Here’s a sermon on Mark 8.31-38 from my friend and colleague, Drew VanDyke Colby:
Did you know that here at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church we have a discipleship plan? We do! When we first started to write down how it is that disciples become disciples at St. Stephen’s we were sure that we wanted something special. We were Northern Virginia people in a Northern Virginia church, we wanted the best plan to make the best disciples. At least I did…
I wanted to be able to greet new people and say, welcome to St. Stephen’s a place where God isn’t just an angry dude in the sky who wishes you would come to church more often. No, here God is the one who has saved the world from sin and evil and death. Has saved you from this. AND has saved you for something: which is discipleship. Christ in his cross has invited you to get behind him and follow him into the perfect love of God and neighbor. I wanted to be able to say, we’re different, and we have a plan for you! And I wanted it on the website, and in the welcome center, and in neighborhood mailings, and roadside banners. I was pumped!
The threat here for Northern Virginia people in a Northern Virginia church is that what’s intended as a gift to be received will quickly become another ladder to climb, and another achievement to accomplish. If you were to describe the posture of a Northern Virginian you might name things like hard-working, efficient, results-driven, busy, upwardly mobile, and in traffic. So, In order to avoid a posture towards the God of upward mobility, we name in our plan the postures of Christ instead. Postures we believe Christ welcomes us into as a way to get behind him and follow. This Lent we are looking for these postures of Christ in the scriptures each week. We looked at humility on Ash Wednesday with Pastor Abi. And last week Pastor Mark tried to convince us that the posture of self-control was fun. I actually think he did a good job.
In fact, we’ve asked folks to share with us some artwork on these postures. [pictures on screen] This one by Gabby Ducharme is called “Ball of Events” with the explanation “we encounter many colors of trouble as our life rolls on. This develops patience. And that is the posture of Christ we look for this week: patience.
One day Jesus and the disciples settle in for a chat. Jesus says to them, “who are people saying that I am?” They say “some say Elijah, others say John the Baptist, others say one of the other prophets.” Then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, our idiot-in-chief, says “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” Peter is right. Jesus tells them not to spread this around because, the timing isn’t right. It’s not time yet for that to be revealed. And then Jesus talks about what it really means to be the Messiah, the Christ, also known as the Son of Man. Here is what he says it entails.
A reading from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark:
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. (The word here is even stronger than that. He’s berating Jesus)
But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus 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.”
The Word of the Lord
Peter messed up. We should not be shocked. He had the best of intentions. He thought that the Messiah, the Christ was the one who was going to Make Israel Great Again, by any means necessary. Peter and the disciples had planned to be part of a winning revolution, and they were looking for a guy who would overtake this corrupt government and throw a big military parade in the capital as he took his throne. Peter and the other disciples were walking around strapped, with swords at the ready at Jesus’ signal to cut off some ears and start the revolution.
So, when the leader of their movement says, look guys, I’m gonna lose, Peter’s instinct was to say, like hell you are! We’re destined for glory, there is no way I’m letting you lead us to suffering. And Jesus whips back, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
And finally we see Jesus behave like a human! Finally, Jesus loses his patience, just like we do. Or does he? What if this is actually not a story of Jesus losing his patience, but of Jesus exhibiting patience.
Not just the patience of a teacher with a distracting disciple; but a bigger picture patience. The patience of one who is willing to suffer, and endure discomfort, because he trusts in something bigger. Do you believe in that kind of patience? I do. And actually, it’s a very old Christian tradition. Don’t believe me? Ask an African.
Picture Africa. It’s the year two-hundred-four. The church there has no missionaries, they have no evangelists, they don’t even use the word evangelism. They have no neighborhood mailings, or eggstravaganzas, or welcome centers, or websites, or google ads, or roadside banners. The general public, interested parties, would-be visitors who are curious about becoming Christians are not even allowed in worship. Members only. To top it all off, the church is either barely tolerated by the government, or actively under threat. And in these conditions in Africa, in 204, the church is growing like wild flowers.
Scholars disagree on the actual numbers; but it’s clear that the growth was staggering. And in Africa, in the year 204, one of the leaders of this growing church was named Turtullian. And when he sits down to put into writing what makes the church the church, what does he write? A treatise called “On Patience.”
In it he first admits he has none, and gravels at the feet of Jesus, the only one who does. Then he explains that this is one of the greatest gifts that awaits us in Christ is a capacity for patience, and in fact, their survival as church can be owed to his patience in them. See, Turtullian is writing to Christians who are being jailed and killed. It was a time when your neighbor could find out that you went to bible study and turn you in to the authorities. And what was Turtullian saying to them? Stand up? FIght back? No. He was saying, “Patience. Have patience. It’s free. It comes from Christ.” In more specific terms, just so you’re not confused, what he’s really saying is, “Be willing to suffer for this. Suffer. It’s okay. It comes from Christ, and in a sense, Christ comes to us in suffering.” He writes, “When God’s Spirit descends, then Patience accompanies Him indivisibly.” And “Patience is hope with the lamp lit – or Patience is hope with the lights turned on.”
Fast forward another 50 years. Cyprian, an African, and a bishop of the church writes another treatise, On the Good of Patience. Then fast forward another hundred and fifty years. Augustine of Hippo, an African, writes his teaching On Patience.
For the church in its first few centuries, under persecution, and before finding its way to cultural power, the church was growing and growing, and if you asked its leaders why, they said, it’s because we have been given the patience of Christ.
To be clear, we are not talking here just about the patience you and I lack in traffic, or in the grocery line, or when we’re waiting on someone to reply to a very important text. No, this is big-picture patience. Patience in the midst of suffering like cancer. Like estrangement. Like prolonged conflict. Like perpetual war. Like profound segregation. Patience when the future is unclear. Patience in the midst of suffering like the suffering Christ was about to endure when Peter tried to stop him.
If you’re like me, when you’re in that kind of situation, everything from bad traffic to systemic injustice, if you’re like me, you’d like to fix it. Now. Demand. Protest. March. And the Spirit very well may be behind that; who am I to say it’s not.
But, we also have another well-established tradition of what some Christians have always been able to do in situations like this: it is patience. Don’t believe me? ask an African. Because what our African ancestors of the faith tell us is that there is no suffering we can endure that Christ will not endure with us or has not already endured for us.
Still don’t believe me? Ask an African-American. Just as our generous God spoke through the church in Africa in its first 500 years. God has also spoken in the last 500 years through the descendants of enslaved Africans in our own country. In both cases, through the faithful of African descent, Christ has modeled for the church the posture of the long-suffering patience..
There are countless examples of this, but, as we near the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, I have one example I’d like to share from the civil rights movement. In this clip, you’ll see a young man leading a group to go and register to vote in their precinct. Their plan, should the courthouse be closed, is to pause for a time of prayer at the courthouse and return home. Watch with me what happens next.
Watching that, we may want to race in there and shake that officer and shout in his face or worse. Like Peter, we probably would love a show of force to put that officer in his place! But the young man in that video does not seem to require that from us. He seems to be well planted, sure, and patient. How is that possible? How, in the midst of suffering, and in the face of such antagonism is he able to be patient? Two words: first, practice. The posture of patience. Long-suffering. It’s a posture that is learned through practice; and learned quickly by people forced to practice in suffering regularly.
And the second word? Christ.
The patient love that young man showed his enemy, even inviting him to pray with him, or at least pray for him, has its source in the patience of Christ. What is not pictured in this clip is what likely happened immediately before this confrontation: Christian worship. One thing that was true of the vast majority of civil rights demonstrations, protests, and marches is that they started in a church, praising God, focusing on Christ, and getting behind Jesus.
See, when Jesus rebuked to Peter it was a command. “Get thee behind me. I’m not gonna let nobody turn me around.” And then he went and fulfilled his mission. So to us, the people of his resurrection, the command “get thee behind me” ceases to be an admonition and becomes an invitation.
For it is Christ who suffered patiently so that those who suffer would not suffer alone. It is Christ who suffered at the hands of the upwardly mobile so that their upward mobility could be redeemed into humility. It is Christ who took the hate and violence that should have been directed by him toward murderers, and terrorists, and demagogues, and slave traders, and school shooters, and instead bore it in his own body out of love for the unlovable, like me. And today, we who suffer, and we the perpetrators of suffering are invited once again to hear the words of the crucified and resurrected One. “Get behind me. Get behind me and walk the patient way of love trusting that there is nothing that can defeat the one whom you are behind.”
The invitation to get behind Christ is an invitation to be covered by him.
Christ covers over our sin–he gives us some cover and invites us behind him to walk in the way made possible by his salvation.
And, for those of us that are not persecuted, the invitation is to find refuge from our own demons, destructions, and delusions of grandeur and to get behind him.
That is the invitation answered by those early Christians in Africa, those Christians of the civil rights movement, and it is Christ’s invitation to us today. I stand as one thankful to have been commanded and invited and welcomed behind the cross of Christ; and it is in his name that I invite you once again, or for the first time, to flee from sin, be patient in suffering, and get behind Christ. Hear the good news, The Risen Christ invites you saying, “Get behind me.”
So may it be. Amen.