Sermon for the second Sunday in Lent
You know that classic paintings of Jesus, with the flowing brown hair and carefully groomed beard, a serene yet focused expression on his face? The painting is all done in browns and creams, rendered in a way that removes any hint of hard lines and contrasts, much less sweat and dirt. I’m sure you know the one; it hangs on any number of Sunday School walls, is featured on the cover of some of those big “family bibles”—the ones people seldom actually open—and is easily available for purchase in a variety of sizes from book marks to framed prints. Get that serene face in mind, and then ask yourself if you can imagine that version of Jesus ever getting sufficiently angry with his best friend that he’d accuse him of being like Satan; that he’d call him Satan, in fact.
But that is precisely what Jesus does in this passage from the Gospel according to Mark we just heard read aloud: “Turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” Peter as Satan? This is the guy who from the beginning has been pictured as Jesus’ right hand man, and who in spite of the apparent thickness of his skull seems loyal, almost to a fault. In Mark’s telling, along with his brother Andrew, Peter is the first disciple to be called— “And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:17-18) They left their nets, which really meant they left everything that was familiar and that provided them security and stability, to follow the Galilean carpenter rabbi out on the road… to who knows what?
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Well, apparently they thought they knew to what end they were following him. In the passage that comes right before what we read tonight there is an exchange between Jesus and his disciples in which Peter plays his hand. It comes on the heels of the story of the feeding of the multitudes, a rather enigmatic teaching on the Pharisees and on Herod, and the account of the healing of a blind man. In company with Jesus, they’ve just experienced some pretty remarkable things. And now as they walk the road through the countryside, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” It is in some respects an odd question; almost as if he wants to know what version of reality the local rumour mill is generating. “And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” Okay, so those are the versions of reality that are floating around the neighborhood, but presumably Jesus knew that already. He’s really setting up the important question here: “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” Given what you’re seen—just seen, in fact—and given what you’ve come to know of me, who do you think I am? Which is also a way of asking them, ‘what do you think is the point of all of these travels of ours?’
Of course it is Peter who speaks up, and declares, “You are the Messiah.” And yet, according to Mark, at this “Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, according to Mark Jesus spent the first half of his ministry telling people “not to tell anyone,” and I speculated that part of what informed that is Mark’s sense that Jesus wanted to slow the publicity mill and try to pace things so that he wouldn’t be made into some sort of celebrity preacher and healer. But in this case, isn’t Peter actually on to the truth? Hasn’t he actually nailed the truth about Jesus?
Well no, or at least not entirely. We hear the word “Messiah,” and we think of Jesus, crucified and risen. Peter says the word “Messiah,” and he means something quite different. As N.T. Wright summarizes it, the disciples’ understanding of the concept of messiah is “about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby little imposters. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they’d found one.” And so, while Jesus can in fact lay claim to the title of Messiah, it has nothing to do with what the disciples think that means. Keep your mouth shut, Peter.
Which bridges us to the gospel appointed for today, which is in fact just a continuation of the same conversation. “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.” And here Mark notes, “Jesus said all this quite openly.” For the first time in this gospel, Jesus lays his cards right out on the table for his disciples, effectively saying that this road has nothing to do with your understanding of messiah, of kingship, of the way that God is at work. Nothing.
It is something of a hinge point in Mark’s narrative. From this point on, Jesus will speak quite openly about the fact that this is not some grand military adventure that will result in the overthrow of the current dictatorship and end with the establishment of a new political reality. This will be a walk straight into death. And yes, while Mark tells us that Jesus also said that after three days he would rise again, apparently all Peter managed to hear were the words “great suffering,” “rejected,” and “killed.” And so Peter took him aside—excuse me, teacher, could I have a word with you please?—and “began to rebuke him.” Don’t talk like that… we didn’t sign on for that… I finally screwed up my courage and called you the Messiah, and you start in talking about failure? “But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” You are making assumptions here based on how you understand the world to work, but you haven’t got a clue. What God is doing is an utterly different, utterly new thing here. Don’t tempt me with the same path that the Satan tried to sell to me during my forty days time of discernment in the wilderness. I have embraced what God is doing; you must do the same.
And now Jesus is fully in gear. “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. 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.” He pushes them to embrace this strange alternate version of the world’s reality, and presses them to not be “ashamed of me and of my words.”
They’re still not sure what to make of him, of course, and just a chapter later when Jesus repeats the teaching about his impending death, Mark notes “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (9:32) They still wanted a proper messiah/warrior/liberator/king, and I suppose it is hard to blame them. After all, we still very much want things to work out according to our versions of truth and reality, and we tend to dislike the language of “great suffering,” rejection and death as much as they did. Like the disciples, we find it most comfortable to sign on to faith when it is not making us uncomfortable or challenging our own favourite assumptions about what God should grant to us.
All of this language about losing being gain and of taking up a cross and following Jesus on his path toward defeat and death is a bit of a hard-sell in a world which generally prefers to market comfort, convenience, and consumption. But we do stand on the other side of Easter, and we have seen what it can look like when God’s people begin to live into eternal life, already on this side of the grave. Under the reign of God, in light of the resurrection, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit: redeemed and justified in spite of all that still encumbers us.
If a day comes when he asks us, “But who do you say that I am?” may we have all of that in view when we answer, “You are the Messiah.”