah aside and attempts to set him straight. There’s a bit of a role reversal going on here. Peter assumes the role of the master correcting an errant disciple. But this attempt at role reversal doesn’t last for long. Jesus turns his back on Peter, addresses the on-looking disciples, and rebukes Peter, saying: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It was a teaching moment intended not just for Peter but also the other disciples.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter comes across as unduly harsh (at least in the English translation). Here, as is sometimes the case, a knowledge of Greek can further our understanding. That command “Get behind me!” is ambiguous in the original Greek. On the one hand, it can mean something like “Get out of my way!” On the other hand, it can mean something quite different: “Keep following my lead!” I suspect that Jesus intended the latter meaning. He is not pushing Peter aside; he is reminding Peter who is the leader and who is the follower. As for calling Peter “Satan,” that was to drive home the point that Peter was playing the part of the Tempter, even if unintentionally, by encouraging Jesus to avoid death on the Cross at all costs.
After correcting Peter, Jesus then calls the crowd to come closer. And he gives them this invitation: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s that second standout phrase!
Before I get to what it means to take up one’s cross, let me say a word or two about the invitation to deny ourselves. When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, he is not asking us to debase ourselves. Elsewhere, Jesus teaches that his followers are, in fact, God’s children. And what could be of more worth than that? In this context, to deny ourselves is simply to say No to overweening self-interest. It is to put the needs of the weak and vulnerable in this world above our own. More importantly, it is to put God’s will above our own. As I mentioned last week, Jesus calls us to prioritize love of God and love of neighbor above love of self.
Then, there’s Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross. For us, it’s merely a metaphor, and one that has become rather cliché, at that. We use the phrase to describe even the lightest of burdens. “My grandson is so sassy; I guess it’s a cross I have to bear.” Or, “I heard that Fr. Darren is preaching again this Sunday; it’s just another cross I’ll have to bear.” Well, you get the point! But for Jesus’ audience, the metaphor was no metaphor at all! They knew exactly what Jesus meant. Jesus was referring to the common Roman practice of compelling prisoners to carry a crossbeam to the site of their own crucifixion. Jesus was talking about being willing to suffer, and even die, for the sake of discipleship.
A couple of weeks ago, 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded by Islamic terrorists precisely because they were Christians. The video showing their horrific deaths displayed a caption that said they were killed because they “insisted on remaining in their unbelief”; in other words, they refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. The implication is that they might have been spared if they had converted to Islam. The propagandists from the self-styled Islamic State made a big PR mistake; they left the sound on during the executions, and several of the victims could be heard calling out in faith to Jesus. These poor Egyptian laborers died as martyrs to the faith. They stayed faithful to their Lord even though it meant their deaths. Truly, these men took up their crosses and followed their beloved Lord.
As Christians, we too are each called to take up our own cross, whatever that cross may be. Our cross is unlikely to be physical persecution for our faith. What then? For some of us, our cross might be a physical ailment or a mental illness. It might be loneliness or grief or depression or poverty. Each of us in our lives has burdens that weigh us down, that make it difficult to go on, that test our faith in God. These are our crosses. We are called to take them up and follow Jesus, no matter how heavy they may be.
Paradoxically, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” How can that be true? Sometimes, the burdens of life are enough to bring us to our knees. I think the answer lies in the fact that we are not called to carry that yoke, or that cross, all on our own. If we are following Jesus, then there is always someone just ahead of us to whom we can reach out for support. In my view, Jesus is not leading the way at a great distance down the road toward God. No, he is just an arm’s length away. When we need his help carrying our cross, we have but to reach out to him. And Jesus is not our only companion. For we have one another, fellow travelers on the Way. We don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s OK to ask for help when we need it. Even Jesus depended on the assistance of Simon of Cyrene on the road to Calvary. When those 21 Egyptian Christians were martyred, they called out to Jesus for help. I firmly believe that Jesus was with each of them at the moment of their deaths. I firmly believe that Jesus is with them still.
So how is the Way of the Cross “Good News”? Well, it’s Good News because of where that Way ultimately leads. Jesus promises that those who are willing to offer up their very lives for his sake will be rewarded with new and unending life in the presence of God. That is the reward of the Christian martyr. That is the reward of the faithful disciple. That is the consummation of the Way of the Cross. And in the words of Shakespeare, “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.