In recent times we have heard about the emergence of what’s called ‘the snowflake generation’. I gather that this is a somewhat insulting way of speaking about some of our young people; who the story goes, are thought to be far too timid or fragile to be placed in an environment where they might hear or be subjected to views of the world that might in some way disturb them. Poor darlings! This is, apparently such problem that some people are suggesting that we’re witnessing the death (for example) of the University as a place where debate and controversy is part of what you should expect.
Now, this may well be an exaggeration but I thought about this strange phenomenon when I began looking at that reading we heard a few moments ago (Mark 8.27-38). Because it struck me that poor old Saint Peter comes across as a bit of a ‘snowflake’. Because here’s a man who heard something he simply didn’t want to hear. Here’s a man who was confronted with a view of the world and indeed of God, which threw him into turmoil.
It really got under his skin, to hear that Jesus might be arrested and crucified. So much so that he takes Jesus aside and gives him a verbal dressing down. Surely, it was just ridiculous that God would choose this way to put the world to rights! Ridiculous, because we all know that you don’t just apparently give in to your enemies like that! Anyone in their right mind would take them on or fight back wouldn’t they? And what use is that kind of God? Surely Peter has a point. Don’t we wish sometimes that he would indulge in a bit of ‘smiting’ of his enemies from time to time?
But of course, the point is that we (and indeed, Peter) tend to think this way because our natural assumption is that any God worthy of the name, would indeed act like us. With a bit more force and on a much bigger scale perhaps but nonetheless we look to him to endorse our view of the world where resistance to our way of thinking or our view of the world will ‘naturally’ (as if there’s no alternative) be met with the banging some heads together!
However, in this passage we are presented with a Jesus and by extension, a God, who overturns assumptions like these. In Jesus we see a God who follows a rather different path so as to redeem a world. A patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path; which was as alien to Peter as it is to us.
You might remember that it’s the prophet Isaiah who warns us about our dealings with the Lord: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.8-9)
So, my first point is just to let that altercation between Jesus and Peter illustrate something of the tension we can sometimes feel. Here’s a sign (not of a lack of faith!) but that we’re actually beginning to engage with this rather unexpected, surprising and even provocative God.
But secondly, there’s more to it than that because I think Peter had much more selfish reasons for getting all het-up about what Jesus says. Because the real ‘elephant in the room’ is that deep down, Peter realised that if Jesus was going to go that way, then HE would have to follow: and sure enough, history tells us that he did. Which makes all of this no theoretical or abstract observation. Peter understood that in getting mixed up with this Jesus, he also would have to live in that same patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way.
So, what it all amounts to, is that Jesus had rumbled him! He’d put before Peter the real challenge of discipleship; which means living the Christ-shaped life. And metaphorically speaking, poor Peter ‘the snowflake’ was given both barrels. “Yes”, said Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. Basically, Jesus sets out what it looks like to become a citizen of this new age that is dawning.
So let’s just take this on the chin. We have a Jesus who calls us into way a way of life which contradicts what we readily assume is rational and reasonable. And then secondly, let’s come clean and recognise that we don’t really want this either. Let’s remind ourselves how preferable it is to side with Peter ‘the snowflake’ and reflect on how tempting it is to see if we can think up a plan; a way of being a ‘Christian’ where we can avoid all of this inconvenience. Some way we can avoid being caught up in having to actually live like that!
Now, one of the more subtle ways we practice this ‘avoidance’, is yes, to talk about “bearing the cross” but with a subtle twist. What we usually mean are life’s everyday challenges. “It’s a cross I have to bear” we say. Now don’t misunderstand me; using that very language is a good way of praying with; and helping us keep company with the Lord, in the midst of our challenges. But this isn’t quite what Jesus means. Whereas the cross he speaks of is what happens when you deliberately choose to live differently and according to the ways of God’s kingdom; the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path. What we do is to effectively invert things. Essentially, instead of being a path to follow; a consciously chosen and distinctive way of life; the Christian faith becomes a sort of sticking plaster to soothe and help us bear with these other ‘crosses’ of ours.
That’s why faith can be so effectively marketed these days as something practical, relevant and appealing. We try to sell it as something which will meet these needs; these crosses of ours. And this gross distortion allows those who are fortunate enough not to struggle in life, to say, “Well, thank you very much but I don’t need your crutch”. “I don’t feel the NEED” is the great mantra isn’t it? But we’ve misrepresented Jesus. These are the seeds of consumerism; where we substitute ‘following’ Jesus into his future …..for a Church (and indeed ‘god’) who is there simply to meet our needs and desires.
But of course, it’s all so reasonable to want to reject this morbid talk of death! It’s not a great selling point, is it? “To deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow”. You get the sense that some people think it’s bad for business. “That’s not the way to get them in!”, they’ll say. But it doesn’t seem to occur to us that Jesus knew that full well. And he doesn’t waver at all from his conviction that a patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way is how it has to be… in spite of the fact that he lost them all.
I mean, when we look at those three years of his ministry… although we might like to paint them as ‘successful’… it’s clear that by the time he came to Good Friday there was no-one left. They had ALL abandoned him. They were ALL ‘Snowflakes’. Jesus dies on the cross (according to our way of looking at things) as an abject failure. But God raised him. God vindicated him.
So, let’s just think for a moment of those crosses which some of us wear around our necks. Or more especially that cross which was placed on your forehead when you were Baptised. Yes, these are profoundly important ways of reminding us of the love and forgiveness under which we stand. But the point is that they also mark us out as those who are called to a very particular way of life; the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way of Christ himself.
You see, to ‘deny ourselves’ is not a matter of giving up the chocolate; feeling bad about ourselves or wallowing in guilt. It means stepping aside; it’s about embracing the truth that we are not the centre of the universe. We are created. It means living the truth of our existence in a world that is bent on quite the opposite. I mean, this way of Jesus looks stupid, even foolhardy to many but actually, it’s those of us who would live lives of self-assertion, control or violence who are really the fools of the piece. And Jesus mocks us: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8.36)
But perhaps most important of all, the path which Christ took to the cross becomes for us a window onto the heart of God. Paul reminds us in this morning’s epistle, that it’s in his stepping aside and accepting the way of the cross that our God is truly made visible. Which is why he is keen to say, “let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2.5)
Because Paul knows that in stepping aside; in taking the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path; then you become a Church, a community of people who are no longer ‘consumers’ of God but those who will truthfully represent him to the world.