March 8, 2015
My mother is a second generation American. She told me that when she was a little girl, she was always a little envious of her cousins because they were first generation Americans. But my grandmother, my mother's mother, was the third of four girls, and her two older sisters were born in Sweden. My Gramma was born just after they immigrated to America. My grandfather, my mother's father, was born in this country as well, but his side of the family was strictly Swedish as well. My uncle Dudley, my mother’s older brother, has been researching the family tree and the biggest impediment he has run into is that eventually all of the official records are in Swedish. He does not speak Swedish. Neither does my mom or her twin brother. But that isn’t for a lack of trying.
When my mother was in high school she took Swedish. It was Minneapolis in the 1940's. Swedish was probably s common as French. But she dropped the class because her teacher graded my mother more harshly than she did other students. If my mother received a B on a test, the teacher would grade her down to a C. If she received an A, it would be a B, and so on. The reason the teacher gave for doing this was because my mom’s parents were both Swedish, so my mother must know more about the language because she heard it at home. No matter how hard my mom tried to convince her otherwise, the teacher would not back down. Surely my mother already had a working knowledge of Swedish, therefore her grades would reflect that fact.
Here’s the thing, my mom did not have a working knowledge of Swedish. I know that my Gramma spoke it. I suspect that my Grampa did as well. But what I do know is that they did not speak it at home. While the Scandinavian culture and traditions were greatly valued in my mother’s family, they were first and foremost Americans. That was their identity. They were Americans at home and elsewhere. My mother did not hear Swedish at home. She did not speak it at home. She was American.
I realize that this was not always true for other families from other countries and cultures. As I understand it, one source of conflict for families who immigrated to the United States was that the traditions and language of the “old country” were often forgotten or lost with each new generation of family. It was a matter of changing identity. In a larger sense, isn’t this part of the struggle we face when it comes to immigration? What does it mean to be American when we are a nation built both on slavery and immigrants? For many of us, our ancestors came here from someplace else. What is our identity?
Although it may not seem like it on the surface, our passage from Mark’s gospel addresses the question of identity. To fully understand what is happening, we have to look at the verses that precede the ones we read today. Jesus and the disciples were visiting the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As they traveled, he asked the disciples who the people believed him to be. “Who do people say that I am?” Some people thought he was John the Baptist. Other people thought he was Elijah. There were some who believed he was one of the other prophets.
Then Jesus asked them the crucial question. “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter, in what must have been a moment of glaring clarity, answered, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus told them what he had told others, “don’t tell.” The conversation did not end there. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus began to enumerate what being the Messiah really meant. It meant suffering. It meant rejection. It meant death, and then in three days’ time, resurrection.
Whatever insight and understanding Peter had about Jesus’ identity came to a crashing halt at Jesus’ words. It was one thing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah; it was another thing to hear Jesus’ words about being the Messiah. Jesus’ words were shocking; indeed they were scandalous. In his shock, Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Peter essentially told Jesus, “Shut your mouth!” Jesus not only refused to shut his mouth, he rebuked Peter in return. This exchange between Peter and Jesus was not just a disagreement. It would have been an intense and angry argument. The word rebuke is the same one Jesus used to cast out demons. He rebuked them. While Peter’s rebuke of Jesus must have stung, Jesus’ rebuke in response cut to the core. These are some of the harshest words Jesus spoke.
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Get behind me, Satan? No matter how many times I read that, I cannot get my head around how awful that must have been for Peter to hear. I’m guilty of jokingly saying that phrase to people, especially when someone is trying to tempt me with chocolate. But this was no joke. I do not believe that Jesus was declaring that Peter was, in fact, Satan. But he was stating that Peter’s ideas, beliefs, and expectations about the Messiah were not from God.
Then Jesus not only spoke to the disciples, he called the crowd around him to listen as well. “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.”
I have to be honest, if I had been in that crowd, I would not have found Jesus’ description of a follower appealing or compelling. At all. In terms of public relations, it must have been the worst marketing strategy ever. If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to deny yourself, pick up a cross and follow me. You are going to have to be willing to suffer as I am willing to suffer. You will have to be prepared to die, just as I will die.
Following Jesus meant a cross. Following Jesus meant suffering. Following Jesus meant death. I know that Jesus also prophesied his resurrection, but the people listening to him could barely wrap their heads around the cross and the dying. I suspect that those words of resurrection and new life were lost in the horror of everything else he told them.
I said this earlier, but I believe it bears repeating. Jesus’ words were scandalous. The people in his presence were surely scandalized by them. We should be scandalized by them as well. If we’re not, then I’m afraid we’ve stopped listening.
I grew up hearing that being a Christian, following Jesus, did not make everything all sweetness and light. In fact, it could make your life harder. But you just had to focus on the end result. That’s not wrong, per se, but I don’t think that understanding of following Jesus quite gets it either. Following Jesus means that our identity changes, not only in name, but in our whole way of life. Following Jesus is not just what we endure until we get to heaven. Following Jesus means that we bear a cross of suffering just as he did. My cross, my suffering may look very different from yours, but we each have a cross to bear, just the same. But when Jesus told the disciples and the crowds – and us – that discipleship, following him, meant bearing our cross, he was not claiming that he would lead them away from the world. Just the opposite. When we follow Jesus, we are led into the world. We carry our crosses, and we follow Jesus into a world of crosses. I strongly believe that our relationship with Jesus is not just a private affair. And wrong or right as I may be, I also do not believe that our salvation is necessarily the point. At least that’s not what I feel called to focus on. If following Jesus means following him into a world of crosses, then we are called not only to be willing to suffer ourselves, but to suffer in solidarity with others. We are called to reach out to those who are suffering, to offer help to the helpless and give voice to the voiceless. Not only is following Jesus not easy, it is not just about us alone. When we choose to follow Jesus, we answer the call to stand with those who suffer, even as we suffer. Following Jesus is a deliberate, intentional, mindful way of living and being. It calls us to go into the world of suffering people. It changes our identity. And the question cannot just be, “Who am I as a follower of Jesus?” It must also be, “Who are we as followers as Jesus?” Who are we? What is our identity as followers? Where are we being called? How are we being called? What cross are we asked to carry?
That is the scandalous good news. To follow Jesus, we must be willing to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow him into a world of crosses and suffering and brokenness. It is daunting and scary, but we are not blazing a new trail. The good news is that we follow. We follow the One who gave flesh to the love and grace of God. We follow the one who willingly suffered and died – not for his sake, but for ours. Who are we? Who does Jesus call us to be? Let all of God’s children, the followers of Jesus, say, “Amen.”