The Hero’s Journey

Mark 8:31-9:9
February 14, 2021
Matt Goodale

Our passage today is actually two stories placed side by side in Mark’s gospel. They’re two stories that are often separated and then read, studied and preached on their own. But these two stories should not be separated. They go together. They’re a couplet, intentionally paired together at the heart of Mark’s story for a reason. They’re a two-beat rhythm that create music together. They’re two stanzas in a sonnet that don’t make sense without the other.

These two stories have to do with what it means to be human and to follow Jesus. They have to do with what it means to be fully human—living, breathing, suffering, jumping for joy, crying and laughing. These two stories show us what it means to be fully human in a world that can take our breath away as we admire the beauty of watercolor paints splashed across the clouds as the sun sets, but that can also bring us to our knees in a sorry bundle of tears, loneliness and puzzlement. Is real life to suffer? Or is it to find joy and peace? What lies at the end of the Christian life that Jesus leads us along? Suffering? Or joy eternal?

Our passage, which is two stories in one, begins while Jesus is with his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. They’ve been traveling together for a few years at this point – all around Galilee and the Judean countryside, even up to Samaria. After living, eating, sleeping, and companioning with someone for that long you get to really know them. And the disciples have come to really know Jesus.

What began as a hunch when he first called them is something they’re now confident about: that the man they now follow and travel alongside is the long-awaited Messiah, God’s anointed one who would lead Israel to greener pastures and streams of living water. Hopefully that meant overthrowing the Roman government that now occupied their hometowns and neighborhoods; this, they suspect might be the reason they’re heading to Jerusalem now, so that Jesus can confront and overthrow the ruling authorities and set up his own kingdom in its place. What a marvelous sight that would be!

As if to confirm that this was in fact their mission, a few days ago, while still on the road to Jerusalem Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples responded with what they’ve heard: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; still others say you’re just another prophet.” “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked the group. And Peter – always Peter – blurts out what they were all probably thinking but that only he was bold enough to declare: “You are the Christ!” Affirming Peter’s bold answer, Jesus charged them to tell no one about who he really was. It seemed as if they really were going to Jerusalem to see some fireworks and the changing of one kingdom to another. The disciples know this was a momentous journey they are on.

But now, a few days after Jesus has confirmed that he is God’s anointed one, the Messiah, things take an unexpected turn. Jesus begins to inform them that he is heading to Jerusalem, not to overthrow and conquer, not to kill, but to be killed; he is heading to Jerusalem to accept the fate he knows is inevitable. He knows his teachings and lifestyle are too radical and too off-putting to those in power. He’s a Rabbi who hangs around with sinners, prostitutes and tax-collectors. He calls out the religious and political elite who wield power over the helpless and vulnerable. He challenges the complacent to do something worthwhile with their life – to live a life of love, justice and forgiveness.

Jesus proclaims that God isn’t a God of the violent, the rich, the successful or the well-off. Jesus proclaims instead that God is a God of the peacemakers, the poor, the vulnerable and anyone who is willing to descend – anyone who is willing to give up their chase after self-importance that is derived from success, merits, wealth and good health. A man like this can only expect one outcome. He knows he will be killed. And he knows it’s necessary so that the hell-bent and oppressive ways of empire, wealth and power can be exposed for what they are. On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus speaks his fears and knowledge of what is coming. He speaks of dying and rising again three days later, which would be enough to perplex even the most devoted disciple.

You see, this is the last thing the disciples expect to come out of Jesus’ mouth. He’s the Messiah, the one who is supposed to overthrow Rome and the religious elite, not succumb to them! So Peter – always Peter – pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Bold move, Peter! Peter says, “No! This can’t be so. You’re supposed to come and conquer, not be conquered. I don’t know if you got the right job description or not, but as the Messiah, you’re kind of supposed to set us free, not go and die on us. You’ve got it wrong.”

And Jesus responds to Peter’s rebuke with a rebuke of his own – in fact the harshest rebuke we see Jesus give: “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus does not mince words or beat around the bush; he gets right to the point. He calls the rest of his disciples and the crowd with him in closer. “If anyone wants to come with me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit someone if they gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?”

Peter expected a God who would lead them away from suffering, but instead Jesus says that the path he leads them on promises suffering. Peter says, “This can’t be right!” And we can’t blame Peter. If we’re honest I think we expect the same thing from Jesus. If we were to truly examine our prayer life, we might find that we treat Jesus a bit like a get-out-of-suffering-free card. If we reflected upon our lives, our habits, the ways we spend our money, we might find that as 21st century Americans it is all too easy to do everything we possibly can to avoid suffering. It’s all too easy to follow our impulses and appetites, our whims and dreams in an effort to find peace, contentment and happiness. When we feel empty we buy something new to fill the void. When we feel lonely we lean on addictions to provide momentary comfort. We do all we can to avoid thinking about or talking about death, that dark cloud that hangs too close at times over our heads. If most of us are honest – and I’m speaking from my own personal experience here – I think that most of us have a theology that believes we deserve happiness and we deserve to avoid suffering. Maybe Peter felt this same entitlement to God’s blessings. Jesus gives him a harsh wake-up call.

Jesus sets the record straight. Following him means not following your impulses and appetites and whims, all of which are unreliable guides for getting any place worth going. “Following Jesus means not following the death-procrastinating, death-denying practices of a culture which, by obsessively pursuing life under the [protection] of idols and ideologies, ends up with a life that is so constricted and diminished that it is hardly worthy of the name” (Eugene Peterson). Jesus makes it very clear here: steer clear of any religion or theology that promises only blessings and no suffering. The place Jesus is calling us to is one that requires us to carry a cross.

This doesn’t mean God causes us to suffer—that’s not what Jesus is saying; it means that the path Jesus leads us down is a very difficult path. As he says, “It’s a narrow path and few will find it.” It’s a path that requires us to stand up to those in positions of power and wealth and to act in support of the vulnerable, the marginalized and the poor. It’s a path that requires us to say “no” to using our money and privilege to create a comfy lifestyle for our self at the expense of others. It’s a path that requires us to give up the many ways we try to create an identity for ourselves through success, money and reputation. It’s a path that requires us to sit in our suffering and search for meaning and God in the midst of it, rather than self-medicating our way out of it.

The God who shows up in the flesh, who showed up in Jesus of Nazareth is not the God we or the disciples expected. Our God who shows up asks you to “deny yourself” and “take up your cross.” Renunciation and death. It feels like an assault, an attack. We recoil. But then notice that these two negative verbs are bracketed by a positive verb, “follow.” Jesus is going some place; he invites us to come along. It’s an open invitation, there’s no hostility in that.

As many of you already know, I love reading, and some of my favorite books are fantasy books. Most fantasy books follow a similar pattern known as the “hero’s journey”. These types of stories follow a hero who goes on an adventure who must descend into the unknown and come up against a decisive crisis, before eventually returning home changed or transformed. I love these stories because of the adventure and the unknown into which the hero wittingly or unwittingly wanders. They encounter challenges, crises and self-doubt. But they emerge on the other side changed.

Part of what is compelling to me about Jesus’ call to “follow him”, is that he’s inviting us on a hero’s journey of sorts. We are invited to step into the unknown, into a space where we expect to encounter suffering and hardship. But we’re not on our own because we have a guide; and in every good fantasy story, there’s always a guide to lead the hero. This guide goes before us and shows us how to deny our self, how to endure suffering, and how to pursue a life worth living. Our guide, Jesus, shows us that there is much life to be found even in suffering, especially when it’s done for the sake of others.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve known a lot of Christians and churches who stop right there. They stop reading and forget the next part of the story. They talk only about a Jesus who calls us to suffer, who calls us to deny the self, who calls us to say “no” to the whims and impulses of culture. This is part of why lots of people think Christians can’t have any fun. They think the Christian journey is all about saying “no”. While there is immense freedom to be found in saying “no” and in self-denial, that’s only half the story.

Because after Jesus’ call to follow him to the cross, he goes for a hike up a mountain with a few disciples. What began as just a hike turned into a life-changing experience for them. As Peter, James and John ascend the hillside, they are probably still pondering Jesus’ most recent words that to follow him means self-denial and cross bearing. They might even be thinking, “Really? We chose to follow this guy?”

And then it happens. On the mountain top Jesus transforms in front of their eyes and is clothed in beautiful splendor. And not only that, but he’s surrounded by Moses and Elijah, the two greats of Israel’s faith and history. Peter, James and John are frightened and in awe. They can hardly believe what their eyes are seeing. The word “beauty” doesn’t occur in the story, but beauty is what the disciples experienced – the beauty of Jesus transfigured, law and prophets, Moses and Elijah integrated into the beauty of Jesus, and the beautiful blessing, “This is my beloved son.” Everything is fit together as Jesus’ luminous interior spills out on to the mountain and the disciples experience history and religion beautifully personalized and brought into deep, resonating harmony, a declaration of love (Peterson). It was so beautiful that Peter—always Peter—offered to build three shelters up there so they could stay for awhile.

Climbing the mountain with Jesus means coming upon beauty that takes our breath away. Following Jesus means stumbling upon sights, sounds and experiences that are so amazing, so harmonious, so beautiful, that we’ll wonder why we ever thought about setting off on our path. When we follow Jesus, we will see needs met; we will see wounds healed and unlikely friendships formed; we will hear the laughter and joyful sobs of people being included who have never been included before; we will experience gratitude for the present moment that is a gift; we will experience love spilling out of the very seams of life itself. When you follow Jesus the world begins to take on hopeful textures, bright shades, and harmonious hues. When you follow Jesus you see the splendor of his transfigured body spilling out into all of life.

Following Jesus is not just about bearing a cross and self-denial. It’s also about beauty, hope, redemption, love, healing, shalom. These two stories reveal the divine “no” and the divine “yes” implicit in Jesus’ call to follow him. Following Jesus means saying “no” to living only for yourself, for success, wealth, reputation and comfort. But in the same breath, the same story, the disciples experience the divine “yes” implicit in following Jesus—the divine “yes” to a life of wonder, awe, enjoyment and beauty, a life filled with healing and grace, defined by love and redemption, a life lived with God.

Jesus invites us to follow him on a journey through the valleys where life demands more of us than we want to offer, where we are required to carry our crosses on our backs and resist taking the easy way out. And Jesus also invites us to follow him to the mountain tops where wonder and awe play together. Jesus leads us and meets us in both the highs and lows of life, the joys and the struggles, the wonderment and the suffering. It is all part of the journey, and our footsteps carry us to a new place where it all has meaning and where it all is written onto the very pages of the grand story God is leading us through. Jesus invites us to come along and see where the journey takes us. Amen.