The topsy-turvy Messiah

The topsy-turvy Messiah

Sermon for the second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:13-25 and Mark 8:31-38

Get behind me, Satan!” That is a hell of a thing to say to your friend, isn’t it? Not just any friend either, but one of your closest friends and most loyal supporters. Peter had left behind all that was secure, all that was familiar, and set out on the road with this teacher Jesus. Jesus seems to have had some particular affection for the man, nicknaming him Peter, or the rock. Along with James and John, Peter is part of a kind of inner circle of disciples. They’re the ones who are taken up the mountain to witness the transfiguration; they’re the ones who are invited to go with Jesus a little deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane while the others wait at its edges. They’re the ones whose words or actions are most likely to be noted as the gospel accounts unfold.

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“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.’”

In the section that immediately precedes tonight’s passage, Mark recounts a conversation between Jesus and his followers, in which Peter’s voice also figures significantly. They are on their to Caesarea Philippi, and as they walk that road Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the word in these villages and towns we’ve been passing through? All these people who are coming to me for healing or to hear what I have to say, what are they saying about me? The disciples start to answer: some are saying that you’re John the Baptist, some are saying you’re Elijah, and others are claiming that you’re one of the prophets. These villages are buzzing with speculation, in other words. By this time it was common knowledge that Herod had executed John the Baptist… but maybe he’s returned from the dead? You just never know when it comes to that wild man John. And it was commonly believed that the great prophet Elijah would appear again, as a forerunner to the arrival of the Kingdom of God; wouldn’t Elijah have the kind of healing and cleansing authority that people are claiming Jesus has? Or maybe he’s a new prophet of God, come to us at a time when we need something to save us from the occupying Romans. That’s the word on the streets, Jesus. That’s what they’re saying.

In response Jesus basically ups the ante by asking, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter is the first one off the mark, answering without any hesitation, “You are the Messiah.” You’re the anointed one, the promised one, the ‘christos’. Not a forerunner or a prophet who is anticipating the arrival of Messiah; you’re the real deal, Jesus. You’re the one God has sent to deliver Israel from its bondage and to establish God’s righteous rule on earth. This is the moment that the penny drops for Peter, and the first time in Mark’s narrative that anyone in this circle of disciples uses the title openly. This is not simply Jesus of Nazareth we’ve been following… it is Jesus Christ.

Which is where this evening’s gospel reading picks up. After ordering them not to tell anyone about him—not yet, at least—Jesus “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.” Mark even notes that Jesus “said all this quite openly,” as if to suggest that now that Peter has said that word christos, it is time to talk about what the work of the anointed one is going to look like… and it sure doesn’t look anything like what Peter had been thinking.

Mark tells us that, “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” He doesn’t tell us what Peter actually said, but it is probably fair to assume that he was trying to tune up Jesus’ theology. “Look, messiahs don’t get themselves killed; they win. Lets talk some serious strategy here…”

“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.’”

The word is strong—the strongest he could have used—and it would have stung. The name means “adversary” or “accuser”, and Mark’s original audience would have instantly heard in it echoes from the opening section of the story, where “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.” They might well have been familiar with the stories that were circulating about the content of those adversarial temptations; temptations to grab hold of power by an easy road, and certainly not by suffering or by death.

I faced down those temptations, Peter, but here you are acting like a satan and throwing them at me again. You think, Peter, that your theology is better than mine? Listen, all of you, to something deeper: “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.” Take up your cross; from our side of this story, it is easy for us to miss the outrageous tone of that invitation. How about “take up your noose and follow me”? Or even take up the knives used by ISIS militants to behead their foes, and follow me. Such was the walk of those twenty-one Coptic Christians killed in Libya just two weeks ago.

Peter’s head must have been swimming, as he listened to all of this talk of losing for the sake of winning. Might have even been a bit tempting to pack it all in and just head back to his fishing boat. He doesn’t do that, of course, but instead keeps stumbling alongside of Jesus, trying in his own way to sort it all out. In time he will get there, but he’ll see and experience some serious losing before the light finally penetrates his thick head.

Too bad he hadn’t done the thing that Paul manages to do as he writes his Letter to the Romans, which was to remember the formative stories of God’s people and to see there an utterly audacious hope. “Hoping against hope,” Paul writes, our forebear Abraham “believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Paul is perhaps a little exuberant when he says that Abraham never wavered and that “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised,” because if you read those stories you’ll realize that it was a bit more complicated than that, and that Abraham did have his moments. But on the whole, Abraham and Sarah did live into the outrageous promise that in spite of being aged and childless they would be the parents of a God’s people.

N.T. Wright calls it “Paul’s master-stroke,” as he draws together this ancient story with the unfolding story of the Christian way. “Abraham looked at God’s promises,” Wright observes, “recognized that they meant that God would give life where there was none, and believed. The Christian listens to the gospel message that the creator God raised the Messiah from the dead, recognizes that this means God is doing what is normally impossible, and believes. Faith here is… [an] active and personal trust in the God who characteristically acts this way.” And then with an eye to this evening’s story from the Gospel according to Mark, Wright adds, “It was this faith that Peter sadly lacked, looking at things from a human point of view, not God’s.” “[Peter] had not yet penetrated to the secret at the heart of Israel’s vocation: that Israel’s God, the world’s creator, took delight in acting in this topsy-turvy fashion, precisely to redeem a topsy-turvy world—and called his followers to do the same.”

As I’ve already said, Peter will get there, and so will James and John and all of the others except for Judas, whose treachery may well have been born of his unwillingness to lose; of his unwillingness to “trust in the God who characteristically acts this way.” More than any other season of the year, Lent is the time to explore and engage and submit to this topsy-turvy messiah, who for the sake of the integrity of his friendship with Peter will call him the worst name possible… and then keep walking beside him.

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