*Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz worship service at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago on 9/13/15.*
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.’
34 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.’
If you forced me to name my favorite television series of all time, I would probably say The West Wing. The seven-season drama from the early 2000s documents the life of the fictional President Josiah Bartlet and his team of staff as they navigate politics and personal struggles. Despite the rather extraordinary setting of the show, its storytelling often manages to speak profound and universal truths about the human condition.
Arguably my favorite episode of the series, Noel, comes in the middle of the second season. The president’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, is struggling with the ongoing psychological effects of a shooting earlier in the year. While his friends and colleagues process and move on from the traumatic event, he spirals slowly out of control. The more he struggles, the more he acts out and pushes others away. Finally, his mentor and boss—Leo—calls in a trauma specialist. As they review Josh’s behavior over recent weeks, he remains combative, closed off, and resistant. Finally—when the doctor diagnoses him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—Josh nervously stammers, “That doesn’t really sound like something they let you have if you work for the president.”
Within his particular world—steeped in high stakes, and challenges, and experiences of trauma, Josh Lyman believes that the only way to survive and succeed is to be closed off and unaffected and impenetrable.
The disciples of Jesus’ time also come from a paradigm where strength and success and salvation are bound up with force and power and might. They come from a people who have long been conquered and oppressed—who have suffered immensely—and they have been promised deliverance in the form of a savior—a messiah.
It is nearly impossible for us today—I think—to grasp how radically different our understanding of the word “messiah” is from the understanding Peter and the other disciples would have had. The meaning of words shifts in relation to context. In Jesus’ time, “scroll” was a rolled up document, “text” was what the scribes put on the scroll, and “tablet” was a flat stone etched with writing. Today, “scroll” is how you get to the bottom of a webpage, “text” is a message you send on your phone, and “tablet” is a type of computer. Technology has shifted the context for our language.
Meanwhile, our context for the word “messiah” has been even more utterly altered by its connection to Jesus Christ. For us, “messiah” conjures ideas of selflessness and sacrifice. But for the people of Jesus’ time, messiah would have suggested a powerful ruler, a victorious warrior, and a vengeful conqueror. Knowing this difference is essential to our understanding of how the scene in today’s scripture plays out. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies, “You are the messiah.”
With our 21st century hindsight, Jesus’ less than enthusiastic response seems puzzling. Peter answered correctly, didn’t he? Jesus is the messiah. And yet Jesus vehemently insists that the disciples tell no one. Their understanding of “messiah” (and the world’s) doesn’t match up with the kind of messiah Jesus intends to be. This quickly becomes clear in the next part of the passage, where Jesus describes the suffering, rejection, and death he will undergo. Peter—apparently appalled and incredulous that a messiah would knowingly embrace such things—rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him right back, declaring that Peter is setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.
Peter’s vision of Jesus as messiah is wrapped up in worldly conceptions of power—founded in dominance and conquest. There is no room within this perspective for salvation to come through suffering—and yet that is precisely the picture that Jesus paints. Jesus makes clear in this passage that he has not come to fulfill the human paradigm of a combative, dominating messiah, but rather to shatter that paradigm and replace it with a new one—a messiah who saves not through power-over but through power-with—not through victory and conquest, but through radical solidarity and mutual vulnerability.
In all the expanse of human existence prior to Christ’s coming, conquering kings and victorious warriors came and went, but they could not fix the brokenness of the world—they could only add to it. In coming into human existence, Jesus chooses to save us from that brokenness by walking with us rather than looming over us from some divine distance. By sharing in our worst experiences of suffering and pain and struggle, Jesus meets our deepest vulnerabilities with his own vulnerability. In the spaces of life where we feel most distant from God and one another, Jesus finds us and embraces us with love and grace.
This sort of salvation did not match up with the world the disciples knew. It was deeply counter-cultural. And honestly, it doesn’t really fit with the world we know today either. For all that Jesus has impacted and shifted our cultural understanding of “messiah;” we are a people no more comfortable with his idea of salvation through vulnerability and solidarity than the people of his own time were. It is hard for us to imagine that the saving grace for which Jesus lived and died and rose again would embrace suffering and yet that is exactly the promise that Jesus makes. His cross is not about suffering that belongs to him—it is about the suffering that belongs to us. When his own divine power could easily hold him apart from such human experience, he boldly enters in to be with us.
And he goes even further than that. In the next section of this passage, after he rebukes Peter for tempting him—like Satan—to choose power and might rather than vulnerability and solidarity, Jesus tells all the disciples that those who wish to follow him must take up their own cross. It is not enough, radical as it is, to accept that Jesus will save through vulnerability and solidarity—we must also follow him into that vulnerability and solidarity. No wonder the disciples are unnerved. They inhabit a world where willingly making oneself vulnerable is a deeply dangerous endeavor.
Our world is not so different.
Our world is drenched in violence and destruction and abuses of power. This past Labor Day weekend, 8 people were killed and 46 others injured in shootings in the city of Chicago alone. In our nation’s capital, presidential candidates are already hard at work seeking to verbally eviscerate one another so that only the strongest—or perhaps wealthiest and meanest—might rise to power. Meanwhile, across the world from us, 1 in 2 Syrians have fled their homes as refugees from the violent war that is tearing apart their country. The escalating crisis has most recently become embodied in a series of striking viral photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy found washed ashore on the beaches of Turkey.
It would be disingenuous to claim any universal human experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that we live in a traumatic world. In this age of violence, global political upheaval, and a 24-hour news cycle—even those who have not experienced trauma in their personal lives have been traumatized by the witness of so much brokenness and evil.
Our human impulse urges us to respond by shoring up our defenses and closing ourselves off from all that pain. Scroll past the picture of the drowned little boy. Duck your head when you walk through the gun-shattered streets of your own city. When others denigrate each other or you with words—shout louder, be angrier, be more vicious. The brokenness around us and within us screams that we cannot worry about saving grace for this world—we are too busy trying to save ourselves.
But Jesus says different. Jesus says, “‘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.”
We are not good at confronting suffering. Our own or others. We are not good at being vulnerable, even when we believe it is important. This is particularly true, I think, among public leaders. That’s why it was viral news when Vice President Joe Biden spoke candidly with Stephen Colbert about his grief over losing his son Beau, and his struggles with faith and doubt.
Pastors are certainly no exception to this struggle either. In a post on her blog this week, Jan Edmiston (Associate Executive Presbyter of Chicago Presbytery) talked about how important it is for pastors to be vulnerable. She says, “Being vulnerable is a crucial part of being a spiritual leader. Our truth is comprised of brokenness, imperfection, and shame just as much as anybody… We can do a lot of damage when we’re fake or self-deceived. But we can do some good if we admit that we are kind of a mess and need something bigger than ourselves.”
If pastors are meant to at least try to embody Christ’s intentions—then vulnerability is an essential part of that. In that spirit, I will confess to you that this passage about taking up our cross—and others like it—make me very uncomfortable. This cross language that seems to almost suggest that suffering is a part of faithfulness has been so deeply misused. It has been used to shame women and others who have experience brutal abuse or oppression. I appreciate this not only sympathetically, but empathetically—as part of my own story. And there is no place in my faith for any suggestion that Jesus desires me or anyone to suffer in such a way.
But what’s striking about this passage is that Jesus’ cross isn’t about the suffering that is imposed upon him—it’s about his willingness to share in our pain when he could be spared. It’s also about his ability to overcome that pain and struggle and brokenness in ways that we never could on our own. And so the call to take up our own crosses, I think, isn’t about quietly accepting our own suffering or pain that is forced upon us.
It’s about opening ourselves up to see the pain and struggle of others: and when we could turn away and shore up our defenses—to stay and be with them, the way Jesus is with all of us. Vulnerability—letting ourselves feel and be felt and see and be seen—is a terrifying idea in this broken world of ours. But it lets Christ into us and us into Christ—it lets us in to one another and it is the only power that can overcome all that would hold us apart.
At the end of that episode of The West Wing, Josh Lyman finally confronts his own pain and fear and names it to himself and the trauma specialist. Only after he’s done so can he see the concern that drove his colleagues and friends to seek help for him. Afterward, he finds his mentor and boss, Leo, waiting in solidarity for him to see how the day-long session went. They share an awkward moment of mutual appreciation before Leo suddenly launches into a story that seems like a modern Good Samaritan story. The story he tells is this:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.
“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”
It isn’t easy, not in this messy world of ours. But it is simple. Jesus gets down in the hole with us. And he calls us to be in the hole with him and with one another. This is how we follow him. And he knows the way out. He knows the way home. Amen.
One of my very favorite scenes form the West Wing. Amen, amen.