I know a young man by the name of Mark. Mark was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school through junior high. During his high school years Mark received the sacrament of confirmation and was semi-involved in his parish youth group. During his junior year he began attending a non-denominational youth program with his best friend. This program maintains no connection with any christian church denomination and specifies that its mission is to help young people realize that faith can be fun. True to its mission, the group does have energetic and fun gatherings, it specifically targets certain young people that it would like to see as members (generally young people of a certain socio-economic grouping) and it offers a summer camp experience replete with all sorts of extreme activities. Through it all the message is consistent: “Faith = fun”.
Mark learned the message and for a while all went well but then there was a tragic occurrence. In senior year Mark’s best friend while at a weekend party made the decision to get into a car with a driver who had been drinking. There was a car wreck and Mark’s best friend died that night. All of a sudden life was no longer “fun” – in fact it was the exact opposite and painfully so. Further Mark had taken in the message of the youth program that “faith = fun” and was therefore left in a tragic and sad bind which did not have to happen. If “faith = fun” (if the equation is true) but now life is no longer “fun” then that must mean that there was neither no longer any faith present in his life nor was God himself present for Mark.
The truth is that God was present and continues to be present in Mark’s life; it is just that Mark was sold a cheap bill of goods; a cheap rendering of the gospel message that seeks to replace the salvific reality of both the cross and resurrection with a superficial and vacuous understanding of the christian life.
Yes, there are moments of joy and transfiguration and even fun in the life of faith but not all moments are such … nor are they meant to be. While we are in this world we are in pilgrimage and our true joy awaits. We might catch glimpses of the joy on the mountaintop moments of our faith journey but the valleys also await us. The goal of the christian life is not to remain young forever (living on a mountaintop focused solely on fun and our happiness) but to grow to maturity in Christ. And maturity consists in the lived recognition that God is indeed present in both the cross and the resurrection.
In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, after Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, our Lord gives the first prediction of his passion. Immediately after this prediction we find the following dialogue between Jesus and Peter.
Then Peter took him aside and began to reproach him, “Never, Lord! No, this must never happen to you.” But Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path. You are thinking not as God does, but as people do.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For whoever chooses to save his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In the seventeenth chapter we find Jesus being transfigured before Peter, James and John. Again there is a moment involving Peter and our Lord.
Peter spoke and said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. If you so wish, I will make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter was still speaking when a bright cloud covered them in its shadow, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, my Chosen One. Listen to him.”
On hearing the voice, the disciples fell to the ground, full of fear. But Jesus came, touched them and said, “Stand up, do not be afraid.” When they raised their eyes, they no longer saw anyone except Jesus. And as they came down the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had just seen, until the Son of Man be raised from the dead.”
Both of these moments (Jesus’ rebuke and the Father’s revelation of the truth of the Son) are for Peter invitations to maturity. In both instances Peter is tempted to an easy faith – one where there is no cross and passion and where one can forever remain on the mountaintop – but this is not possible. Peter must embrace a mature faith. “As they came down the mountain,” is the moment I believe when Peter received this invitation to maturity and at some fundamental level embraced it. It was this acceptance which saw him through the horror and pain of the passion – part of which was the revelation of his own weakness and complicity.
Mark is a fundamentally good person but a person to whom a great disservice was done. The gospel was cheapened, it was gutted of its depth and its true glory all in the name of a superficial and vacuous presentation of the christian life designed to sell like the latest and hottest item in the marketplace. He was sold a cheap bill of goods, which when push came to shove, was not able to see him through and left him with little to no means of recognizing God present even in the painful times.
Leadership, if it is to be authentic and mature, must have the ability to accept both the cross and resurrection. Further, a true mark of authentic leadership is that it encourages and instills the ability to accept both the cross and the resurrection as equally important moments in life. Authentic leadership calls forth maturity.
Anything less is a cheap bill of goods.