5 min. to read.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday after 5 days without power. After 11 months of various levels of COVID-19 social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and even quarantine. In some ways it feels like we’re already on the world’s longest Lent. And yet, with the weight of this past year, and the fragmented mind I’ve experienced, I feel the need for Lent more acutely than ever.
This year through Lent I’m reading and reflecting on scripture focusing on the life of Jesus. The scriptures were curated by pastor Brian Zahnd in his Lent devotional The Unvarnished Jesus. As a practice of my own, I’ll be posting daily (or near daily) short reflections as I read the scripture.
Today we start with Mark 8:31-38.
Here in the 8th chapter of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story, we come to a shift. Jesus begins to tell his friends and followers that he will head to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the leaders, be killed, and then will rise again. His disciples don’t understand what he could possibly mean. Peter even rebukes him.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke is startling. He says that Peter has his mind on “human things” rather than the “things of God.” I expect Peter was surprised and hurt by this. Wasn’t Peter’s concern for Jesus’ ministry one of those “things of God?” Wasn’t Peter’s desire for Jesus to be effective and to show himself the true Messiah a “thing of God?” How could Peter’s desire to help Jesus focus his message be a “human thing,” rather than a “Godly thing?”
I suspect that the “human things” Jesus refers to our our narratives of success. In the story we would choose, we would go to Jerusalem to be influential, to accomplish good and Godly things with power. We would want to see Jesus’ ministry, and our association with it, as effective, dynamic, relevant. We so easily say that a ministry or business or endeavor is “blessed” when it is working—making money, bringing in new people, accomplishing impressive things that can fill out the annual report. THAT’s how you know the Spirit is working, right?
But Jesus teaches again that those who want to follow him must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow. He says if they want to save their lives, they must lose them. None of this seems like victory.
Jesus says that the path forward is the path through death. Of course, there is the victory of resurrection, but that kind of victory can only happen after dying. Who wants to die? Zahnd wrote: “Jesus alone seems to understand that a breakthrough into new life is only attained through the experience of loss.” And then, “Jesus invites us to follow him, not in a march to greatness, but in the cross-carrying way of self-denial.”
American Christianity—at least the form that raised me—is built differently. Self-denial is meant to refer only to personal purity. Avoid the things you want to do and that feel good; That will be self-denial. In all other ways, though, expect blessing. God will work in your life. God will lead you. God will bless you and your family. God can be seen at work in the vibrant growing church. God can be seen in the unexpected financial windfall that pays your debt. God can be seen the way that our group is influential in the community. Let’s “bring our country back to God,” and trust that in doing so we will be blessed with generations of peace and prosperity.
In all our narratives, we want to avoid the cross, but as far as Jesus is concerned, the cross is the only way to life. “Christianity is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross,” said Luther. He was right, but when we diminish the cross to being a divine mechanism to accomplish atonement so that sinners can go to heaven one day, we undercut and empty out what Jesus actually taught. With our minds “set on human things,” we make the cross into a key that opens God’s treasury of blessings. Jesus, though, told his followers that the “way in” was the “way through.” We lose our lives to find them. We die to live again.
This is not about eternity. Or at least, not just about eternity. This is about now. Today.
Lent is the long walk towards the cross. It is not simply or only to remind us of Jesus’ historic cross, but also to show us that in our own life we enact the cross. At least we do when we consider things from God’s perspective. The goal isn’t to win, or to be influential, or to make great things happen. Lent invites us to give up our narratives of success.
This way leads to life! The goal is to turn full outward, to serve, to love, to—at the end of the day—die for others.