What was it about Peter’s rebuke in Mark 8:32 that so upset Jesus?
We do not know the content of Peter’s private rebuke but we can only assume that it was born out of love and loyalty. No one wants to see someone they love suffer or die needlessly. Peter was the disciple who had vowed to defend Jesus to the death. It was Peter who made the iconic declaration: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16, NRSV). But now he was being called out in front of his peers, like the bad guy in a street fight: “Get behind me, Satan! (Mark 8:33)” The words continue to jar me because had I been there, I might have done the same thing.
I am beginning to see that this classic discourse on the cost of discipleship is best understood as an explanation of Jesus’ harsh rebuke of Peter. Instead of just thanking Peter for his concern, and steering him away from the mindset of evasive maneuvers, Jesus thought it critical to shake him up. Jesus let Peter (and subsequent readers) know, in no uncertain terms, whose cause we promote when we fail to embrace difficult or dangerous actions for the sake of God’s agenda on this earth. Get behind me, Satan! The good news in the passage is that he did not leave those harsh words ringing in the air for very long. Jesus described the appropriate Christian response to this kind of adversity: take up your cross and follow me… those who want to save their life will lose it, while those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8:34-35).
Peter’s culpability was in being willing to trade his cross for a sword. Here and later we see Peter willing to fight rather than suffer with Christ. Later, in the courtyard, we see him willing to deny Christ rather than place himself at risk. It is in this one human biography that we are allowed a glimpse of Christian history’s miserable responses to Jesus’ call to discipleship. At one extreme, we Christians have demonstrated our willingness to settle issues with the sword. Instead of embracing the cross and suffering for Christ and for the sake of the gospel, we are found guilty of causing untold suffering in God’s name. At the other extreme, we are also there, insisting that we find it easier to deny our faith publicly, like Peter in the courtyard on the night that Jesus was arrested.
Today, this text pushes me to blush over the myriad ways that we avoid suffering by just keeping quiet. We are quiet because we do not want to offend. We are quiet because we do not want to get involved. Or, like Peter, we are quiet because we do not want to place ourselves in harms’ way. And, so, needless injustices continue in the workplace or in the local community because we do not want to get involved. Bloodshed and abuse continue unchallenged without so much as a prayer or a protest because we do not want to take risks. It would be so easy to point fingers at “those cowardly Christians” if the Cowardly Lion did not also live in my heart.
This is February, Black History Month, and I cannot help but remember all the good that has been done in human history by people willing to suffer unto death with the suffering, for the sake of the gospel. Christianity is at its finest when it swims upstream and pushes back against the culture, defiantly insisting upon a better way.
I persist in believing that Christianity is more distracted than unwilling to answer the call to discipleship. Yet, this is not harmless distraction. These distractions are devilish. Failing to answer the call to discipleship aligns us against, rather than with Christ. Get behind me, Satan!
Reading this text in 2012, I hear Jesus reminding us of purpose. We are not called to comfort or security. We are not called to wealth or prestige. We have been anointed to bring good news — to the poor, to the oppressed, to the prisoner, all the while being reminded that the messenger of good news is not always a welcome sight to the status quo.