Mark 8:31-38

Peter has just told Jesus that he must be the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed.

Instead of congratulating him, Jesus shocks Peter with prediction he can’t handle. “OK, you say I’m God’s Anointed. Well, here’s what’s in store for your Messiah: rejection, suffering, death, and then a sort of vindication that some people will see but others will call fake news. You’ll call it ‘Resurrection,’ and people will scoff at you for believing it. That’s how it’s going to play out.”

And Peter can’t stand to hear this. He tries to talk him out of it. “Wait a minute, Jesus. That’s not how it’s supposed to go, not if you’re God’s Anointed. You’re supposed to be a success story. If people would just live by your principles they’d be happy and well adjusted. They’d wind up on the A-list. How dare you fail to live up to your potential!”

Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction is understandable, but it’s a dreadful mistake. It’s the mindset that eventually changed the church from a welcoming community into a controlling empire, with an authority structure—an organization and a book—you didn’t dare question.

It’s the mindset that’s still popular today. Follow God and you can be on the winning team. You can force your way of life on the rest of the world and expect everybody to be grateful. You can define what family values are and make them the law of the land. You can afford that big house and the SUV you’ve always wanted. And you and your loved ones will live happily ever after, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

That’s Peter’s mindset, it’s been the Church’s mindset, it’s today’s mindset, and we probably all buy into it more than we realize.

But to Peter, and to that mindset, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan. What you’re saying has nothing to do with God. It’s so tiresomely predictable.” It’s a rebuke with a double meaning, though. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I’ve always taken it to mean, “Get away from me. Get out of my sight.” But it’s not that simple. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because that A-list success story really is a temptation even for Jesus. It takes him back to those days in the wilderness when he decided once and for all not to take the predictable way. But when he says, “Get behind me,” that’s not just a rejection. He’s using the same words he used when he first called Peter to be his disciple. “Get behind me.” “Follow me.” In Greek the words are the same.

So it’s a rebuke and an invitation: “Peter, stop tempting me and get back to following me. Don’t be so predictable. Stop worrying about making the A-list, and then you’ll start to live.”

And then Jesus turns to us and says the same thing. “If you’re going to follow me, if you’re going to get behind me, you’ll have to learn what it’s like to wind up on a cross. You’ll have to fall in love with a world that all too often won’t love back. You’ll have to give up dreams of winning and start longing for reconciliation. Kiss that A-list goodbye. There’s only one way to find your life, and that’s by letting it go into the common life God is bringing to us already. All of us, not just the winners. Let go. Stop trying to win. It may look like dying, and you’re guaranteed to know intense pain and loss, but that’s actually when you’ll finally start living for real.”

For centuries people heard the words, “Take up your cross,” and they took it to mean that we ought to punish ourselves for ever wanting any happiness. But that’s not what it means. That’s just as pointless as wanting to make the A-list. There’s nothing wrong with wanting happiness. What’s wrong is the illusion that we can control happiness, the illusion that we can make happiness our own private property that we don’t have to share.

Genuine happiness only arrives when we stop trying to own it. It only arrives when we open ourselves to embrace all that a shared life of love can bring us, its pains as much as its pleasures, and find that we’re more alive than ever, and that we’re not alone.

Jesus didn’t have any illusions here. He knew how threatening this message was, and he knew that if he kept preaching it publicly he’d eventually be silenced by the A-list people he threatened most. He didn’t pretend to like it when it happened. But he also knew what it was like to be fully alive to his very last breath. And he knew God wouldn’t leave him or his message in the dust. He didn’t make the A-list, but he definitely was not a failure.

It’s a different kind of success story, one we don’t know how to control. But it’s the deepest truth. And the story isn’t over yet.

When we open ourselves to embrace all that a shared life of love can bring us, its pains as much as its pleasures, we find that we’re more alive than ever, and that we’re not alone.