“Let’s not ask if God is on our side but if we are on God’s side.” Abraham Lincoln
I grew up a lot like Peter. Safe. Cared for. Taken care of. And wanting to remain all that, if not improve my lot in life. So I wonder why it is I think of myself as such a great follower of Jesus, if the contest between Jesus’ story and the World’s story is seen most clearly in Jesus showdown with Peter. What I mean to say is, though I assume Jesus words to me are all soft and sweet, perhaps I, like Peter, deserve another “S” word.
Peter was operating, like so many of us, out of the story of Safety, and Relevance, and Power. And for this he was absolutely slammed by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus (obviously) was living another story beside Safety, and makes a perfectly frank statement showing us exactly how black and white it is. “You do not mind the things of God, but the things of humanity!” Reminds me of Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” We read that “Satan” statement as utter rebuke and correction for Peter who did not choose wisely. Some translations even say, “Get away from me!” to emphasize the punishment. I shudder when I think of Jesus saying that to me.
But here’s the thing, more often than not, I don’t find the choice as simple as Frost and Christ make it sound. More often than not, I live my life between the two, not firmly planted on one or the other. I don’t mean to say that I don’t love Jesus. I do! And I think Peter loved Jesus, deeply. He did, after all, just get the correct answer to the ultimate Spiritual Quiz. Rather than all of one, or all of another, we’re a whole lot more like Paul in Romans 7, “I do not understand my own actions, For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…”
After Jesus skins Peter to the bone by unmasking Peter’s The-Messiah-Should-Be-Safe Story, he gathers the crowds around him and issues the call to discipleship. “If anyone wants to follow after me, let them follow behind me, deny yourself and take your cross and follow me.” This is a string of genuinely difficult things to hear or apply to our life today. Does cross-bearing equal any general suffering (like cancer)? Is it the inward spiritual battle we are to have with our desires? Is it a metaphor for killing off our sins? Is it something God gives us to teach us a lesson (like a thorn in the flesh)?
I don’t think any of those are true. I think Jesus here is calling us to a strategy of living life under Empire, it is the way of faithfulness as a nonviolent minority Christian community in the midst of a world that does not follow God. As John Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, “The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity… it is the social reality representing in an unwilling world the Order to come… It was the politically, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Jesus is presenting us with the details of his Story, details that intrinsically include a clash with the details of the World’s operating Story. Jesus seems to be saying, “Will you join me in living out the newness of God’s kingdom today? Even if it means we’re killed for it?” All of which reminds me of a really powerful quote by James McClendon, “Had [the disciples] had their way, there would have been no cross; had [Jesus] had his, there would have been thirteen. They declined the honor.” I resonate all too well with Peter and the gang on this one! Sorry Jesus.
Which is why it’s all the more important to point out one absolutely essential aspect of these verses. Jesus, ultimately, is letting us know how to “take the road less traveled by,” how to get from one road (or story) to another. He tells Peter in Mark 8:33 to “Get behind me.” Then, in 8:34 he says, “if anyone wants to follow behind me…” They are the same Greek words. First he tells Peter to get behind him, and then he let’s us know what that looks like. It’s not a rebuke so much as it’s an invitation! He wants me and Peter behind him, to follow him, to be close to him, in proximity to him, in relation to him. He wants us to operate out of Jesus Story. Not standing in competition with him, or expecting Jesus to follow us, to be on our side. But rather to trust him enough to put our lives in his hands. He invites Peter and me to trust him that denying ourselves, social non-conformity, and carrying our cross will indeed lead to new life. Change – he is saying – will only happen when we start to believe Jesus. Not just believe in Jesus, but actually believe him. “Come on over to my side Peter, it will be all right! You can trust me.” In the contest of stories that we live every single day, the nonviolent love of Jesus wins in the end.
Do you believe? Then get behind!