“Divine Things, Human Things”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. (NRSV)
Simon Peter. The Rock. Bold and brash to a fault. And faithful, too—even though when Peter denies Jesus on that dark Thursday night, he denies everything Christ-like in himself.
In Mark 8, Peter steps out in prophetic faith to declare out loud what others have surely begun to hope: Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Messiah. Jesus affirms Peter’s confession, and it seems to embolden the disciple all the more. When Jesus speaks of his suffering, rejection, and death, Peter grants himself authority to scold God’s Anointed One.
With a blistering rebuke of his own, Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan”—The Adversary—and basically tells him to get lost. Then he says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
My heart goes out to old Saint Pete. His mouth is not getting all that far ahead of his brain. He has seen Jesus do some pretty crazy things, and by and large, they’ve been human things. Peter has watched as Jesus touched, healed, and fed people. He has listened to Jesus teach through those grounded, earthy stories called parables. If Peter sets his mind on human things, who can blame him?
Maybe the problem is that, at the moment, human things are all Peter sees. And Jesus is saying that it’s time to understand human things differently, because woven into the DNA of those tangible, earthy realities are strands of eternal holiness. And Jesus is holding his disciples accountable for recognizing divine things within human things. When he speaks of his imminent suffering, Jesus wants his followers to hear more than bad news. He wants them to smell the air, taste the water, and feel the sand beneath their feet in that new realm where Resurrection is reuniting and reconciling divine things and human things. If they fail to experience the eternal wrapped up in the temporal, then Friday may never become Good Friday for them.
Ironically enough, setting our minds on divine things means looking ever more closely at the Creation around us and opening ourselves to those places where heaven and earth intersect. That place of intersection is what Incarnation is all about. And that means that revelation occurs when we realize that material and spiritual realities have transcended the limits we impose upon them. We watch them meld into one another like lovers. Such holiness is everywhere. There’s very little in God’s Creation which cannot, in some way, convey something of the divine things that Jesus invites us to see.
In her poetry, Mary Oliver captured the magnificent coexistence of Creator and Creation. And she found that beauty in the simplest gifts and experiences. Listen for the holiness in her poem entitled, “The Summer Day.”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?1
When the poet looks at that grasshopper, and when that grasshopper looks back, when it eats from that human hand, the world’s beauty and wonder become more beautiful and wonderful. The concrete fact of that grasshopper’s existence reveals itself as sacred. Mary Oliver helps us to understand that to separate divine things and human things means denying the Incarnation.
What if we looked at each other that way? What if we made a deliberate effort to look at the holiness in each other? Would we be able to look past not just our differences, but past all those things that make us intolerant of differences? And would we be able to seek understanding and to create new community instead of always trying to win some kind of conquest over those with whom we disagree?
Perhaps now more than ever, such efforts are crucial. And as disheartening as it can be even to imagine human beings coming together, the Gospel declares that healing is not only possible, it is underway.
Still, complications arise when we discover how threatening it can feel to practice Incarnational hope. The Holy Spirit, divine gadfly that she is, always leads us to live over against those institutions and attitudes we associate with security and even righteousness, but which ultimately hide the fresh workings of the divine within the Creation. And because we have so revered some of those institutions and so nurtured some of those attitudes, the journey of discipleship may feel, at first, like unfaithfulness.
Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John dropping their nets and leaving their families to fend for themselves.
Like the rich young man selling all he has, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus.
Like Ananias going to extend grace to that violent, Christian-persecutor named Saul.
Like God-imaged, white Christians who declare today that it is Jesus not politics who motivates us to affirm, in word and deed, that those specific, God-imaged human lives who live inside black and brown skin matter as much as those who live inside white skin, and that until we can live that affirmation, the phrase “all lives matter” is just a loophole against responsibility.
Jesus calls the burden of such journeys our cross, and taking up our cross necessarily includes dying to whatever separates us from the Divine Presence within us and within our neighbors. And as Richard Rohr often says, discipleship is not about “sin management.” As real and problematic as sin is, it is not our true essence. Sin obscures and distorts our awareness of the divine within us and within the world around us. So discipleship is about much more than avoiding sin—so that we can “go to heaven when we die.” It’s about living into the kingdom of heaven here and now with that person who sits next to you—the one whose perfume or cologne you smell, whose stomach you hear rumbling, and who may vote differently than you.
A true disciple claims the holiness within herself and holds it up like a mirror so that her neighbor may see it in himself.
May we all, then, shoulder our crosses and die whatever deaths we must in order to see the holiness within ourselves.
May we die that more challenging death through which we see the holiness in others.
And through these gracious deaths, may we live as reflections of God’s eternal and here-and-now realm of Resurrection.
1I searched the internet for Mary Oliver poems and found this one on a random poetry site. This piece appeared in New and Selected Poems – Volume 1, by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press, Boston. 1992.