Suffering: the only way transcendence

Those of us of a certain age can remember how cameras have evolved and gotten more complex over the years.  My first camera was given to me by my mother. I was in middle school and she gave me her Brownie camera with the flip-top viewfinder.  I had to learn to thread the camera onto a spool and turn it by hand every time I took a picture.  It had a flash reflector that I had to attach to it every time I wanted to take an indoor picture and I had to buy flash bulbs for it, each picture using one bulb.

The first camera I actually purchased new myself required something called “flash cubes” to take indoor pictures, but since the cube had 4 sides, you didn’t have to change the bulb every time you took a picture.  Later cameras had drop-in film cartridges, which meant you didn’t need to do anything but drop in the film and the camera motor actually loaded it all by itself!  Others in my family had the new Polaroid instant picture cameras, which were amazing because you got to see the pictures you took within minutes after having taken them.  All of these were great innovations and without them,  I wouldn’t have any family pictures from the 60s or 70s.

A lot of us love to take pictures. Our family gets together for a birthday celebration and CLICK!  We’re opening our Christmas presents and CLICK!  We place our firstborn son in the arms of his great grandfather and CLICK!  All of these pictures become the record of our lives, who were were and who we are, one click at a time.

Now, of course, it’s all about digital cameras. Just think what we can do with those photos: as soon as you take the picture, you can look at it on the little monitor, and if you don’t like it you can erase it from the disk! You can download the picture to a computer, and edit it: cut people out; make it lighter, darker; change the background. The cost of printing them out is almost nothing. Everyone I know who has one of these cameras seems to take twice or three times as many photos as they did before: so many more snapshots recording the events and people of our lives, but every one just a moment in time, gone as soon as the camera clicks.

Peter had a snapshot image of Jesus. When Jesus asked Peter who he said Jesus was, Peter replied: “You are the Messiah.” Click! Now, there’s a snapshot we want to put on the refrigerator with a magnet, tack on the bulletin board at work, save between the pages of our Bible.

Pheme Perkins, Biblical scholar at Boston College, suggests that terms like “Messiah”, “Son of Man”, “Son of God” have pretty much lost their power. They are all labels that can be applied to Jesus, but they no longer convey any expectations, either of Jesus, or of us.
That was not necessarily true for Peter: Peter used a term that was known among Jews of his era, among Jesus’ followers, that signified a whole host of expectations. Messiah comes from the Hebrew word mashiach. It has been equated to the Greek Christos, for “anointed one,” a term that could be applied to kings and prophets. In the Hebrew scriptures, however, mashiach is most frequently used as “deliverer.” In the long history of the use of the term, mashiach is even applied to Cyrus of Persia, who allowed the captive Israelites to return from Babylon to Jerusalem!

Peter and the Jews who followed Jesus saw in him the expected deliverer, the one who would rescue them from the oppression of Roman authority and the ritual-obsession of the Pharisees. They were looking for a successful, conquering messiah.

But when Peter makes his confession, Jesus is determined not to let him rest in that “click”, that snapshot. The direction that Jesus’ teaching takes is not at all comfortable for those disciples looking for the messiah of earthly power and authority. Jesus must make Peter and the disciples understand that he is not Christos, the anointed one, as mere prophet or king; he is not maschiach as deliverer from mere human hungering and suffering. For Jesus, as for the disciples, success will be defined in terms of suffering.

Many of us have had our snapshot moment, when like Peter we “got it”: we had the water poured and the word said, we had the mountaintop experience at camp or retreat or in Bible study, we asked Jesus to take away our sins, perhaps we even heard our own call to ministry, in whatever form that might be, lay or ordained, within the church or out in the world. We are content to live into that snapshot moment, to be who we were at that time, using it for all time as our reference point to define who we are, who God is, and who Jesus is.

And when we observe the reality of the misery in so many quarters of our world, when we are confused and dismayed by the evil that seems to be all around, we take refuge in our confidence in a better world to come, by and by. In the meantime, in the midst of life’s trials, Jesus is the one to whom we cling: our personal savior, for our personal challenges.

Jesus is determined to take Peter, the disciples and us to a deeper level: a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and a deeper understanding of who we are in relation to him, and in relationship with God’s people.

First he orders them not to tell anyone. Peter’s confession comes in the wrong context for the deep understanding into which Jesus absolutely must lead the disciples. Peter’s confession has come on the heels of the feeding and healing miracles:
healing and feeding are definitely part of Jesus’ ministry, but they are NOT what make him truly who he is.

To know Jesus as our deliverer is not merely to know him as the one who solves all our problems, rescues us from all danger and calamity. To perceive Jesus that way is what some have called, “putting God in a box,” to say, “This is what I need God to be, so this must be who God is.” But that God, that Jesus, that savior, is a caricature of the real thing, and Jesus is not going to let Peter limit him that way. We dare not try to do that, either, because the real Jesus, the one whom we call Lord, not only transforms our circumstances, but has the power to transform us into different people.

Jesus struggles to make the disciples understand: the “click” is not enough. The snapshot suitable for framing, for tacking on the bulletin board, is not the whole picture. Who Jesus is cannot be contained in a “Kodak moment.”

We cannot crown him, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, unless we are willing to go the whole journey with him. Peter’s confession on the way to Caesarea Philippi is not all the way. Who Jesus is can only be understood if we understand his complete identification with God’s will. And if we are to understand, then we must not pause for a coronation, but go all the way into the suffering. It is only in the aftermath of the cross, and the resurrection, that we can call Jesus “Lord.” So, immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus begins to predict his suffering.

In verse 31, the writer of the gospel of Mark records, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

These words lead Peter to rebuke Jesus, to dispute with him for saying such a thing. Oh, how Peter would like to stay in that confessional moment, to keep things solid and understandable, in a term he’s got his mind around, “messiah.”
The words of Jesus in reply. “Get behind me Satan” seem very harsh to our ears, but they were entirely appropriate in response to a disciple rebuking a teacher.

More importantly, they get right to the heart of the problem: if we get stuck in our “snapshot moment”, in our picture-perfect image of Jesus, and in our comfortable image of ourselves in relation to him, then the evil one has all sorts of opportunity to play with us.

Peter did not deny Jesus that day; the denial would be later. But he did not confess the whole of who Jesus was and is, and we are often in danger of doing the same. If we fail to allow Jesus to be all that he is, and if we are reluctant or unwilling to let Jesus’ transforming love remake us, over and over again, then the stale and stagnant places in our souls become fertile breeding ground for the evil one.

Peter then and we now do not want to endure change: yet the new thing that God was doing in Jesus Christ could not be contained in a one-word confession, and it could not be achieved without change and challenges to cherished hopes and expectations.

It is in our nature that even when a change we have longed for finally comes, we still suffer grief: at the very least, we no longer have that old familiar thing to complain about! But that is to trivialize the nature of change, for all change, even change for the better, involves loss. Loss implies grief: anger, denial, fear; surrender, yielding, or capitulation; and sadness.

Jesus speaks not only to his disciples, but to all the crowd following him: “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” As Eugene Peterson has paraphrased these verses in The Message, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead…Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”

There may be loss, and change, and even suffering, but there is also overflowing grace in Jesus’ way. Jesus’ suffering is essential to his identity. Through his way of suffering we get to the ultimate confession: Jesus is Lord. In him, we are not only saved but we become part of God’s ongoing creative activity in the world, reconciling all things to God. The one who invites us to follow him, calls us to be his disciples, asks that we allow God to work in and through us, Jesus Christ, is the one who will lead us through the suffering, beyond the cross, to the new life to which we are all being called.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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