The Fork in the Road
Mark 8: 27-38
I’ve told this story before but it bears repeating. One of my seminary professors told us about a time early in his ministry when we was talking with a teetotaling woman in his church. My professor, the pastor, gently mentioned to her that Jesus didn’t seem to hold her view about alcohol – that his first miracle was turning water into wine. To which she replied, “Yes, and I think the less of him for it.”
Besides the humor, what I love about this story is how, if we look closely, we can see ourselves in that woman. Maybe it’s not about alcohol. The other night at forum when we were talking about how to express the gospel in 7 words or fewer, we wondered about the oft-quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 31). We started picking it apart and wondered about rearranging and re-writing it to suit us better. There were several of us who said things like I have never really liked that one. I don’t want to focus on loving myself. I think it should just be ‘love your neighbor’. We have our own ideas about the way things should be – the way God should be – and sometimes these ideas get in the way of who God actually is.
That’s what happens to Peter. When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter gets an A+. “You are the Messiah,” he says, plainly and confidently (Mark 8: 29). He got the word right. But when Jesus starts to embellish and fill in the picture a bit, Peter doesn’t think “Messiah” is what Jesus is describing. With the hubris of the teetolaing woman, Peter actually takes Jesus aside in private to try and let him down easy. He doesn’t want to embarrass Jesus for sort of straying off course a bit – and he definitely wants to help get Jesus back on course. Peter takes him aside to try and correct the picture, make it look more like what he’s been expecting when he says “Messiah.”
How does Jesus respond? Not privately. He calls Peter out. He turns around to the whole gathering of disciples and tells Peter how wrong he is right in front of everyone. He refers to Peter’s wistful vision as a temptation. Jesus tells them all that the way to be disciples is to follow where he will go, right to the cross. The way to follow Jesus is to confess “Jesus is Lord,” not just in words but with your whole life. Peter had the words right but he didn’t really know what they meant.
Working with this story this week, I began thinking about wedding vows. You know how they go: better/worse, richer/poorer, sickness/health. Right there on one of the happiest and most joyful days of their lives, couples evoke poverty, illness, and death. In front of God and everyone, they say, I’m with you, no matter what – and then they name the “what.” Specifically. Even if you get disastrously sick, I’m with you. Even if we lose all our money, we are in this thing together.
It’s interesting that when people try writing their own vows, they almost never sound like this. When people scrap the traditional vows, they usually end up with things like promising never to go to bed angry – a pretty weakling vow compared to death and poverty.
Well, Peter wasn’t exactly writing his own vows. His idea of who the Messiah would be came from long tradition and scripture. Suffering and crosses are not part of that expectation for Peter. But, as Jesus clearly informs him here, his expectations are clouding his perceptions. He can’t hear what Jesus is telling him because he is holding on to what he thinks is supposed to happen.
Do you know anyone who has problems living in the shadow of “supposed to be”? I was supposed to go to Yale and now I’m here and my plans are all screwed up…I was supposed to make the baseball team and now my senior year sucks…I was supposed to be pre-Med but now I’m “just” a biology major and I don’t know what I’m going to do after graduation…I was supposed to have a girlfriend by now….I suspect you have seen folks struggling with “supposed to’s.” Maybe you even have some experience with this.
We have notions about how things will turn out and sometimes we are so attached to the notions that we fail to see how things are, in fact, actually turning out. We still think of ourselves as pre-Med and keep imagining how that life would have been, rather than noticing how much we are enjoying not taking those classes anymore. We still wish our boyfriend hadn’t broken up with us and we hold our breath waiting for life to keep being the way it was then. We think life will unfold in a certain way and then the unexpected throws a wrench in it and we don’t know how to recover – because we are still stuck on what we thought would happen, what we wanted to happen.
This sometimes happens in marriages. Even when couples don’t write their own vows, they are still sometimes surprised when someone actually gets sick or loses a job. As if we were going to be healthy and wealthy forever and this is not how it was supposed to be.
But that’s not what God promises, is it? God doesn’t promise happiness or endless days of strength and vitality. Jesus says it right here to Peter and the others. They were expecting a Messiah, the Christ, to be purify the corruptions of society, make Israel preeminent among all nations, and bring about peace (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/16/2012). They weren’t expecting Jesus – at least not the Jesus who calls Peter out in front of everyone and then tells them that following him means giving up your life. Following him means following all the way to death on a cross. Some have suggested that in today’s world that would be like Jesus saying that in order to follow him you have to take up your electric chair – you have to keep following, even when everyone thinks you are a common criminal and the state wants to put you to death.
This is not going to be what you were expecting. This is not going to be glamorous. This is not going to be popular or respected. This is not going to be tweeted about – not in a good way. This will seem shameful, stupid, out of touch, backwards, and misguided. Jesus says, despite your expectations, despite how unattractive this way might seem, here it is and, I’m telling you, it’s the only way to Life.
I need to stop here and say that this is not a call to suffering for the sake of suffering. A lot of people get that wrong. Jesus has just spent half of Mark’s gospel healing people who were suffering. Right before this passage he heals a blind man. Last week we talked about how he healed the daughter of the Gentile woman who argued with him and then healed the man who has deaf and mute. Nowhere does Jesus approach a suffering or physically ill or disabled person and proclaim that what’s happening there is wonderful. He reaches out, touches, and heals. Over and over again.
Jesus is not issuing a call to the doormats of the world and he is not saying Come on, it’ll be great! We’ll all suffer together! But he is saying, Follow me. And you should know that it probably won’t be what you are expecting. And if it leads to suffering, keep following me anyway.
I’m stressing that here because we get this wrong a lot. Just because God can bring redemption out of a situation of suffering, does not mean that suffering in and of itself is redemptive. I’m stressing this because just last Thursday we were considering re-writing “love your neighbor as yourself” because we didn’t want to love ourselves.
What Jesus is doing here is crashing idols. He is crashing the idols of false expectation, community standing and reputation. He is breaking open our notions of a good life. He is re-educating us about whose we are and where we belong.
One commentator says it this way, “Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition….[and, previously:]… Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us. A person in Jesus’ culture was defined by those to whom he belonged — usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus” (Matt Skinner, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/16/2012). That’s the question this passage asks us: To whom do you belong? And how does that show up, day to day, in the choices you make? How does someone look at your life and see not “American” or
“Wahoo” or “New Yorker” but “Christian”, follower of Jesus?
To call yourself a disciple, you are saying, this is the most important thing I can say about myself. This is who I am and who I belong to. You are saying I’ll see this through, wherever I end up, however it ends.” It’s a huge commitment, which, like marriage (no matter the vows) no one really ever has an inkling of on the wedding day. We need each other in order to live out this calling, which is why we get baptized. More vows there. The vows remind us when we need reminding. They are protection against whatever we happen to “feel” like on a given day. They are a compass that points to true north, to assist us in reorienting ourselves in that direction. Our baptismal vows – whether we said them ourselves or wriggled in our parent’s arms while they were said for us – remind us of where we belong and to Whom. They recast us as followers of Christ, fully in this world but with a vision of the kingdom of God to reorient and organize our paths.
What would the teetotaling woman get if we didn’t have the miracle at Cana? Besides a more watery Jesus, she wouldn’t have anything other than her own ideas to follow. She wouldn’t have the Jesus who confounds, surprises, and infuriates. Most importantly she – and we – wouldn’t have a Way that leads to Life, capital “L.” We are great at concocting lives (little “l”) for ourselves but only God can turn our lives into Life.
That’s the fork in the road: keep concocting and pining for the “supposed to’s” of little-l-life, or join the foolish-seeming band of folks following Jesus. That’s the way to Life. Want some?
Thanks be to God!
©2012 Deborah E. Lewis