Last Sunday while preaching at Tierra Nueva Jesus’ words about rejection struck me as highly relevant for us today.
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus is talking about himself here. But his followers are also included in this trajectory that looks suicidal.
Right before Jesus says these words Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Christ— and Jesus had warned his disciples they mustn’t tell anyone. Now Jesus informs his disciples that he will not succeed in winning over religious leaders, assuming power, expelling the Romans and making Israel great again. He will achieve victory over death itself. But not without himself passing through death on a cross, the only way to be raised to new life by the Father.
Peter thought Jesus’ words and path were lame. He rebukes Jesus for his way of talking about being the Christ. I imagine Peter insisting that Jesus be strong and successful, with growing acceptance until he achieves earthly power.
Peter represents those who want Jesus and themselves to be associated with social acceptance and material and political success-- not suffering, failure, rejection and death. Peter wants to make Israel great again—like some today (even Christians) want to make America, or any prized party, tribe, nation, ministry or agenda great again.
Earlier last Sunday at Washington State Reformatory I met with a group of prisoners I read the Bible and pray with every two weeks. I know from many conversations that they feel despised by the State and mainstream society—and assume churchgoers look down upon them unless proven otherwise. And yet their association with Jesus in the prison system also marks them for rejection.
The men share how when they walk along their cell blocks with their Bibles to our gatherings, people mock them—saying church is for sex-offenders, hypocrites, and people who can’t face the consequences of their crimes or life without a crutch.
Jesus turns around and seeing his disciples, he rebukes Peter for trying to take him away from rejection—the direction he’s going. He rebukes Peter publically in the strongest terms: “Get behind me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
Here Jesus is literally telling Satan and anyone associated with that agenda to get behind him in the direction he is going in his downward descent to save humanity through his suffering and death. Is Jesus calling Peter’s pressure to move upward towards social acceptance, earthly success and power ‘satanic’? It seems so.
Jesus is not about achieving acceptance, power and being number one, but about emptying himself, taking on “the form of a slave, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8).
“You are not setting your mind on God’s interests—but on people’s,” he says.
Jesus is 100 percent committed to God’s interests for the world—which go in the opposite direction of normal human priorities. God’s sacred movement involves bringing rulers down from their thrones, and Jesus leads the way as God’s Son. Jesus’ priorities are about exalting the humble and filling the hungry with good things (Lk 1:52-53), not allying with the powers to dominate and control.
“And for whom might this be good news?,” I ask people at Tierra Nueva church on Sunday. A man in the front row, just released from a three-year prison sentence looks up and nods—“people like me,” he says. A woman struggling to kick her heroin addiction so she can get custody of her toddler is listening intently— her wide eyes are searching for hope.
Jesus invites the crowd and his disciples to make a radical choice to follow him on this same hard path: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
Here Jesus calls us to move in the opposite direction of our culture—which prizes self and personal success and security as sacred.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are overrated,” I say. “Satisfying your every desire and giving yourself what you want is pursuing the American Dream, not the Kingdom of God.”
If you are drawn to Jesus and want to follow behind him, then he invites you to three practices: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” (8:34). Denying our self is a necessary prerequisite for taking up our cross, and then following Jesus.
But how do we come to this point of being willing to deny our self?
We are more likely to be ready to deny our self if we have lost confidence that we know best how to run our lives. If choosing my own destiny has led to anxiety, serious troubles, addiction, relationship breakdown, and incarceration, then I’m ready to dethrone self and even take aggressive measures—what Paul calls “crucifying the flesh.”
But we must hear this call to deny ourselves and take up the cross positively, as a personal invitation from Jesus to join him in a new life together with him.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
Jesus gives himself up for me ahead of my giving myself to him. I join Jesus on the cross as the instrument of his and my symbolic death—my crucifixion with Christ equals total surrender so I can go in a new direction, wholly given over to following Jesus in a life of joyful adventure behind God’s interests.
The cross also represents death to sin that enslaves me. “Our old self was crucified with him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
For Jesus the cross was the means the powerful used to execute him. “Taking up your cross” signifies following Jesus even in the face of disapproval and rejection from the important people deemed competent to determine your value or legitimacy. Back then these were elders, chief priests, and scribes. Who would be their equivalents today for you?
There are pressures on us today to conform to other agendas, rather than choose the path behind Jesus and give up personal control to him. But the alternative according to Jesus is the forfeiture of our soul.
If we continue to believe we ourselves know how to save ourselves and be the masters of our own lives, Jesus has strong words of warning for us.
“Whoever wishes to save their life,” (going with Satan in the direction of being popular, well-received, successful, secure, and being on top), “will lose their life.”
In contrast, “whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:35).
Today Jesus might say something like this: “What does it profit a person to make self/ministry/America great again and forfeit their soul?
He then asks his listeners: “For what will a person give in exchange for his soul?” In other words—what payment can you receive from the world that could possibly lead you to sell your soul?
Jesus calls his followers to turn away from the shame they might feel about him and his path, calling them to total allegiance to him and his teaching: “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus invites us to surrender to his love which saves us, rather than exchanging our soul for a false security.
“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).