A painting, titled, The Descent from the Cross, an oil painting on oak paneling, a famous work of fifteenth-century religious art — roughly 7 feet by 8 ½ feet — depicts the drama Jesus foretells in our gospel text.
You see the cross, the wood that once suspended Jesus’ body in the air, where his dying was on display — the aftermath of a public humiliation. You see Jesus’ body — the Son of Man, the Messiah — the one who spoke of life everlasting and healed the sick, now lifeless. No breath. No words of life. Blood still escapes from his wounds, as if looking for other shelter, suspecting this one to be lost.
Jesus’ body, though now at an angle, remains in the same position as it was on the cross — his arms still outstretched, his feet still overlapping, as if still nailed together. The one who once held the blind and the poor, the oppressed and the captives, now held by other hands, gentle hands. Christ’s body appears weightless.
You see five hands lowering Jesus from the cross. Nicodemus, with two hands supporting Jesus’ arms, is there. Joseph, who will offer his tomb, two hands wrapped around Jesus’ legs, is there. And a boy, having climbed a ladder, reaches down to hold Jesus’ forearm with his left hand, his right hand grasping two bloody nails.
There are others: Mary, mother of Jesus, dressed in a deep blue, is there — her body, “forever falling,” lies at the same angel, in the same position as her son — an echo of Jesus’ suffering. Barely alive, Mary’s body is devastated by grief. She, too, needs to be held by others — by John the Evangelist, by her half-sister, Mary.
The scene is one of deep sorrow, of uncontrollable weeping, of death. A friend is lost. A life is taken too soon. A great hope is dashed. The painting draws you not toward the future of Christ’s resurrection, but deeper into the present, dramatized by reminders of the crucifixion.
It imagines the most difficult of disappointments, the scene Jesus describes plainly in our text from Mark’s gospel; the moment that produces the drama in the story we read today.
Here, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks the question into which our lives are drawn: “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, filled, I imagine, with love, answers him: “You are the Messiah.” There are echoes here of what Peter will say later in Mark’s gospel. “Look,” he will tell Jesus, “We left everything to follow you.” As if to say, you are all that we have. You ask us who we say that you are — we have answered with our lives, given and lost, for you.
“You are the Messiah,” says Peter to Jesus, and with that name, I imagine, not just a person, but an entire world comes into view. A world he badly wants, a world he longs for — a future he wants to become real. One where hopes are fulfilled, love shared, tears wiped and grief comforted, a world without difficulty, without troubles. Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” and gathers paradise in his mind.
But in an instant, everything changes. His elation turns to terror. With images of paradise still thick in Peter’s imagination, Jesus begins talking about his death.
“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.” It’s that “and be killed” — set off with two dramatic commas — that draws Peter’s rebuke.
“And be killed” — The world Peter wanted will not come, the paradise he imagined will fail to arrive — the one he left everything for, the Messiah, will die. Imagined from this vantage point, the scene is shot through less with anger than with sadness and deep disappointment, with love.
Peter’s desires, as far as he can see them, are good, his loves pointed toward God’s life, toward life with God, and yet, he discovers he cannot love the way he wants to love. In an effort of love, he pulls Jesus away from the cross.
But love here refuses to be a possession. Love here remains wild, untamed, out of Peter’s control, beyond Peter’s limits. Love, which once encouraged and comforted and embraced him, now surprises him, and Peter holds love in contempt.
Love is too much, too large, to weighty, to wild for us to hold it alone — we can’t grasp it, can’t be love’s master. But love, too, is not enough — it is a fragile, vulnerable thing. It is a total risk. If you are like me, you may resonate with Peter’s contempt at this love, this inability to love the way he wants. And yet we are invited to read this text of grief and terror and sadness, of love and difficulty, of hopes dashed, and find in it something else, some good news.
When I work on sermons, I usually find that — in my solitude — I want someone else with me, another voice that isn’t my own, someone else to help me wrestle with these texts, with how to read them. This past week, the American poet Ben Lerner has been one of those voices, accompanying me, animating my thoughts as I read Mark’s gospel, as I thought about Peter and Jesus, about church — about our lives.
As a poet, Lerner is preoccupied with disappointment — with the failure, in an ultimate sense, of poetry, the failure of poems to bring about the worlds they imagine. He wonders, in fact, if the disappointment of poetry is fundamental to its role in the world, in our lives — what if poems are meant to dramatize disappointment, he puts it — what if they all — every single one of them — dramatize the impossibility of gathering paradise.
One of his favorite poems comes from celebrated twentieth-century American poet, and lifelong Presbyterian, Marianne Moore. The title of the poem is “Poetry,” and the first line famously reads, “I, too, dislike it.” The line follows Lerner everywhere. “I, too, dislike it,” he hums. It’s as close as Lerner gets, he says, to unceasing prayer.
It reminds him, in part, that poems are not machines — not tools to create the world he wants. “I, too, dislike it.” — An honest confession that he, too, wants to love the way he wants, a confession that might open up a new relationship to poetry, a new relationship to the world.
“I, too, dislike it.” — There’s something about Lerner’s relationship to poetry that reminds me of our relationship to church. Do we, perhaps — unable to create the world we want — come to church, a community of more manageable proportions, hoping to create the world we want here? And when we find out we can’t succeed at that task, can’t possibly manufacture the world we desire, do we take up the project in our own lives? And there, too, we discover the impossibility of gathering paradise — the world remains out of our control. We have no handles on it. We instead come up against our limit, and we hold our limit in contempt.
Our lives say to Peter, “We, too, dislike it.”
Poems, of course, like our lives, can succeed in any number of less grandiose ways. Poems can make us laugh, they can comfort, they can be funny or lovely, they can offer solace or courage, even contribute to the building up of a community. But the impulse of the poet, Lerner thinks, is to reach for something other, something transcendent — poems, he thinks, desire to reach beyond the merely human, the historical — the finite. But in each attempt, “the song of the infinite is compromised,” it cannot escape this world, the poet cannot escape his life.
This is, after all, what it means to be human. At least, it resonates with how we’ve thought about being human here — to have limits, to be God’s creatures, to long for what lies beyond that limit, unable to see it fully. To sense, perhaps not every day, but some days, that an ocean lies between the person you are and the person you want to be.
We hear a similar ache in the psalmist’s words, words we often pray before sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight” — Let me be the person I long to be, the psalmist says. Let my life take the shape of praise.
In the very craving, the psalms reveal much of what it is to be God’s creature — not simply to have limits, not simply to wait, but to thirst. “My soul thirsts for you.”
To be human, the psalms continually teach us, is to exist in a state of longing. Longing for God’s life, for each other, for our friends, for someone to grieve with our sorrows and help us with our troubles, longing to make someone laugh, to comfort, to offer solace or courage.
The psalmists know as well as anyone that the worlds they want, the lives they want, fail to fully appear, and yet the longing is more palpable here than any place in Scripture. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.”
How different are Peter’s words? “We left everything to follow you, Jesus.” Our souls cling to you. We thirst for you, for your companionship, your presence. Without you, what will we drink? What will be our food?
And later in Mark’s gospel, Peter’s desperation becomes Jesus’s own. At Gethsemane, Jesus, bent over in grief, echoes Peter’s longing — “Let this cup pass,” he prays. Jesus, in that moment, wants to keep his life, to stay with the disciples, his friends — life here, life now.
The last we see of Peter in Mark’s gospel is similar — bent over in his grief, recognizing the truth of what Jesus foretold, his three denials of Christ. “Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said to him,” the text reads, “and he broke down and wept.” His tears have become his food. Here is Peter, faced with his limits. Faced again with the inability to bring about the world he wants, the life he wants. Faced with the impossibility of escaping himself.
Like the poem, like us, Peter dramatizes the impossibility of gathering paradise. He can only wait, hope for what he cannot control. But Jesus’ deathly march, his arms outstretched on the cross, continues to make room for Peter, for us.
Jesus draws our weeping, our terror, our disappointment, our wounds and our wounding, into his own life, his own dying and rising — It turns out we cannot escape ourselves, not simply because of our limits, but because God’s love desires the whole, all of us, our entire lives, nothing discarded, nothing not searched for, nothing unable to be loved, everything longed for, all of it desired.
Peter’s desire to stay with Jesus is always inside God’s desire for him, for God’s beloved, God in the garden, God looking for God’s creatures, “Where are you?” God asks. A question that extends through to end of Mark’s gospel, God still looking for us, still looking for Peter, still longing for our companionship — the tomb is emptied, and the angel wants Peter to know that Jesus is waiting for them, for Peter and the disciples to know that God’s search for their lives continues, the longing extends.
God apprehends them in their grief, in the midst of Peter’s attempt to hold on to the world he imagined. And that apprehending, Jesus’ question, extends to us, week by week, each time we gather — “Who do you say that I am?”
And in our response, our lives come into view — our lives, for a moment, take the shape of praise. For a moment, there is no ocean between the person we think we are and the person we want to be, the community we are and the community we imagine. For a moment, our lives come to light under Christ’s eyes, and we glimpse, for a moment, something else.
We cannot reach cross the ocean that separates our world, our actual lives with everything we want, the world we imagine. Yet the story of Mark’s gospel, the good news, is this: God reaches across the gulf, into all the earth, arms outstretched, hands extended, for us — God apprehends us, and, for a moment, our longing becomes God’s longing, and we know ourselves as we’ve always wanted to be:
 Lerner, Ben. “On Disliking Poetry,” London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n12/ben-lerner/diary)