Leading from Behind

Mark 8:31-38

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Over the last couple of days our various media outlets have been inundated with two very different stories. The first is the story of the passing of Leonard Nimoy, better known by the name of the character he portrayed on television and in the movies, Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series. This story was especially popular on the internet where nerds and geeks spend most of their time. To Mr. Spock I wish to show my respect by offering the Vulcan salute, Live long and prosper.

The other story is one that I soon got tired of. It was running on the morning television shows, there were stories about it on the radio, and it was trending on Facebook and Twitter. The biggest piece of news this week had to do with the color of a dress. I guess that we should just be glad that the news wasn’t filled with stories of the next big snow storm coming through!

It is very likely that you saw this at some point over the last few days, but in case you didn’t a woman took a picture of a dress and posted it online. The debate soon began over the colors of this dress. Is it blue and black or is it white and gold? It seems like a pretty simple question, right? I learned these colors when I was just a wee boy, so I know what blue looks like, and I know what white looks like. And the dress is clearly….

That’s to problem. Everyone thinks that they clearly know what color the dress is. If I asked the congregation today (and I plan to do just that) what color this dress is, you would all have a strong opinion on the matter. And that is why this dress made such an interesting story! You saw it as white, I saw it as blue. For me there was no question about it. That dress was blue and black. But others were just as confident that the same dress, even when looking at the same picture, was actually white and gold.

There is a lot of science behind why some people see the dress as being one set of colors and other people see it as another. And no, it does not have to do with being color blind. It has to do with the way the colors are digitized by a camera and how those colors are shown on your screen. There is also a lighting factor that comes into play. All of these things affect how your brain interprets the colors of this dress. And I’m told that in real life, the dress is actually blue and black (take that, haters!).

I think that the reason this story got so much attention has to do with the fact that we all know our colors. So when someone tries to say that we are wrong, we get a little bit defensive. We form camps and divide between the blue/black dress and the white/gold dress. And to be told that something that we think we really understand is completely off is unsettling to say the least. So we either dig deeper into our trench and demand that we are correct, or we just quit having the conversation all together. But I think that there is another option, as we will find in our scripture for this morning.

It is always interesting to ask people who they most closely relate to in the Bible. When you look at the different characters, in whom do you see yourself? Are you a great leader like David? A strong woman like the woman with the alabaster jar? Maybe you see yourself as a great letter writer, like Paul. But me, I tend to see myself as Peter. Quick to speak, slow to think. Probably about half of the time we are right, which means the other half of the time…we are less right.

Mark chapters 8-9 are such a good example of Peter’s personality. Just verses earlier in chapter 8 we find Peter making the great proclamation when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus gives Peter a pat on the back and says, “Atta boy!” Then just a few verses, and the way it is written in Mark is seems like it happens almost immediately after Jesus gives Peter that “Atta boy!,” Jesus tells Peter “Get behind me, Satan!”

I get it, Peter. I really do. Being a disciple of Jesus if filled with highs and lows, victories and defeats.

I wonder if we might miss the point of this story some times. At this point in Mark’s gospel we find Jesus really hitting his stride. He has been healing the sick, feeding the thousands, and putting the religious leaders in their place. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t like it when the high and mighty leaders get what’s coming to them? Jesus doesn’t just rebuke guys like me and Peter, he rebukes the scribes and the Pharisees along the way as well.

This is why Jesus asks his disciples just a few verses earlier, “Who do people say that I am?” He is putting out his feelers, trying to gauge what people are saying about him. Some are calling him John the Baptist, others are saying that he is Elijah. They at least recognize that he is someone special sent from God. And when Jesus asks Peter who Peter thinks that he is, Peter goes all in. “You are the Messiah!” You’re the one we’ve been waiting for. You are the one who will bring Israel back from this oppression and Roman occupation. You are our redeemer, our deliverer, our savior. The Hebrew concept of the Messiah held all of these connotations. But as we know on this side of the story, how Jesus would be their redeemer, deliverer, and savior differed greatly from what they were expecting.

That’s why when Jesus starts talking about being killed by the religious leaders, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter corrects Jesus. Let that sink in a bit!

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, spoke of the “infinite qualitative difference” that separates us humans from God. Essentially what Kierkegaard is saying in his big fancy words is that the gap between us and God is so great that we can never fully grasp who God is and what God is doing. God’s ways are not our ways, nor our His thoughts our thoughts. I understand this, and believe it to some extent. Yet I fear that if we focus too much on the infinite qualitative difference between us and God, we will neglect our call to be disciples of Jesus.

It would be easy for Peter or for me to receive the kind of feedback where we are told “Get behind me Satan,” and just leave, to just stop. I’ve messed up again. I’m just not getting it. And I’ve got good reason to not get it. It’s that infinite qualitative difference thing, right? So if there is an infinite qualitative difference between me and God, why even make an effort? If I can’t do this discipleship thing right, why not just keep doing whatever I want?

On the one hand, I want to affirm the infinite qualitative difference. But on the other hand, I want to remember that we were also created in the image of God, the imago Dei. Indeed, there is a separation, but I like to think that there is something within us that continues to reflect the image of God. We know that Genesis 1 talks about God creating us in God’s image. Then again in Genesis 9 God mentions this concept of being created in God’s image once again, this time as a reason for not killing other human beings. Chapter 9 is after the Fall, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, even after the Great Flood. If we jump to the New Testament, the book of James tells us to be careful of how we speak about other people. Why? Because they are created in the image of God (James 3:9). Even though evil has entered into people, there is something within them, within us. We still reflect the image of God in some way, if only partially. That infinite qualitative difference, that gap just got a little bit smaller.

So we come back to Peter in our text for today. Jesus says that he, the one just proclaimed to be the Messiah must suffer and die. Peter says something along the lines of We will never let this happen!, which is what leads Jesus to say, “Get behind me Satan.”

I do not think that Jesus is calling Peter Beelzebub or Lucifer. The word Satan is used differently throughout the Bible, sometimes as a proper name, but also at times to refer to an adversary or tempter. I think that either of those understandings can be helpful. Was Jesus calling Peter an adversary? The Bible is clear that Jesus understood that he was going to die. But we are also given clues that lead us to think that he had a choice in the matter. I prefer to read this not as Jesus calling Peter Beelzebub, but calling him an adversary or a tempter. Jesus is recognizing his own temptation to forgo the cross and therefore forgo suffering and pain.

There is something here that we lose in our English translations that is helpful. Why does Jesus tell Peter to get behind him? Is it easier to resist temptation when it is coming from behind? If the cupcake is behind me, is it less tempting?

After Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, Jesus addresses the crowd in verse 34 saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What we miss in the English is that Mark repeats the same phrase in verse 33 and verse 34. We leave a couple of words out of the English because it is redundant. When Jesus instructs his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, he literally says to pick up your cross and “follow me behind me.” We don’t speak like that because to follow someone implies that you will be getting behind them. If I was trying to help you drive to a place you hadn’t been before, I wouldn’t tell you to follow me behind me in the car. I would just say to follow me. Behind me is redundant and unnecessary; maybe even a little confusing. But Jesus is saying that disciples need to take up their cross and follow him behind him. And that is the same phrase that Jesus uses in the preceding verse when he tells Peter to get behind him.

So when Peter tells Jesus that he isn’t about to let Jesus die a terrible death, Jesus says Don’t tempt me, get behind me, follow me. He then opens up the discussion to everyone and says, If you want to be my disciples, you will also need to pick up your cross and get behind me, follow me.

In the Mennonite church we tend to focus on discipleship a lot. If you grew up in other churches you may have heard a lot about believing in Jesus, making him your personal savior, or making a decision for Jesus. It isn’t as if we Mennonites don’t believe in believing in Jesus. We just don’t like to stop there. The book of James tells us that even the demons believe in Jesus. Discipleship means following Jesus, picking up your cross daily and following Jesus’ teaching and example. Which one requires more belief, simply saying you believe in Jesus or doing the things that he did that also led to his death? Now that’s belief!

I want to come back to that dress that we all now know is blue and black. When our belief system is challenged, we either fight back or we grow disinterested. When said that the dress was of a different color than what you believed it was, you either started aligning yourself with like believers or you just stepped away quietly. But I look at Peter, with all of his shortcomings and problems. When Jesus said that he needed to die and rise again, Peter stepped in and said, “This doesn’t fit my expectations! This is not what I believe! And I’m going to fight to keep it from happening!” And when the authority on the matter, Jesus himself, stepped in and corrected Jesus, Peter could have just left. He could have got angry. But based on what we read about Peter in the rest of the New Testament, he did exactly what Jesus asked of him. Peter got behind Jesus and followed him.

In this life we will be challenged physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And when the things that we believe are challenged, whether that is the color of a dress or the role of the Messiah, I pray that we will not grow angry. I pray that we will not form camps and alliances. My prayer is that we will constantly recommit ourselves to following Jesus, even when doing so will lead us to our own cross.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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