Kenneth L. Carder is a bishop in the United Methodist church in Nashville, TN.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997, p.753, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering.
Peter’s objection to Jesus’ promised suffering makes sense. He had made considerable sacrifice to follow Jesus. He and his brother Andrew had left a thriving fishing business and the security of their Galilean home when Jesus said, "Come, follow me." They staked their future on the assumption that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would restore the fortunes of Israel and save the people.
Up to now, everything Peter had seen indicated that his sacrifices had been a good investment. Signs of God’s reign abounded in the life and work of Jesus. Peter had watched with excitement as Jesus cast out demons, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, calmed the storm, raised the dead, fed the multitude and walked on water. These were only the foretaste of the coming end to suffering, poverty and oppression.
Then Jesus asked, Who do you say that I am? The answer seemed obvious: "You are the Messiah." But Jesus’ response threw Peter into a crisis of faith, shattering his expectations and his image of the reign of God.
Jesus began to teach the disciples that he would suffer, be rejected, killed and raised from the dead. Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering and death. A messiah saves from suffering; a suffering messiah is unthinkable. But Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Then Jesus said to the crowd, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
Should not religious faith protect us from suffering, bring security, give us victory? This is no way to gain followers. Promised suffering, bearing crosses, losing one’s life -- that will not sell. That will not bring church growth! Protection from suffering, avoiding the cross, that is what we want and expect from God, is it not? Why follow a wounded, scarred, crucified Christ? We have enough suffering and rejection without this. Peter’s objection is as contemporary and personal as our own instinct for self-preservation, our own longing for security and prominence and health and life.
Mark knows that only those who follow Jesus to the cross will recognize who he is. If we stop before Calvary, we misunderstand Jesus. We will mistake him for just another miracle worker, or another exorcist, or a wise and compelling teacher. If the disciples proclaim Jesus the Messiah without the cross, they will proclaim a false messiah, for Jesus’ true identity can be known only at the cross. There, even an unenlightened Roman soldier will recognize him: "Truly this was the Son of God."
Why follow a crucified Christ? Because only a crucified messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God. Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, "Only the suffering God can help." And Alfred North Whitehead calls God the "fellow sufferer who understands."
This image of God is as objectionable to us as it was to Peter. We want an invincible God who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship -- invincible, self-sufficient, controlling, an all-powerful God who shares divine power with us. "Immortal, invincible, God only wise" is the God we consider worthy of worship and emulation. Strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross -- that still seems foolish to those who measure strength by gross national product and megaton bombs, those devoted to finishing first, those who thrive on power as prominence.
But the Bible bears witness to another God, a God who hears the cries of the poor and defends the orphans, widows and immigrants. The God of the Bible suffers with the people. God comes among us as a vulnerable baby born among the homeless, lives as an immigrant, associates with the outcasts and compares the kingdom to receiving a little child. God is then executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed tomb.
The message is profound: The Transcendent One has moved into our vulnerability, our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death. God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as potential means of healing.
By following a crucified Christ, we can face our own vulnerability. We no longer have to hide behind a mask of stoic control nor wear the protective armor of invulnerability. We can confront our weaknesses, and even affirm with Paul that "when I am weak then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). We can take up a cross with the full assurance that Christ has gone before us and now shares its weight and pain.
Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. Friendship with those who suffer brings power. Nothing so snaps us to attention and moves us into the depth of life’s meaning as an anguished cry from one we love. Peripheral concerns are stripped away and we enter the sacred world of shared suffering. We enter into the presence of the crucified God.
We follow the crucified Christ as people of hope. We live on the other side of the cross from Peter. What Jesus hinted to Peter at Caesarea Philippi happened. The Crucified One became the Risen One. Those who follow him know the future does not belong to the triumph of suffering, sin and death. It belongs to the reign of Christ all over creation. We have no reason, therefore, to be ashamed of him or hesitant to follow him. The One who calls us to take up our cross goes with us to the cross. . . and beyond.