Fall Out of Darkness, Fall into Light

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Year B ▪ February 25, 2024
Mark 8:31-38

Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 fictional novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, takes the reader on a journey with the Russian judge. When Ivan is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he clings to his dying body, and longs for meaningful moments with his family, which only increases his existential suffering, while being tortured by his physical pain.

As he feels his physical body transitioning, Ivan describes his transition from life to death as his desperate clinging to the inside of a black sack, devoid of light. When he inevitably loses his grip, and falls through the hole in the bottom of the sack, Ivan falls not into more darkness, which he feared, but into Light. Ivan let go of the darkness within the black sack, of his human existence, and found light out of the darkness. 

Jesus said, “…Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” (vv. 34-35). In order to begin to make sense of Jesus’ words, perhaps we might look at how we define life. One might describe human life in terms of the sensory experience—that which can only be experienced in this temporal world through the human body. But that would only describe a part of life as our embodied souls know it.

The word life, in Greek, is Zoe. Zoe is the life force of the soul, the source of the fullness of life. In John’s gospel, all things came into being through the word who was in the beginning with God…what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of the people” (Jn 1:1-4). 

With this perspective the message of Jesus becomes clearer. “…Those who want to save their earthly life (which is always moving toward death) will lose it, but those who choose to set their minds on the divine things of life in Christ—the divine life that is Christ, will save it. With this lens, we look back to the top of our gospel passage today in which Jesus revealed his impending path of suffering, rejection by the religious authorities, death and resurrection after three days.

Peter, who had just declared that Jesus was indeed the Messiah only three verses prior (8:29), took Jesus aside and rebuked him for what he was saying. Peter had forgotten his place in his relationship with his teacher, Jesus, and his rebuke dismissed God’s divine will for Jesus’ life. Peter had not grasped that his rebuke of Jesus was rooted in his own human desire to have his teacher stay with him; he was attached to the human presence of Jesus, and the thought of losing him caused Peter great angst. Peter was setting his mind on human things and not divine things.

Jesus then responded with his own rebuke. But what happens before Jesus’ rebuke begs our attention. Recall that Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him. But Jesus turned toward his disciples and looked at them. In Jesus’ turning, his back would have presumably been turned toward Peter when he said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” (v. 33). Think about that small, yet significant, detail of Jesus’ physically turning away from the source of the rebuke of God’s will for his life.

While Mark’s gospel does not elaborate on the ways in which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days; Jesus’ rebuke, which called out, not Peter, but Satan by name, might indicate for us that Jesus was well aware of the many ways in which Satan would manifest in order to divert his focus away from God’s divine plan for universal salvation—even in the midst of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.   

The directive to “get behind me” was the foundational statement Jesus used to define, what it meant to be his disciple. Jesus said to his disciples and the crowd around him, “If any want to become my followers, let them: Deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v.34).

The first of this three-part formula is the denial of the sinful nature of the human self. Sin creates an environment within the human soul that turns the individual away from God and toward egocentricity—away from divine things and toward human things. Such turning away from God creates self-inflicted suffering and distance from the one who has already born our sins so that we might restored to wholeness with God.  

The second of the three-part formula, is the taking up of one’s cross. The taking up of one’s cross is a decision to willingly participate in the death of the human inclination to sin.  There are parts of ourselves that necessarily need to die, to make space for the kingdom of God within.  And, the third command, “Follow me.” In order to become a follower of Jesus, one must act; one must walk in the footsteps of our savior. 

All three of Jesus’ commands are incredibly difficult, but it’s my personal experience, and it’s my observed experience in ministry, that the “follow me,” command seems to be the most challenging. Following Jesus is neither for the faint of heart nor the weak in stomach. Following Jesus is not for those who “do church” on Sunday and do nothing resembling the way of Christ every other day.

It’s not enough for us, those baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, to just show up. We must be Jesus’ human hands, feet and heart in this world as we continue what he started—walking in actionable love with our Baptismal Covenant as our map.

You and I have the advantage of standing on the other side of the cross, and living in the hope of the risen Christ. From our point of view, we know that it is only because of Jesus’ obedience to God unto death, that eternal life with God is ours now, and eternal life with God is ours beyond this human experience.

Jesus is hope, and without the hope of life abundant, which Jesus came to give us, those apart from Christ, who unwittingly walk in darkness, place their hope in temporary, human things, and remain in darkness. When we cling to the things of this temporary human experience, which can never escape suffering, we deny ourselves the gift of the fullness of life that came into being through Jesus Christ.

After letting go of the life he had in that dark black sack, which represented his reality of his human life, Ivan Ilyach found light and new life. The darkness of the black sack represents the inescapable suffering of the human experience, and it is not where God’s beloved have been created to be, or to stay.

In this Lenten season, let us practice the discipline of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus. While we’re at it, let’s try to make sense of our individual and collective suffering through the lens of our faith in the resurrected Christ.

In the meantime, we have kingdom-building work to do as we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”