Scripture: Mark 8:27-38
“He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.” ~ Mark 8:32-33
This past summer my house was dominated by the Olympics. Morning and evening we would take our seats on the couch and take in whichever event happened to be on that day. As Canadians, we would obviously be rooting for our national athletes but we also have a competitive gymnast in the house, so gymnastics was a much watch, and not just any gymnast but the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles. I’m not a huge gymnastics fan, but even I know who Simone Biles is, and she is one of the great idols of my daughter as she pursues gymnastics.
Biles was poised for a monster Olympics – since her dominance at the Rio games she had consistently been at the top of the podium at International Competitions and she was revolutionizing gymnastics with her skill and power. Which made her decision to withdraw from the competition after a shaky opening round a massive shock and a global news story.
Simone had a case of the ‘twisties’, a gymnastics term for the disconnect between brain and body which can cause gymnasts to lose their sense of direction in the air and cause serious, sometimes life-altering injury. Simone decided that her life was more valuable than the potential for success and glory and she has been vilified it for it in many corners of the media. Commentators were appalled that her decision would cost the US a chance at multiple golds at the Olympics, multiple chances to build on her legacy as the greatest gymnast of all time.
The critique can be essentially summed up like this: Simone had bucked the expectations and American trait of success above all else and showed weakness and lack of ‘heart’, not pushing through the pain to achieve glory. Simone wasn’t who the world expected her to be.
Jesus isn’t who we expect him to be either, as our reading from Mark highlights quite clearly. When Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” it seems that Peter is on the right track. He makes the first great declaration about Jesus “You are the Messiah!” The Messiah was essentially the greatest of all time, the one that everyone was waiting for, the chosen one, the one that would lead Israel back to prominence, to glory, to its rightful place on the world stage, free them from oppression and establish God’s reign on earth forever.
But then Jesus seemed to pull a fast one. Instead of talking about his triumphal entry into Jerusalem or his overthrow of the Roman oppressors he began to speak about how the Messiah would have to endure great suffering, how he would be rejected by those in authority and ultimately die. Whatever image of the Messiah one might have had in first-century Israel, this was not it, in fact, it was the complete opposite, it was the image of defeat rather than victory.
So we cannot malign Peter too much for rebuking Jesus, since it seemed that Jesus had missed the mark and misunderstood what it meant to be the Messiah. But Jesus wouldn’t have any of it, in turn, he rebuked Peter with perhaps his harshest rebuke contained in the scriptures – calling Peter a Satan, an adversary, an obstacle to his mission of salvation. And then Jesus gave what is essentially a succinct summary of that mission.
“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?”
To follow Jesus, one has to give up one’s preferences, one’s expectations, one’s glory and accolades which ultimately mean nothing in the Kingdom of God because they cannot give you life, only God, only restored and reconciled relationship with God can give the eternal and abundant life that God has intended for us from the beginning. After all what good are riches, glory, power if you don’t have life?
Simone Biles learned this truth after her shocking withdrawal. In a tweet, a few days after her withdrawal she said “the outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before”. Simon chose life, she chose her health and wellbeing over the potential for glory and in the process she ‘found’ herself, she found out that she was beloved not just for her accomplishments but for who she was. By choosing to give up her glory, at least momentarily, Simone learned a deeper truth about life, and about the possibility for God to bring abundant and eternal life into the midst of our life here and now.
Now most of us aren’t Simone Biles, and we don’t have the accolades and glory that she does, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t prioritize and value earthly things above heavenly ones. Success in life can come in many forms – work, family, a special skill – and our world often ties one’s worth to it. How much money do you make, how happy is your family, how many people like your content on social media – success is measurable and our world believes that your value as a person depends on it.
But Jesus offers a different way, a way that leads to abundant and eternal life. Jesus invites his followers to give up their worldly points of view, to give up worldly attachments, not so that they can leave the world but so that they might experience a fuller life within it. By allowing God’s priorities to become our priorities, by giving up our self-interest for the sake of others we can experience abundant life in this lifetime, we can experience more fully the grace, the mercy and the forgiveness of God.
As individuals this means making sure that we try to meet the needs of others before our own success, it means taking care of the poor and those in need, it means proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom by our words and our deeds, it means serving God’s church and our own brothers and sisters in Christ.
As a church, it means that we exist for the sake of the world, that all of our worship, all of our fellowship, all of our service is for the benefit of our community and those outside our walls and not merely for our self-preservation and a continuation of our status quo. It is no secret that we as a church are struggling, and the pandemic has merely exacerbated it. One response to these struggles is to turn inward, to circle the wagons and protect what we know and love for as long as we can – but that would be a mistake, it would result in communal life which wasn’t really life at all but mere existence. Instead as followers of Jesus, we are called to give all our effort, all our skill, all our talent and treasure for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of our neighbours.
Even amidst the ongoing pandemic and our challenges we cannot allow our gaze to turn inward, we can not go into a form of self-preservation that allows us to ignore the concerns and needs of our neighbours, because Jesus has called us to lose our life for the sake of the Gospel, to allow our preferences, our glory, our accolades to be tossed aside so that others might come to know the love, the mercy and the grace of God that we know in Jesus. And the beautiful paradox of the Gospel is that as we give up our ‘life’ for the sake of others we will come to know more and more the vibrant and abundant life of God in our midst, our common life together will be more filled with the Joy and love of God than we could ever imagine.
Are we ready to lose our life for the sake of the Gospel? The world might just depend on it.
Let us pray.