In this week’s Gospel Jesus gives his disciples a pop-quiz. “You’ve heard what people think of me. Now … what do you think of me?” And Peter tries out an answer he hopes with all his heart is true: “You’re God’s Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ.”
And you know what? Peter’s right, and we already know that. The very first verse of Mark’s Gospel reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Christ, Messiah, God’s Anointed—they’re all the same title in different languages. And it’s a title, not Jesus’ last name. Mark’s already told us who Jesus is. And here’s Peter telling Jesus the same thing. It’s the right answer. So we expect Peter to get an A+.
That’s not what happens—no A+, no “Congratulations,” no pat on the head for Peter. Instead Jesus cuts him off with a warning: “Don’t you dare tell anybody.” Peter gives the right answer, and Jesus shuts him up. And we’re left wondering what’s going on here. I mean, what’s the big secret?
In Mark’s Gospel it seems that every time somebody says who Jesus really is he tells them to keep quiet. It’s like he’s one of those people who just can’t take a compliment. What’s his problem? What’s wrong with the right answer?
Well, maybe, just maybe, Jesus is worried about all the mischief God’s people can commit once they’re sure they’ve finally got the right answers. To be sure, he does care what people think about him. There’s a right path to follow, and a wrong path to avoid, and what we believe ought to reflect and guide where we’re headed. What we believe, what we think, what we say really does matter. It’s indispensable. But really, thoughts and words are such a tiny fraction of the common life God shares with us in Jesus. And it’s all too easy to settle for a list of right answers and then actually use them to stifle the outpouring of God’s love in the world.
Right now, Jesus is worried about what people might do in his name if they keep calling him Messiah. It’s not that the label is wrong, but it has taken on a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the kind of difference Jesus wants to make in the world. So to clarify things he starts spelling out what’s going to happen. “OK, maybe I am God’s Anointed. Now here’s what’s in store for your Messiah: rejection, suffering, death, and then a vindication that some people will see but others will insist never happened. 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!”
Well, OK, that’s not quite what Peter said. But that was his mindset. It’s the mindset that eventually changed the church from a welcoming community into a controlling empire, with an authority structure 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 truth. And the story isn’t over yet.
How many of us have to say that our lives have not been going exactly the way we planned? How many of us hear the top headlines and feel the world spinning out of control? How many of us have found out that the people we love most just won’t behave the way we wish they would? I’m guessing all of us.
Jesus’ word here is, “Welcome home. This is your world. This place where nothing goes the way you planned is exactly where you need to be. This is where you can stumble across a different kind of success story. Open up. Embrace all that God’s shared life of love can bring you. It may look like dying, but this is when you’ll finally start living for real. And I’ll be there with you.” That’s Jesus’ success story. And it isn’t over yet.