What Can Legally Blonde Teach Us About the Cross?
A sermon on Mark 8:27-38
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash].
[I am going to being this sermon in kind of a weird place, but just go with it. It will tie in, I promise.]
Thanks to a child whose musical preference leans almost exclusively to Broadway soundtracks, I was recently introduced to Legally Blonde: The Musical.
I never happened to see the original movie, so I was only familiar with the vaguest outline of the plot: a cringingly stereotypical superficial blonde follows a guy to law school and discovers that, while he wasn’t worth the effort, studying law is. Fine as far as it goes, but nothing terribly profound.
However, listening to the soundtrack filled in some of the missing details, like the initiating crisis that inspires the blonde in question, Elle Wood, to follow her guy to Harvard Law School.
It all arises from mistaken expectations.
Elle thinks that hints about “getting serious” means her college boyfriend is going to propose. Cue shopping spree for the perfect engagement outfit.
What he really means is that college graduation is the kick in the pants he needs to “get serious” about his life and break-up with Elle, so that he can find a more “serious” partner to aid in his aspiring political career.
The crossed wires are at least partially the fault of the cold-hearted boyfriend – his song sure seems to be leading up to a proposal – but the opening number of the musical draws us into the way that Elle and her friends build a castle in the sky out of false expectations about what “serious” means.
And it’s that human tendency – the tendency to think we understand what something means and then to build elaborate expectations on that erroneous understanding – that had me thinking about Legally Blonde: The Musical as an instructive lens for reading our gospel this week.
Although the context could hardly be more different, we see this same tendency after Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
Peter got the word right; Jesus is the Messiah.
He’s not a second coming of any prior prophet as others had surmised.
He is something new. He is the Anointed One, which is what Messiah means.
But Peter is completely wrong about what Jesus is anointed for.
With its characteristic brevity, Mark’s gospel does not explain what Peter’s expectations were, but his reaction to Jesus’ first prediction of his own suffering and death makes it clear that the road to the cross is NOT it.
And we shouldn’t be surprised. Jewish writings from the intertestamental period paint a picture of the anticipated Messiah as a victorious leader who will judge the wicked, free the people from oppression, and establish God’s kingdom of righteousness on earth.
Of course, when Peter names Jesus as the Messiah, he would assume that such a program of conquest is what the Messiah has come for. He would begin to build his own castles in the sky, dreaming of joining in Jesus’ overthrown of evil rulers, and sharing in the victory of God’s justice.
But, unlike Elle Wood’s self-interested boyfriend, Jesus does not want to lead his disciples on. And so, he immediately begins to correct the false expectations.
His anointing is not as a conquering hero. He has come to suffer.
The powerful, the religious leaders, and the theologians will reject his message, which undermines their control.
Ultimately, his path will lead all the way to the grave before he rises again.
While his identity as “Messiah” is not something he wants advertised, Jesus is perfectly clear and open about what this designation means.
He has been anointed for the way of the Cross. Those who will follow him need to understand where he is leading them. He will not save through force and power, but through refusing that way, and thus revealing a better way.
Even for those of us who know the whole story, this announcement can feel a bit jarring.
It can be hard to believe that the way of suffering is better than the way of easy victory, that denying ourselves and laying down our lives is better than imposing justice through the use of power.
But try to imagine how that must have felt for Peter.
This wasn’t just the loss of a happy dream, like Elle getting dumped in her “engagement dress.”
That loss called Elle into a path of empowerment, of finding her own identity and meaning, rather than attaching her value to a relationship with a guy who was only using her.
But Jesus was calling Peter away from power.
Jesus was calling Peter to let go of a hope grounded in a victorious vision of God’s intervention in human history, and to instead place his hope in an apparent paradox:
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 8:35).
What? That doesn’t even make sense.
But biblical scholars tell us that this is the pivot point in Mark’s gospel, the literal and figurative center of the narrative, where the gospel shifts.
From a story about Jesus’s effective, powerful resistance to the death-dealing forces of sickness, hunger, and exclusion…
it flips into a story about the road to the cross, the inevitable destination of those who challenge the powers of this world.
As the ELCA preaching resource for this Rally Sunday describes “the nearness of God’s presence among us reveals that we humans are attached to power and have a propensity to silence and scapegoat those who challenge our power.”
That is the crux of the challenge in this gospel, not only for Peter, but also for us. The call to let go of our faith in power.
We know that we don’t always get things right, but we want to be wrong the way that Elle Woods was wrong.
We want to be challenged to believe in ourselves. To come out stronger on the other side of an encounter with our own vulnerability. To win the game that made us feel less-than.
But the way of Jesus is not a Broadway musical, and the cross is not about empowerment.
It’s not that empowerment is a bad thing, especially not when it means dismantling structures that disempower those on the margins. Structures like the patriarchy and sexism taken on by musical – and the heteronormativity and beauty culture that’s… not – have no part in the way of the cross that Jesus calls us to follow.
But empowerment is not the rallying cry of the cross.
When Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on “human things” he’s challenging his disciple’s instinct for self-protection and his trust in the strategies of domination.
He, and we, need to let go of any expectation that we can get to resurrection without first enduring the cross.
Jesus IS about re-making the world, but NOT by force.
We cannot fix all that is broken in the world – all the violence, and cruelty, and apathy, and selfishness – by giving back wound for wound.
We only change the world by refusing the call of coercive power and choosing death and resurrection instead.
As it so often does, this week’s SALT Commentary cuts right to the point by speaking as though from mouth of Jesus, using the accessible language of a loving, if exasperated, teacher:
“Listen, all of you! … Anyone who thinks of this journey as a violent campaign, a movement of domination and triumph — might as well turn back right now. That’s not what I’m about; that’s not what true deliverance is about; and so that’s not what following me is about. We’re not headed to conquer …— we’re headed … to the cross. In a deep sense, to follow me is to take up a cross of your own, to let go of all self-centered grasping, all will to power and domination, and to suffer for the sake of the Gospel of love and justice.
Let me tell you a great mystery: deep down in creation, there is a physics more profound than the surface of things, that superficial layer in which all appears to be driven by might and violence and grasping. Underneath all of that is a deeper physics, according to which what’s truly important is actually driven by love and humility and generosity. To live according to this deeper physics means you will suffer — and it also means you will rise! The logic of self-centered grasping, of trying to save your own life, in the end only results in losing it. And the logic of neighborly generosity, of “losing” your life for the sake of Love and Justice, in the end results in saving it!”
That hope, that promise is why I would rather my life story look like the gospel than like Legally Blonde. Because the way of Jesus is about a deeper kind of justice that you learn at Harvard Law.
My happy ending doesn’t depend on acing law school or finding the better guy. Grace means I don’t need to excel. I just need to commit to following where Jesus leads.
And even more importantly, the happy ending of the gospel isn’t restricted to my individual story. This happy ending is about re-making the whole world according to a different pattern – one based not on power, but on love.
Of course, the world isn’t there yet. So, following the way of deep justice and love means taking up a cross. It means facing the rejection and retribution of a world of power and violence that doesn’t want to be changed.
But love and justice are worth the cross. Because the cross leads past the violence to resurrection.
Thanks be to God.
 See 4 Ezra (11-12), 2 Baruch (40, 72), and the Qumran’s Damascus Document (6.7-11), as noted in C. Clifton Black’s commentary on Mark 8:27-38: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-2/commentary-on-mark-827-38-5.  For example, see Gordon Lathrop’s analysis of the Gospel of Mark in The Four Gospels on Sunday.  “God’s Work. Our Hands” Sunday 2021 Worship Resources, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/11/crossroads-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-seventeenth-week-after-pentecost