“Get behind me, Satan!”
When was the last time you said this to someone? Have you ever said it, either out loud to someone or in your mind? Maybe we should. What a Lenten discipline that might be–to tell the truth when we’re facing temptation, to go so far as to admit, out loud, to friends when we’re struggling with sin.
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel passage? In the verses preceding this section of Mark, Peter is the one who rightly recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the one promised throughout Israelite history to come and to save God’s people. When the cat’s let out of the bag that Jesus is God come to earth to save humanity from their sin, Jesus takes his disciples aside to explain a bit more about what’s going to happen.
I can imagine the scene: Rabbi Jesus, having spent months, maybe even years, preparing his disciples through his words and his actions, for them to be ready and able to put the pieces all together, to identify the face of God in the carpenter from Nazareth, finally asks, “who do you say that I am?” They equivocate for a few moments in the middle of chapter 8, “well, people say you’re Elijah, come back down on that fiery chariot, and others have their money on your being John the Baptist come back to life.” Jesus smiles and shakes his head, “okay, but who do you say that I am?” From this pointed question, Peter makes the great proclamation of faith, “You are the Christ.” I imagine Jesus’ eyes filling with tears, grateful in that moment for the willing, tender hearts surrounding him, eager and ready for the salvific revelation that’s just been made by one of their brethren. “You are the Christ.”
On the tail of this statement of faith–which is similar to the one we make when the Nicene Creed is recited just after the sermon here every week–Jesus “quite openly” prophesies of his own demise, sharing with his disciples that he will have to “suffer many things” and to be rejected by those most respected and most educated in Judaism. He knows that faith in a God who would become human inevitably leads to evil’s seeking to destroy this atrocious, unfitting act of love. The very people he came to spend his life with will slam the door in his face. There’s nothing wrong with education, or with respect, but the hardness of heart which more often accompanies people who have the trappings that make our lives here seem secure can make us blind to the ways that God is creeping around the corners of our lives.
In rebuking Peter’s rebuke, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus admits to his disciples and to us how tempting it was even to him to pursue a life of security, of gathering around himself the sorts of things that make life more comfortable, easier. We’re not alone and we’re not unique in struggling against the powers of this world, the images we’re given to aspire and follow for a life of success.
I nannyed for a couple who were both professors and priests when I lived in Durham, and sometimes I made dinner or picked one of them up from the airport, too. Clearly, they were both very bright and accomplished, and their kids were pretty smart, too. The husband of the duo was returning from a speaking engagement at Hope College in Michigan, and when I picked him up from his flight and asked how the trip had been, he said to me, “If we’re in America (they are British) when the children go to college, I want them to go somewhere like Hope College.” I remember thinking to myself–and perhaps even saying out loud, “Why on earth would you want them to go there? It’s not the Ivy League or a top-ten institution, how could you wish to send your child to anywhere except the absolute best–like Duke?” And I remember him replying, at that time, or some other, that he and his wife desired to raise compassionate, thoughtful, loving children, and Hope College seemed like a place where it would be easier survive with those priorities than at Duke.
How much more did Jesus face this temptation to security and accomplishment than each of us do? Relatively, we have little control over how secure, successful, and impressive our lives are–Jesus really does have the power to take everything over and bend the world to his desires. This was, in effect, what Peter was saying as he rebuked Jesus; as Jesus told his friends about where the faith they followed would lead them, especially Jesus himself, Peter hoped that the power afforded by being God himself and by being God’s homies would insulate them from the sort of danger and discomfort that might threaten less powerful people.
Aren’t we sometimes like Peter, too? We see a situation that demands a difficult stand at work, we’re convicted to give more money than budgeted to the work God is so evidently doing in Haiti or elsewhere, and we resist the right thing that we know we’re supposed to do. In effect, we take God aside and say, “Look, God, I know it looks like this situation demands that I say “no” to my boss, but I don’t think that’s really necessary, there’s got to be another way that’s not so uncomfortable and risky.” That twinge we feel, that raising of our inner temperature or the turning of our stomachs–those are the signs that God is saying back to us, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re stuck in a mindset that is prioritizing ease and comfort over and above the mindset and sort of life that I desire for you.”
Back in 2004, some kid in a Harvard dorm room started an exclusive website called “The Facebook.” Mark Zuckerberg and a few roommates launched what is now the largest social networking site in the world, most of them are now millionaires. What would you have given to be a teenaged boy at Harvard in Mark’s dorm in 2004? Can you imagine the luck of those hallmates who got in on the ground floor of this business? We could be living out in California in enormous houses with every comfort cared for, every whim fulfilled. As I said, there’s nothing in particular wrong with enormous houses or fulfilling whims, just that such comforts often insulate us from God’s voice, from noticing what Jesus is up to in our lives and those around us. There’s one kid, a roommate of Zuckerberg’s in fact, who didn’t join up in the business. Do you know what he does now? He’s a rabbi. Can you imagine the courage and clarity of conviction it would take to say no to Mark Zuckerberg? Rabbis don’t mean nearly what they did in the world of the New Testament, really, the tables have been flipped–the silly ones in society are the religious ones and those who are sensible and businesslike are respected and catered to. The rabbi may very well have said to his friend, Mark, “Get behind me, Satan! You are focused on earthly things, not heavenly things.”
So what does success look like for those who proclaim faith in Jesus as the Christ? Thankfully we don’t have to guess, we’ve got a whole book full of examples–called the Bible; we even hear about one today in our epistle lesson from Romans, that father-of-us-all, Abraham. Though he never met God in Jesus, Abraham recognized, knew, and cultivated a relationship with the living God. We read that Abraham did not lose faith in God, that he, too, proclaimed trust in God’s promises–for Abraham, the promise was that he and his wife Sarah would have a son of their own flesh, despite their age, and that the two of them would be the grandparents of several nations. We’re told that he grew strong in his faith–it seems like his faith was both a gift (an ability) given from God and also something that Abraham cultivated through practice. How did he practice this faith, though, how did he help it to grow strong? Romans says he gave glory to God, continually being fully convinced that God would keep his end of the bargain. And haven’t we seen that God has done exactly that?
Abraham didn’t have even the benefit of thousands of years of witnesses to corroborate the promises which God made to him. How much more did Abraham have to fight doubt and distrust with so little to stand on in faith? How much each of us has in the biblical witnesses over millenia, as well as the lives of saints in the history of the church, both throughout the world and closer to home, those in our own families and in Trinity’s history.
The temptation is real. Just as Jesus struggled mightily with the temptation to refuse the cup which was offered to him finally in the garden of Gethsemane, of which Peter’s rebuke is a foretaste, each of us continues to struggle in temptation to fix our minds on human things–worrying about our security, our respect, our accomplishments–rather than on the things of God, living in compassion, wisdom, and love.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:36-38) Amen.