Last week, as Lent Madness started up, the first matchup was between Peter and Paul. Our family had a lively debate about which saint we preferred, including how cool it was for Paul to change his mind so radically. But I advocated for Peter because I love how human he is – always being both the Rock on which Christ will build his Church, and the “Satan” who gets so tripped up in his own desires that he forgets what Jesus is trying to do. Sometimes Peter’s praise and condemnation happen within verses of each other. Today is just such a day. In the few verses before the gospel reading from Mark we heard today, Peter boldly professes that Jesus is the Messiah when none of the other disciples are able to do so. But then today, as soon as Jesus starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death, Peter slips again. Like a celebrity’s manager, Peter quietly pulls Jesus aside to remind him that talking about suffering, rejection, and death is not going to help his ratings with the crowds.
I imagine many of us here have had similar conversations with God. Like Peter, we have taken certain risks in our lives to follow Christ. We have been mocked by non-believers, we have had to defend our God when the news feed seems to suggest God is absent, we have given up countless invitations for brunch or simply sleeping in because we agreed to read scripture in church or teach Sunday School. We have taken jobs out a sense of call or we have loved an enemy when we did not want to love her. We have made sacrifices for our faith. And like any relationship where we have committed time and energy, we become invested in the outcomes. So, when someone does not recover from an illness, or when a child is lost too soon, we get angry with God. When another shooting happens, or when we hear reports of genocide, we voice our frustration with God. Even when we follow politics, we become convinced that God would want a particular outcome or a particular party to win.
But here’s the trouble. You see, when we follow Jesus, when we give up things and commit to the relationship, we become invested. The process is natural – any relationship in which we commit our time is one in which we become invested in the results. But that is the scary thing about following Jesus. Not only does Jesus want us to follow him, Jesus also wants us to let go of control in the relationship. That’s where Peter stumbles today. You see, he is a faithful follower of Jesus. But somewhere along the way, his faithfulness is not offered out of a total trust in whatever Jesus has to offer, but is rooted in a conviction that Jesus will behave in a particular way: the conquering Messiah – the one who will bring redemption. His rebuking Jesus is because what Jesus says today does not jive with his expectations of the Messiah. And because he has a relationship with Jesus, because he is invested in his relationship with Jesus, he tries to exert his will over Jesus – to convince him to look like the Messiah he wants.
I once served at a parish that had a longtime missional relationship with a village in the Dominican Republic. When I got involved with the program, the relationship had been floundering. The church had worked with the village to build a community center. Once that was done, not wanting the relationship to end, the church tried some other efforts, including microfinance and teaching different industries. Most of those efforts failed, and the teams that would travel to the village began to feel like they were wasting their time or were doing busy work. The more the church tried to control the relationship, the less satisfying the relationship became.
I remember on one of our last nights in the DR talking to the local priest. I shared with him our concern – that we feared the relationship had accomplished all it could and everything we were trying to do in the village was forcing the relationship to be something the relationship could not be. The priest understood our predicament, and gave us his blessing to do whatever we needed to do. I went home convinced the church would gracefully end the relationship. Instead, years later, I found out the relationship was still going strong – but not because the church had done something. Instead, when the church was finally willing to let go, to stop trying to control the relationship, and force their own outcome, the relationship took off. The village came to the church with a new proposal. Instead of one more coat of paint, or one more attempted microbusiness, the village wanted to build more buildings. But this time, the buildings would not just service the village – they would serve as a high school for the region. Last I heard, the government finally noticed what the village was doing, and began to support the school with infrastructure and teachers.
What the church had to learn, what we need to learn, what Peter eventually learns is taking up our cross to follow Jesus means being open to death. Perhaps that sounds obvious to those of you who have read Jesus’ words time and again. But this week, when I think about what being open to death means I think Jesus means being open to the death of our self-interest – of our will – of our desperate need for control. Once we allow that to die, we start to find life – life in Christ as Christ would have us live life. We find ourselves able to keep our minds on divine things, not on human things.
This past week of dealing with the aftermath of another school shooting, I have been struggling. Every time our country faces another mass shooting, I feel like I need to do something, to change something, to push our leaders to do something different. Every time we face another tragedy, I join Christians in prayer and grief. But, as one Christian theologian points out, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”[i] And so this week, instead of just looking to like-minded people about what to do or whom to blame, I tried something else. I called up a friend who has very different feelings about these things and asked him to help me understand his point of view on guns in our country. Instead of trying to convince him of my view, I let go of my own stuff, and listened. When I let go – when I was open to the death of my self-interest or longing for control, I found that we got a lot closer to a common solution. We began to discover ways forward.
And then, as I found myself loosening my own grip on a solution, our young people started speaking up. Instead of the adults in this country trying to tell students how to feel or behave, the students began to teach us. If we can deny ourselves, let go of our death grip on this issue on either side, our young people are inviting us into a new way of entering this problem – of listening differently to one another and responding in a way that transforms both sides of the aisle.
I cannot imagine a better time for us to grapple with our relationships with God and with one another. Many of you have already shared with me the ways in which you have taken on Lenten disciplines to help you deepen your relationship with Christ. What Peter’s experience this week invites us to consider is how we might not simply deepen our relationship, but also how me might cede our self-interest in our relationship with Christ – not simply following Christ, but letting go of how we think that journey should look; not simply taking up our cross, but being open to the fact that we do not know what that will mean or what we will encounter. If we can engage in that kind of relationship with Christ, then we might just be able to engage in that kind of relationship with one another – no longer maddeningly holding on to what we want in our relationships, but trusting that God is working among us when we let go. Then we are finally taking up our crosses and following Christ – together. Amen.
[i] Attributed to Miroslav Volf by Kirsten Powers, “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane,” Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane, as referenced by Karoline Lewis, “Open Speech,” Feb. 19, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5066, as found on Feb. 22, 2018.