This is a week when it’s harder than usual for us to be followers of Jesus Christ.
We’ve watched in outrage and grief as media reports have brought us images of a burning American consulate in Libya, as well as angry protestors at our embassies in Egypt and more than 20 other countries. The images evoke all kinds of pain: The abomination of an attack on the anniversary of Sept. 11; the fear of more violence against Americans around the globe; and, for those of us of a certain age, the memory of an attack on the American embassy in Iran, 33 years ago, as well as the deaths and hostage-taking that came from it. At the same time, we find ourselves appalled by the epic foolishness of a dark-hearted filmmaker whose ugly movie about the Prophet Mohammad has spurred much of this violence. As we see the reports about attacks on our citizens and embassies this week, and as we see the damage done by a hatemonger’s recklessness, it’s hard not to want the vengeance that deep pain always demands.
Our pain and outrage are made all the deeper by the fact that the deaths included an American statesman, Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya. Not that his life was inherently more valuable than the other three who died. But there is special meaning to the killing of the embodiment of the United States in a foreign nation.
And in this case, that pain and outrage are even deeper because Chris Stevens was clearly someone who should not have been killed by deluded zealots wanting to punish America. Chris Stevens was just the opposite, the kind of diplomat even our enemies respected. I’m sure you’ve read much of this already, but I think it’s worth repeating some of Chris Stevens’ story because it ties into our Gospel reading today. After graduating from a prestigious university, seemingly set for a powerful career, he joined the Peace Corps instead. He worked in an isolated mountain town in Morocco, teaching English. When he returned to the U.S., he became a lawyer and eventually a diplomat, but he wasn’t seeking a pathway to power. He took postings in tough spots, dangerous capitals in the Middle East and North Africa. Eventually he became deputy chief of mission in Libya; and when the Libyan people rose up against Gadhafi, it was Chris Stevens who served as envoy to the rebels, coaching them in building a government as they toppled a dictator. As Stevens’ stepfather said, “He wasn’t looking for a ... cushy ambassador’s spot. He loved the Libyan people and was passionate about helping” them.1 As a friend remembered, “Chris really was that American you always hope exists somewhere.”2 In a nutshell, Chris Stevens managed to take a position of power and use it as a position of self-giving instead.
Now, I have no idea what kind of religious faith Chris Stevens held, if any. But I do think his life and death give us a window into the divine reality Jesus was proclaiming in the Gospel reading we just heard – interestingly, a reading not selected for this particular day but simply what came next in the Sunday lectionary.
Jesus begins with a little Q and A with the disciples, bringing them along to glimpse his identity in a way no one had seen so clearly before. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. “Peter answered him, ‘You are the messiah,’” God’s anointed ruler sent to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Mark 8:29) Clearly, Jesus is the authority. The disciples can bank on what he has to say.
So here’s Jesus, standing before his followers as God’s ultimate ambassador. And what might the royal proclamation be? He’s set up to make a pronouncement about heavenly power toppling evil worldly authorities. But that’s not at all where Jesus goes with his power. Instead, the messiah announces that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). The evil powers of sinful self-interest will have their way with him. They will even appear victorious. But on the third day, the suffering messiah will rise.
That message is reassuring for us Christians to hear this week. Sin will not have the last word. The kingdom of God will rise. The good guys will win in the last act. That’s the story we want to hear.
What’s harder to hear is Jesus’ next comment. Peter tries to convince Jesus that he doesn’t have to undergo all this suffering. You’re the messiah, after all, Peter must have said. You can dish out suffering rather than having to take it. But Jesus “rebukes” Peter, telling him the easy way is not the holy way (8:33). And then he takes this hard Good News up a notch. Calling together the disciples and the crowd, Jesus says this path of self-emptying, this call to offer himself for others – it isn’t just his path alone. It’s the path of discipleship, the one we’re all called to walk. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. For 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.” (Mark 8:34-35)
So what does that mean for us, in this bitter and bloody week? What does Jesus’ call say to us about American foreign policy and the response our nation should make to the killings in Libya? I don’t presume to say. I learned in eighth grade that, for us, “the supreme law of the land” is the Constitution, not the Bible; and it will be the Constitution that will govern our nation’s actions. We all have our opinions about that – opinions formed by our faith, I hope. But you don’t want your priests making foreign policy any more than you want your diplomats preaching your sermons.
I don’t know what today’s Gospel will say to the president or his advisers if they’re in church this morning, hearing the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used in so many denominations. But I know what I hear this Gospel saying for me, and maybe for you, too.
When I see our consulate being attacked or our embassies being threatened; when I see black flags being hoisted in opposition our nation’s flag; when I see the body of a good, good man lying dead from unprovoked attack – when I see these images, I want retribution. I want revenge. I want to know when the president is going to strike back and who the target will be. But then – amid memories of the twin towers falling 11 years ago and the fear that we might be attacked again, amid the desire for vengeance from this week’s attack – along comes the memory of Jesus Christ and the hard path he calls us to take.
The cross we bear looks different, one day to the next. Sometimes it’s serving others when we’re completely tapped out. Sometimes it’s loving someone who’s lied to us. Sometimes it’s just continuing down a dark path facing one assault after another, when we can’t see any Easter sunrise on the horizon. But taking up that cross is always about turning away from the smallness of my own heart and turning toward the fullness of the heart of God. It’s always about emptying my heart of sin and self, and opening my heart to the people Jesus loves enough to die for – which is everybody. Taking up the cross is always about the fact that those who want to save their lives must give them up, despite how hard that is.
I can’t do anything about sinful extremists killing innocent people. I can’t do anything directly to influence my country’s response. The only thing I can influence is the response of my own heart. As Jesus says elsewhere in Scripture, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
That’s why this is a hard week to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
So may our hearts be open to his hard, good news. And may what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” lift us, with Jesus, to a place where we can truly pray, “Father, forgive them….” (Luke 23:34)
1. Pearson, Michael. “Slain ambassador died ‘trying to help build a better Libya.’” CNN.com. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/12/world/africa/libya-us-ambassador-killed-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar. Accessed Sept. 14, 2012.
2. Tarnopolsky, Noga. “Remembering Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.” Globalpost. Available at: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/120912/ambassador-j-christopher-stevens-a-friend. Accessed Sept. 14, 2012.