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Walking the Way of Jesus

Jesus was a hard-ass. We mostly really think of him as kind, loving, patient, compassionate, generous and caring. But, he was also a hard-ass sometimes.The passage in Mark 8:31-37 where Jesus says to Peter, "Get out of my sight, you Satan!" is one of those times.

Let’s start with a little bit of context, remembering what Jesus’ message was to the crowds that came to see him. Being Jewish was all about following the 613 laws in order to be righteous in God’s eyes… but did we ever hear Jesus preaching about those laws? Nope, he spoke of only two consistently – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He never harped on what to eat, what to wear, how to wash, how to keep the holy days, etc. But, we do witness the way he broke a number of those laws!

Jesus healed on the Sabbath, allowed his disciples to glean fieds for grain on the Sabbath, he spoke to women, touched lepers, ate with tax collectors and sinners, offered forgiveness, dismissed animal sacrifice and ritual cleanliness, and even allowed a woman to touch him, anointing his feet and head.

So many of Jesus' every day actions flew in the face of what Jews had been taught all their lives, therefore challenging the authority of the priests and rabbis. 

He wasn't any better with the Romans who were oppressing the middle class and poor with horrible taxes. Jesus told the tax collectors what? Not to take more than was required. And how did he encourage the poor? He told them that God loved them, they were worthy, the meek will inherit the earth, that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. If you're trying to dominate a bunch of people, the last thing you want them doing is organizing and believing they are worth better than they're getting!

Over and over again Jesus stood against the status quo religiously and politically. He stood with the poor and the oppressed, the outcast and the marginalized. John the Baptist was beheaded for less than that. Jesus knew that he was getting himself in trouble, but he didn’t stop. Why? Because, he knew that the God who loved him, and called him Beloved, also called every other person Beloved as well. So, he couldn’t stand to see the injustice and the inequity. He couldn’t stand to see people using God to get ahead in the world, or using their political or religious station to manipulate and squeeze the people and take more and more.

Jesus knew that if a person was to be ONE with the Divine, it meant you were ONE with everything and you needed to be "all in." Not just the parts that are comfortable. To be ONE with the Divine, to live a wholehearted life, means one can’t compartmentalize spirituality into a nice comfy seat on the Sabbath. It must be lived in all areas of one’s life.

One can’t pray on the Sabbath and then over tax the poor, or take their land away.

One can’t break the Challah bread then walk by the beaten man on the side of the road, or watch orphans and widows starve.

One can’t study the commandments and proclaim belief in God and then act with violence against another human being.

Jesus was completely against any sort of hypocrisy at all. If you were going to walk with Jesus, you better really be all in.

It’s no wonder Jesus’ preaching was getting him in trouble with the temple priests and with the Roman government. They were being called to account. They were being held to a higher standard – a Godly standard – and they were falling short.

I don’t blame his disciples for wanting him to back down, or at least not walk right into their hands and get himself killed. They believed in him, they believed in his message, and they most certainly loved him and cared for him. Peter especially didn’t want to hear Jesus predict his own suffering and death, so Peter pulled him aside and “took issue” with him. The student was now rebuking the teacher. And Jesus was having none of it.

Enter hard-ass Jesus. “Get behind me, you Satan!” (I like this translation in the Inclusive Bible, because Jesus isn’t accusing Peter of being the devil, but of being an adversary, as the original Hebrew intended.) Jesus basically says, “Peter, you can’t control this, you are judging by human standards, not God’s. I’m sorry this isn’t how you pictured things going, but I’m not backing down now. Get on board, and know it is going to be tough.“

Peter needed new eyes, he was seeing in the old ways and with his old ideas about the Messiah. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to suffer and die. The way of the world was that people raised up an army and fought for their freedom, fought for their rights. The way of God did not include violence. The way of God requires seeing all people with eyes of compassion. The eyes of God require us to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Joan Chittester had a word to say about this: “We are called to live the Word ourselves, so that others may live better lives because of us. Otherwise, we use a standard that does not really describe the truly spiritual person in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

After Jesus had his little “come-to-Jesus” meeting with Peter – literally, he summoned everyone around and said, “Look, if you want to be my follower, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you would lose your life, you will save it.”

Living true to God’s standards of love and compassion was a soul thing – it could heal and make your soul whole, or it could result in tension between your soul and your ego… a personal house divided cannot stand.

Regardless of how people tend to throw this passage around to say we all have our crosses to bear (as if God sends bad things on us that we’re just supposed to endure) this passage truly means that if we want to call ourselves students of the teacher, Jesus, we need to get our egos out of the way. We have to stop thinking like the dominant culture, we need to stop thinking just about ourselves and think about everyone. And if you actually do that, the road is going to be difficult. No question about that. But, it will fill your soul.

If you don’t follow this path of compassion, equality, grace, forgiveness and work on lifting up all people, healing all people, being kind to all people, then it is clear you have lost your soul. You have sold out to the powers that be, to the systems that gave you privilege, money, and power over others.

I think the cross Jesus asks us to carry is the cross of justice and peace. Here are stories of two men who did exactly this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, and German theologian and professor, who took a bold stand early against the “Aryan clause” of rising Nazism. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer raised the first voice for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself."

After Hitler manipulated elections in the churches and succeeded in getting an overwhelming number of Nazi Deutsche Christians in key church positions, the national church moved forward with passing a church clause to remove all pastors and church officials of Jewish descent from their posts and then voted to remove the OT from the Bible because it was seen as heresy – it was Jewish scripture, after all. A Pastor’s Emergency League formed in resistance to this movement and eventually became the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer would go on to almost single-handedly summon the Confessing Church in Germany to see what was at stake in the racism of the Nazis against Jews. For many years, Bonhoeffer taught and lectured - often secretly – against Nazism, knowingly risking his life. He had opportunities to leave the country and stop, but he chose to stay and work for justice.

Long story short, he was arrested in April, 1943, and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to Flossenburg concentration camp. After being accused of being associated with a plot to assassinate Hitler, he was quickly tried (without a jury, record or witnesses), and then hanged on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by US troops.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador also understood what it meant to take up the cross of justice and peace. Less than a month after his installation as archbishop of El Salvador, his friend and colleague Rutillo Grande, SJ, was machine-gunned as “punishment” for helping peasants organize to secure self-determination. 

Soon after, a right-wing paramilitary group ordered all Jesuits to leave the country or to face execution. Although his friend’s murder had enormous impact on Romero, he realized that it was not an isolated incident. Literally tens of thousands of men, women, and children were murdered by military and para-military death squads under the guise of “anti-communism,” “law and order,” and “maintenance of traditional values.” The police and the courts existed primarily to exonerate the guilty and to punish those victims who dared to speak about the mistreatment they had suffered.

Beyond the overt violence, Oscar Romero saw institutionalized social and economic injustice on a pervasive scale. Two percent of the population controlled 57 percent of the nation’s usable land, and the 16 richest families owned the same amount of land utilized (not owned) by 230,000 of the poorer families. The poorest families had no land whatever, and were forced to sleep in ditches and muddy fields. Hungry farm workers were beaten or shot for eating a piece of the very produce they had grown. Mines and factories operated under the theory that it was cheaper to replace a dead or crippled worker than to repair defective equipment. Sixty percent of all babies died at birth, and 75 percent of the survivors suffered severe malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children died from diseases that could have been cured by basic medications.

Facing such realities, Archbishop Romero began to ask his now-famous questions: “How can Christians do such things to each other? What can the Church do to help?” He found part of his answer in a tenant of Liberation Theology: “To know God is to do justice.”

A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed - what gospel is that?   ~ Archbishop Oscar Romero

Archbishop Romero spoke out over and over and over again, calling people to lay down their arms, asking for peace and an end to the violence, calling for help for the poor, calling for compassion and equality, calling them to be accountable to the Bible and the Christian values they proclaimed. He preached the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” For all of his efforts he constantly received death threats and sought to stay far away from friends and colleagues so as to prevent collateral damage, should he be attacked, but he refused to be silenced.

On March 24, 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while preparing the gifts of the Eucharist presiding at a memorial Mass.

Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero... and there have been countless other men and women through the ages who have carried the cross of justice and peace, who have been brave and strong and faithful to Jesus’ message.

I don’t know if I could be as strong in their place. And, if I’m honest, I might be just as bad as Peter if someone I loved was putting themselves in danger. But I also know that I want to live my life more wholeheartedly. I want my faith to show in how I treat people, in how I vote, in what I march for or sign petitions for, in how I donate my money, in how I support or don’t support public policies and treatment of the poor and the marginalized.

I’m certain I’m no Jesus, and I’m certain I have a ways to go for my faith to be consistent with my words and my actions. But it is my intention to keep trying. It is my intention to keep walking with Jesus, just like Peter did, doing my best and getting better all the time at carrying the cross of jusice and peace, 

Love & Light,