Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

"Getting Behind Jesus"                                                                       Please Read:

A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. R. Scott Herr                                            Genesis 17:1-7

The American Church in Paris – March 4th, 2012                               Mark 8:31-38

I think I just read to you one of the most disturbing passages in the New Testament. It’s disturbing for at least three reasons: First, it portrays Jesus rebuking Peter, so-called first bishop of Rome with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Secondly, Jesus clearly tells us that if we’re going to follow him, it’s going to involve picking up a cross and losing ourselves. And thirdly, there is the warning that if we’re ashamed of Jesus he’ll be ashamed of us. The fact that you’re not running for your lives at this point is because the church has domesticated this text over the centuries. Perhaps the healthiest response to Jesus’ teaching today is anxiety and doubt.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, who suggested that most religion is a way of approaching God in order to relieve problems like fear, ignorance or despair. He used the term deus ex machina to describe the god that most people want, a kind of “vending machine” God to whom you appeal during a hard time. The deus ex machina is always there to meet your needs and fulfill your wishes. You put in a prayer and out come comfort and hope to carry you through… Bonhoeffer suggested a more authentic Christian discipleship would evolve into a “religionless Christianity.” In other words, a follower of Jesus will recognize that the Living God’s love is for us, but that the Living God’s love also requires something from us. Bonhoeffer asks, “In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we the ekklhsia, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to [and for?] the world?”[1]

In fact, Jesus is anything but the vending machine god who delivers spiritual treats to assuage our cravings… Rather, Jesus stuns all of his listeners with the angry assertion that this idea about god is the very enemy of God. Satan is just the Hebrew word for “adversary.” Jesus calls Peter Satan because Peter’s views are opposed to God’s ways.

Jesus explains “quite openly” that the real Messiah must suffer, die and rise again. He calls not only his disciples but the whole crowd of people around them to listen up, and tells 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 gospel, will save it" (8:34-35).

The lesson of the cross is a lesson that we, like Peter, do not want to learn. Three times in Mark's Gospel, Jesus predicts his suffering and death (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) and every time, the disciples demonstrate that they either do not understand, or perhaps more to the point, understand all too well and don't like what Jesus tells them. Three times, Mark repeats this prediction. You know that Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, so if he repeats something 3 times, it must be something not only of importance but also something so odd, so against our grain, it bears repeating.

One of the strongest instincts we have is self-preservation. We all have what is called the reptilian brain-stem and we are hard-wired for self-preservation. It’s called our fight or flight instinct. When faced with a threat, we will either want to fight or run away in order to protect ourselves. Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ teaching here is so offensive to Peter and to us.  It would have made better sense if Jesus said, "I am walking the way of self-denial to the cross."  Then we could note another way in which Jesus was very different from us. But unfortunately Jesus says, "If you want to follow me, deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow."

I must confess that I’m not so sure what this means anymore. Deny yourself is so absolute. There’s not a lot of room for acknowledging this teaching and then simply moving on in life as you know it. You can’t hear  this command by Jesus and remain unchanged. What denying yourself looks like for you I don’t know, but clearly for Jesus it began with fasting and praying. It involves learning to say no to that “me, me, me” voice inside and learn to say yes to God’s still small voice inside… And that is not easy and probably will involve pain. If that’s not obvious, Jesus’ command pick up your cross should remove all doubt. Picking up your cross only led to one place in the first century Roman world: Death. And a painful death, at that.

It’s hard to let go of life as we know it. We’ve invested so much in seeing ourselves a certain way and getting others to see us a certain way.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek tells the parable about a young man who met with a psychologist once a week for years because he was convinced that he was a seed. Eventually, after many years, he became convinced that he was really a human being. Thanking the therapist, he returned home happy. However, two weeks later the therapist hears a loud banging on his door. When he opens it, he sees the man back again, sweating and breathing heavily. “You have to help me,” says the man, “my next door neighbors recently bought chickens, and I am terrified that they are going to eat me!”

“But surely you know that you are a human being and not a seed,” replies the therapist… “I know that,” he says, “but do the chickens know?”[2]

Even when we experience a profound shift in our identity, we live in a constructed world where if we change, everything else – how we relate, how we spend our time and resources - has to change also in order for the transformation to be complete. Easier said than done… We are under enormous pressure to continue on with the status quo.

It was the same for Jesus. Remember he was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and killed not because he was fulfilling their expectations of the Messiah, but because he so radically redefined the nature of the Messiah and what the good news of the kingdom of God really is. The death of Jesus will be “the result of careful deliberations from respected religious leaders who will justify their actions by the highest standards of law and morality, even believing them to render service to God.”[3] We are confronted here with the contrast of Jesus’ way and the failure of the best of human religious systems…

Refer back to Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity… Perhaps part of our Lenten Journey requires first identifying religious assumptions that are the enemy of Jesus! I think Bonhoeffer would agree that Jesus is calling us to deny putting our hope and allegiance in even the best systems or institutions of human ambition. There’s no earthly financial, political or spiritual bail-out that will save us in the end. Our only real hope is that God may give us the grace to repent and make real changes in life, to lay down our lives for others, rejecting the comfort of a vending machine god. The way to life is counter-intuitive, and the kingdom of God comes because we are turning the values and power-systems of this world upside down...

Dan Watkins gave an interesting talk last Thursday on Modernity and the Church, and the point that struck me is the importance of paradox in our post-modern world. Did you see the article in the Times about new breakthroughs in computing because of quantum physics? “Current computers perform their calculations using 1’s and 0’s, with each binary digit called a ‘bit’ of information. This or that. In quantum mechanics, multiple possibilities exist at once, and a quantum bit – qubit, for short – is not … a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ but a combination of both. This, that, or both! By stringing together qubits, a quantum computer could perform a multitude of calculations simultaneously.” In other words, uncertainty and paradox is at the most foundational levels of our reality, and the way through to resolving some of the most complex problems. The experts say that quantum computers can produce an answer in days or even seconds, whereas the fastest conventional computer would take longer than 13.7 billion years![4]

As strange as it may be, perhaps we must consider again the paradox of denying ourselves, of picking up our cross and following Jesus? Perhaps Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake and the gospel because our own ways in the end are hopelessly unsustainable. Jesus calls us to let go of the “deus ex machina” gods of this world, and embrace the “Thy will be done” kingdom of God. And here’s the really strange part: You may have to drop some burdens you are carrying now because it is not your cross to bear.  You may have to let go of some suffering because ironically it has nothing to do with following Jesus or glorifying him in your life and the larger community! There will be suffering and death, to be sure, but it will be on the way to new life. That’s the promise. Picking up your cross may mean letting go of certain ways of thinking, even religious formulas, but it’s in order to experience God’s new life for you and the world…

Which brings us to the strange conclusion of this text… that somehow if we are ashamed of Jesus he will be ashamed of us… Really? That’s what he says. But we know that Peter and the rest of the disciples were ashamed of Jesus and denied even knowing him. But Jesus didn’t abandon them… He forgave and patiently helped them to understand that God’s power of love and forgiveness are even stronger than death itself…

Perhaps our only hope is to get behind Jesus? For in the end, we’ll all find ourselves being an enemy of God, being ashamed of and being Satan to the ways of Jesus. We need to admit that Peter is not the only one who will misunderstand and misconstrue the ways of God. We have and we probably will too! And so it’s hard, but I hear Jesus rebuking us in this text. Get behind me, Satan… What might that mean for you and me today?

Perhaps getting behind Jesus means first allowing him to shield us from ourselves? I mean that we need to let go of our knee-jerk religious guilt, and rest in Jesus even with our questions, our fears and doubts about what it means to follow him. Let Jesus patiently teach us.

For some of us it may mean practicing what Jesus taught us. For example, maybe getting behind Jesus means being more hospitable to those who are least like you, because God welcomes you? Perhaps getting behind Jesus means coming home from work earlier to be with your spouse and children, because the Lord laid down everything to be with you? Perhaps getting behind Jesus means giving more to the poor, because in your poverty he gave you everything? Perhaps it means forgiving and entering into a process of reconciliation with a neighbor, because Jesus has forgiven you and reconciled you with God? Perhaps it means speaking more openly about issues of justice and mercy, because Jesus has endured the ridicule and shame of the cross to take upon himself the justice and mercy of God for you?  Perhaps it means keeping your mouth shut when the gossip starts to fly, or to turn the other cheek as a way of opening up dialogue with an enemy, because Jesus silently endured false claims and commanded us to love our enemies. Perhaps getting behind Jesus means avoiding pornography or alcohol because you are the temple of the living God? Perhaps getting behind Jesus means seeking caring community because you are a child of God and not meant to be alone?

I don’t know exactly what getting behind Jesus looks like in your life, but I do know this: It means denying something that is currently an assumption of how it should be in your life, and in your religion. And it will mean putting your ways to death on the cross. It may mean picking up a new cross, a much bigger agenda and a more expansive inclusive life… But you are to take it up because you are getting behind Jesus to walk with him on this Lenten journey, all the way into God’s new life…

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Collier Books, 1972), 280-281.

[2] Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe Is Human; To Doubt Divine (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011), 44-45.

[3] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 254.

[4] Kenneth Chang, "I.B.M. Researchers Inch Toward Quantum Computer" (New York Times,  Feb. 28, 2012), B2.