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.”
My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2018) on Mark 8:31-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
It’s kind of amazing how the aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, Florida hasn’t followed the typical script. We’ve had so many of these kinds of attacks over the last 20 years that we’ve developed, as a society, a normal rhythm for its aftermath. After a sudden and collective burst of shock and grief, after everyone sends the victims their thoughts and prayers, our collective attention starts to dissipate. Within a week, we’ve pretty much moved on to whatever the next thing might be. We’re pretty good at following the script but this time feels different. It’s been 11 days and the shooting is still showing up in our conversations. Some of us know the names of the survivors more than the name of the attacker which isn’t how it normally goes. And that’s because, I think, that this is the first time when the survivors of this kind of attack have had the resources to amplify their voice and speak for themselves. I don’t think these kids are saying anything that is new. In the aftermath of Columbine, all the kids around me were saying the same kinds of things. But this time, the overall environment is different. The kids from Parkland don’t know what a world without people amplifying their own voice actually looks like. They were in pre-k when Facebook first came out and in 2nd grade when Apple introduced the first iPhone. By the time they picked up their first Level 2 easy readers, they watched websites, blogs, and social media launch political movements like the Tea Party. In 4th grade, they saw political activist burst all over North Africa and the Middle east with the rise of the Arab Spring. And when parents gave them their first smartphones, being a Youtube star was an actual thing. In their world, amplifying your voice and inserting yourself into a wider conversation is normal. Social media activism, movements like Black Lives Matter and how a tweet is now an actual presidential address, is these kids’ everyday reality. This social media world is the environment the kids from Parkland live, breathe, and move fluently in. Now, none of the kids in Parkland created Facebook or Twitter or the like. All of these tools to amplify their voice were created by others and given to them. So when these kids felt a desire to affect change, they used their environment to amplify their message. They used what’s around them to make their point. And that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in our reading from the gospel of Mark today.
Now Jesus didn’t have a social media world. But his world was full of statues, temples, cities, and other things that told a specific story in the area he was. So to grasp Jesus’ environment, we need to take a little field trip to Caesarea Philippi where this passage from the gospel of Mark takes place.
And here it is….today. Well, some of it at least. As you can see, this part is mostly ruins. But the cave there is the reason why Caesarea Philippi existed in the first place. That cave marks the location of a deep freshwater spring that still works today. Water flows out of the bedrock in the cave, down the hill, and into what eventually becomes the Jordan River. This next picture gives us an idea of how lush and green the area actually was. It’s beautiful and sort of just pops out as an oasis in the middle of the wilderness. In fact, a temple to the god Pan, the god of “desolate places,” was built there. Now, over time, the area became more important and King Herod’s son, Philip II, decided to build a city there. He named the city Caesarea in honor of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. As the city grew, the local rulers tried to make the city as Roman as possible. They built theaters, markets, and even a temple dedicated to the Roman emperors. The hillside, as you can see, became a holy place filled with the images of Roman gods, Roman Emperors, and other symbols of the Roman Empire. The Roman values of power - power through conquest, control, and violence was honored and celebrated there. The city of Caesarea Philippi made a specific claim that Rome was all that mattered. And it’s in that place, in the shadow of the Roman temples and Roman statues that Jesus does a very strange thing: he rebukes the power that he sees. Rome didn’t believe in suffering; it believed in making other people suffer. That’s what power, to them, looked like. Yet Jesus makes a promise to his disciples, to us, and to the world that what will truly make a difference is a power that doesn’t, on its surface, look like power at all.
Now that’s a pretty gutsy thing to say in a city that loves Rome. And Jesus says this quite openly. He predicts the Cross and what the Cross will actually mean. Jesus isn’t just going to die; he’s going to be killed by the Romans in the most shamefilled way possible. He’s going to physically perish, socially perish, and be completely abandoned by all around him. Jesus, this guy who casted out demons and healed the sick, is going to be reduced to nothing. And that’s why his friends don’t believe him. Peter even tries to tell the Son of God that he’s definitely got it wrong. Peter’s world is a world where power is about what we have power over. When Peter looked at Jesus, he saw someone with power over illness and suffering. He assumed that Jesus would use this power to push out the Romans and build up a new political kingdom that would thrive without Rome. Power, to Peter, is about dominating and winning. But Jesus, when he mentions the cross, is talking about losing. So Peter tries to correct him. And Jesus doubles down, making sure all his friends and even random people in the crowd hear him. In the shadow of symbols glorifying power and violence, Jesus makes a promise that God is doing something new.
Like the kids in Parkland, Jesus’ environment amplified his message. He didn’t build the temples, the markets, or the symbols that celebrated Roman power and values. But he did know how to live, move, and speak in that world. And when he was confronted by an environment that said power over self and others is the ultimate virtue, Jesus’ own presence challenged that. As a member of the Trinity, as God, as the one through whom all things in the entire universe was made, Jesus really isn’t someone who needed to worry about who can have power over him. Nothing could muster that kind of power so he is never going lose. But he knows that people do. So he gave up the power of dominance and control that we all want and he chose the very human kind of life that we all have to live. That life, as imperfect as it is, is worth everything to God. It’s worth carrying, and holding, and walking with even during those times when we know there’s nothing we can do to “win” our way through. Jesus, as he stood staring at the temples and statues that said conquest and violence and winning were the only values worth having, embraced a different way. A way that wasn’t easy but that looked towards the neighbor first. A way that knew what’s normal for us isn’t necessarily normal for God. And a way that knew that other people’s lives were worth his heading to the cross. An environment that celebrates the power some have over others can only be overcome by a new reality where everyone is empowered in service, care, and love. And that new reality, that new world, that new possibility is available to us right now because Jesus, through the Cross, showed that God’s power, God’s kingdom, and God’s love will have the final say.
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