Throughout Lent at Good Shepherd, we remember that we are created for community. In times of face-to-face and virtual togetherness, we are created for connection with one another. But what type of community are we created for?
I had just started contributing to a new project at work. There were about a dozen of us working on the task at hand, a committee representing teams from across the company. Our goal was to rapidly build a new product, something combining old ideas with the new, in the spirit of rapid, agile innovation. Several weeks in, it was clear the project wasn’t going as planned. While everyone on the team was working diligently and putting in long hours, something wasn’t quite clicking. Complicated ideas slowed the pace of our work. Outdated systems limited what we could feasibly implement. Deadlines from the company’s senior leadership added some urgency, but mostly added stress and apprehension.
After a long day of working on the project, our team leader came into the conference room where we had gathered. “Everyone,” she said, “I just had a talk with the leaders of this company. It opened my eyes to so many issues. It was a real come-to-Jesus conversation.”
Our project leader had been pulled aside into a 1:1 with a senior executive, who scrutinized the complexity of the team’s ideas, and demanded that we simplify our approach. The leader had shared some difficult yet necessary feedback that revealed a new way of doing things. The results were immediate. A path forward emerged, our next steps becoming obvious. With a new approach, the team went on to successfully complete the project, exceeding the expectations that anyone in the company had of our work.
It’s never easy to share difficult news with a family member, a friend, or a co-worker. Any of us who have ever had to have a candid conversation know the anguish and anxiety that leads up to the conversation: the doubting, the second-guessing, the palpitations.
But in any community, these talks are inevitable, and they are necessary. Such talks have at times been known as a “come to Jesus” conversation.” Such a phrase has become increasingly popular in the business world, especially with organizations who are enduring difficult change and who are in need of a reset. A “come to Jesus” talk leads to a positive or powerful realization, it catalyzes meaningful behavior change. It holds individuals to account for their past efforts, and demands they set a new course.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that even Jesus struggled to deliver the news of a harsh reality, his own “come to Jesus” talk derailed by Peter’s predictable rebuke. In this Gospel, we encounter Jesus delivering a difficult truth to his community. We subsequently learn that Jesus’ closest friends and followers responded to this truth not with listening ears but with stubborn hearts.
In this text (Mark 8:31-38), Jesus foretells his own suffering, death, and inevitable resurrection. Jesus makes it clear that to follow in the footsteps of Christ is to walk the path to the cross. Jesus, in his full humanity, must have been nervous before he shared this news. I’m sure he was somewhat anxious and apprehensive, his palms sweating, his heartbeat racing, as he started this dialogue. The fact that so many swooped in to listen must have added to the tension.
The conversation begins with a dialogue between Jesus, Peter and his closest disciples, but the numbers quickly multiply. As we read throughout Mark, a crowd quickly grows alongside Jesus, their numbers multiplying, more ears listening to what Jesus will say. Their numbers swelling, their fervor increasing, the crowd likely wanted Jesus to foretell their coming glory, to predict their inevitable triumph, to promise a political or cultural victory. In this moment, Jesus is surrounded by a community that seeks power or prestige, a community that seeks security and stability. It would have been easy for Jesus to change course, to choose the easier way, to give the nascent community the words they so desperately wanted to hear.
But in a veritable Come to Jesus moment, Jesus himself delivers an unwelcome but necessary message. His message is candid, and it is challenging.
A community that follows Christ is not a community that pursues human things. A community of disciples is not a community that seeks fleeting victories and momentary security. Rather, a community that follows Christ inevitably follows Christ to the cross, bearing one another’s burdens, sharing in each other’s sufferings, inspiring each other with the promise of the empty tomb.
I imagine that this message would have been rather unpopular, both with Peter and with the surrounding crowd. Mark’s Gospel is, after all, a text that is overtly critical of empire and the entrapments of power. Everyone in that crowd was revved up to hear a messianic message of deliverance from the political and social foe that was Rome. Everyone in that crowd was ready for a pep talk, was ready for the coming victory. Everyone in that crowd surely left disappointed.
As we journey through this season of Lent and contemplate what it means to be created for community, we are challenged today to see community not merely as a place of ease and harmony and comfort, but as a setting through which we can openly share difficult truths. Jesus invites us to consider that the reason we gather in Christian community is not to pursue prosperity or other forms of worldly success but to provide mutual encouragement and assurance as we walk the long and arduous road to the cross.
It’s important to remember that walking the road to the cross does not demand our suffering, the suffering of our neighbor, or the suffering of the community. It is Christ who dies, Christ who will rise, Christ who will come again. Through our Baptism, we have been joined to Christ’s work. Joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, the community of the church is not called into suffering but instead to solidarity.
So many forms of community in this world insist that hardship and peril are something to escape, something that we can advance beyond with enough effort. So many communities are created to dismiss and minimize the struggle, to promote prosperity and comfort and security.
Yet we in the church are created for a Christian community, for a form of togetherness that acknowledges the hardships and perils that all of us experience. We are created to be in a community that listens and empathizes. We are created to be in a community that affirms, instead of minimizes, the reality of the struggle. God creates us for and gathers us into this community because we all have crosses that we bear and because we all have burdens that we must carry. God creates us for and gathers us into community because those trials are alleviated when many shoulder the burden.
The invitation to a community of solidarity is a message Peter didn’t want to hear. It’s a message that Christ’s closest followers ignored, a summons that we too will likely want to ignore. So as we hear Christ share with us this “come to Jesus” talk, may we be willing to listen. May we have enough curiosity to contemplate what that means in this community, in ways that are real and concrete. And when we stray from the path, may we have enough resilience to turn back towards Christ, to turn back towards the Cross, to carry one another’s burdens. It’s what Christ calls us to do as he prompts us to come to Jesus.