Scripture: Mark 8:31-38
Intro to Series & Week
As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we will be moving “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.
During this Lenten season, we wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.
This morning, as we read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” another answer emerges: Our insistence on doing everything our way, through our power, needs to die.
Louise & the Hotel
It was one of the most powerless experiences of my life; and over the next two years or so, I would live it over and over at least a dozen times.
I’m standing in the office of a live-in hotel in Brookfield, Illinois. There are only three of us in the small, sparse room, and the other two people are yelling at each other. One is threatening to call the police; the other shoots her own threats back, venom flying from her mouth like flecks of spittle.
It is the man who has called me, though I never met him before this moment. He and his family own and live at this hotel, and while it may not be the Hilton, it provides shelter to those on the margins of this community: day laborers, immigrants, homeless folks who scrap together some dollars here and there during the winter to escape the elements, itinerant workers, and of course Louise.
Louise (not her real name) was my friend. She is the one spitting venom at the owner. She is also a paranoid-schizophrenic, and quite extreme on that scale. This time (if I remember correctly), she decided the hotel owner was in collusion with the bank that manages her trust in order to embezzle all her money, just like the government of the city of Chicago did with the FBI to steal her parents house from her over ten years ago.
Louise doesn’t have a trust. No one stole her parent’s house from her. When she failed to pay property taxes for years, the house was seized. That was also when Louise was discovered to be a hoarder. By then, she’d already had a sizable file from her neighbors’ complaints. And by the time everyone sized up the situation, it was decided that Louise couldn’t manage her own affairs, and she became a ward of the state, despite being over 50. It was actually the state that was issuing checks directly to this hotel so Louise would have shelter. She didn’t actually have any money at all.
But Louise didn’t trust the government. She loathed anyone she thought was trying to control her, no matter how remotely. There was Louise’s side of the story, and there were the forces of evil, with no gray in between.
This made it difficult (of course) to figure out what was going on in these present circumstances, as hotel owner and tenant dueled and dealt vicious blows to one another.
If I questioned Louise’s version of the story, she would shut me down and cut me off, and I would not be able to help her at all.
If I wholly accept her version, I would prove myself to be just as irrational before this stranger who already has absolutely no reason to listen to anything I say.
He has every right to throw her out, but throwing her out would put Louise on the streets, where I would lose track of her and God only knows what would happen.
That was the situation in a nutshell. Never before in my life have I so desperately wanted to help someone, yet realized I had no power to help whatsoever.
In hindsight, this came to be one of the most important moments of my life as a Christian. Because this was the place—in history and geography—where I began to learn that God’s way is not power but love.
It was not in my power to make anything happen.
But I could demonstrate love…… and that’s what I chose to attempt.
And on that day, in these impossible circumstances, love accomplished what power could not: Louise got to stay in her apartment.
Over the next two years or so, this episode repeated itself a dozen or more times. And there were other episodes as well. Sometimes, my attempts to get Louise medical care when she was sick or some such thing were interpreted through the dark phantasms of her imagination, and she’d cut me off for weeks on end. I’d been caught colluding with the enemy, as she believed it, and was justly excluded.
Since Louise became a part of the church I served, she formed relationships with others there too. And many of them were likewise drawn by compassion into the impossible circumstances of Louise’s life. At times, that involved subjecting yourself to verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse—there’s no nice way of putting it. Those who became closest to Louise required regular counseling in order to process their own experiences. And quite regularly, one of the questions on the table went like this:
I want to help her. But every time we walk a step or two forward with Louise, she has an episode, and ends up further behind than when we started. Can she actually be helped? Are we doing any good?
It was certainly a situation with no easy answers. And this isn’t really a happy-ending story. Through her relationship with the church, we kept Louise housed for several years. But eventually it failed, like we all knew it one day would. Friends in this enterprise kept me in the loop for a few years, more committed to Louise’s wellbeing than she seemed to be herself, but it has now been a few years since anyone has seen her.
I still pray for Louise.
There are lots of lessons I learned in my attempts to “be Christ” to Louise. But the biggest is this: God’s love is revealed most completely in situations where there is absolutely no hope of success.
No hope of success means there is no chance for ulterior motives. Either you do something because you care about someone, or else you don’t. It’s a kind of “pure” ministry that we don’t usually trust enough to try. And while my soul remains scarred from my relationship with Louise, I would not avoid a single second if I had the chance.
God’s way is love and not power.
Wild at Heart
Author John Eldredge, famous for his books on men’s spirituality, writes a lot about how our God is a God of impossible circumstances. God, Eldredge says, is a God who “loves to come through…[who] loves to show us that he has what it takes” (Wild at Heart, p.31).
Look at the stories… There’s the one where the children of Israel are pinned against the Red Sea, no way out, with Pharaoh and his army barreling down on them in murderous fury. Then God shows up.
There’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who get rescued only after they’re thrown into the fiery furnace. Then God shows up.
[God] let’s the mob kill Jesus, bury him…then he shows up.
Then Eldredge asks:
Do you know why God loves writing such incredible stories? Because [God] loves to come through. [God] loves to show us that [God] has what it takes.
It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. Far from it. Most of the time, [God] actually lets the odds stack up against him. Against Goliath, a seasoned soldier and a trained killer, [God] sends…a freckle-faced little shepherd kid with a slingshot.
Most commanders going into battle want as many infantry as they can get. God cuts Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three-hundred. Then he equips the ragtag little band that’s left with torches and watering pots.
[Elderedge continues…] It’s not just a battle or two that God takes his chances with, either. Have you thought about [God’s] handling of the gospel? God needs to get a message out to the human race, without which they will perish…forever. What’s the plan? First, [God] starts with the most unlikely group ever: a couple of prostitutes, a few fishermen with no better than a second-grade education, a tax collector. Then [God] passes the ball to us. Un-be-lievable. (pp 30-32).
God’s way is love not power.
Mark 8: Power Struggles
Today’s scripture illustrates this as well.
Jesus speaks “plainly” about the things to come: it will not go well for him.
But also resurrection.
But this is not what Peter and the other disciples signed up for.
A chapter from now Jesus is going to catch his disciples arguing which of them is the greatest. This isn’t a dispute about who has the best taste in donuts; this is about who is going to be Jesus’ right hand man, so to speak. Who do they think is going to be top dog. But Jesus tells them “If anyone would be first, [they] must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV).
Another chapter forward from that, and James and John are trying to get special favors from Jesus—the ability to sit on Jesus’ left and right when Jesus is enthroned as king. They want to be Jesus #1 and #2 people, with all the power and authority that comes therewith. This time Jesus tries to spell it out even more clearly:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45 NRSV).
Peter Rebukes Jesus
That won’t be the end of it either. But back in Mark chapter 8, this intoxication and lust for power and authority drives Peter to do something remarkable.
After hearing Jesus’ plan for the rest of his life, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter rebukes Jesus.
Can you imagine—just for a second—what that would have been like?
Hey, uh, Jesus? Yeah, could you come over here a second?
Yeah, I…uh… just wanted to touch base with you about this suffering and dying thing.
You see, the guys and I have been talking, and that’s just not……that’s not what we’re all about. We kind of thought there’d be more, uh, universal recognition for us casting off the yoke of Rome and all.
And, uh, we know you’re the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and all that, but……uh……we don’t think that would be good for the Jesus “brand” if you know what I mean.
So you shouldn’t……you shouldn’t do that.
Thaaat’d be great.
Peter! rebukes! Jesus!
There was this one time I talked back to my mom when I was 7 that I’m still recovering from, and Peter has the gall to tell God that God is doing it wrong.
What’s important, of course, is not really “what happens” here but “why.” The reason Peter confronts Jesus is because Peter is thinking about this messiah thing from the perspective of power and authority. He expects that this Jesus thing is going to snowball from a local grassroots initiative, to one that shapes the nation, to one that shapes the world. It can only grow, and with Peter getting in on the ground floor, he’s got a lot to lose if something goes wrong.
Now I know this sounds harsh for poor Peter, but it’s true for all of us—especially in our American context. We have a lot to lose in life, even those of us with only a little in terms of resources. And our American ideology tells us that we have the right—the right!—to wield our power (whatever it is) to protect what we have.
If you dare threaten what I have—physically, economically, socially, politically, or whatever—I will take you down.
That’s what happens behind the scenes in our minds. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying there’s been an awful lot of folk getting “taken down” lately because someone felt threatened.
Peter’s whole world—including his future and his hopes—are threatened by what Jesus tells him. So he insists that Jesus do it his way instead—the way of power.
Rejection & Redemption
But Jesus rejects the way of power as emphatically as anyone possibly could: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). This is not the way of God but the way of humanity. This is the way of this broken world Jesus has come to redeem.
You see, we in this world had ourselves become an impossible situation. However you want to imagine the redemptive work of Jesus, the bible is emphatic that we were without hope. The ways God had tried to lead us in faith and life and community had failed. There was no chance that we were going to somehow “figure it out.” There was no way that we were going to save ourselves. If anything, we—like my friend Louise—had become skilled at only one thing: sabotaging ourselves.
Into our hopelessness, God plunged into flesh, taking on God’s self our full humanity and living as us and with us. And it ended about as you’d expect: we killed him. We had one chance and we ruined it too.
But neither we nor the forces of darkness were strong enough to kill God’s love. God’s love is a power that overcomes even death itself. Though Jesus indeed “bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation” as we read in Colossians 1:20 (VOICE), the cross is not the end of this story.
Death itself is defeated by God’s love. The greatest weapon the Enemy had to wield against us has been destroyed by God’s love. Our fear of death is the whole reason we hold so tightly to things like power and authority and right and might—yet it has been conquered by the love of God.
God’s love managed to do what no power could do……what no authority could influence……what no might could force……
God’s love has flipped the script.
Jumped the shark.
Subverted the plot.
God’s love made a way where there was no way.
And it’s been my experience, that God’s love is the only way that makes any sense or difference in the impossibilities of life.
Our community is reeling from the recent deaths of two high schoolers.
Our nation is reeling from school tragedies of another sort that is also far too common.
Our world is reeling from as much fear and violence as we have probably ever in history committed against each other.
The way forward—in any of these situations—looks impossible.
There are too many variables to comprehend.
There is too much political polarization for “the common good” to be achieved.
There are far too many thinking only about “me” and never about “we” for our global society to move towards any progress.
But across the millennia of human existence, there is a path that is clearly marked—a path that leads through impossibility. It is a path that meanders through even the greatest obstacle of all: death.
That path is love.
So while I don’t pretend to know what the future holds in the short term, I know for certain that God’s way is love and not power. And I know that if we find ourselves in an impossible situation, that is the only way out for us, too.