Note to readers: our sermon blog has been on hiatus for a bit, but I’m trying to catch things up. That’s why this is a sermon from October 2015 being blogged in February 2016. Such is the life of pastoral ministry: busy season and things go by the wayside. At any way, I’m going to do my best to get us up to the present in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. 🙂 Laura
It is mid-term exam time for the disciples. The test will not only see if they have been paying attention, but it is also see if we have been paying attention. And the test boils down to just one question from their teacher, “Who do you say that I am?” And a lot is riding on their answer, for what they say not will not only reveal who they think Jesus is, but also who they are as his followers.
Up to this point, the disciples have been hearing a lot of questions and even asking a few questions about who Jesus is and what he is up to that might help them pass the teacher’s test. From Jesus’ first healing, the question rings out, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority?” Basically, who is this guy and where does he get his power? When the paralytic is dropped through the ceiling of the house that Jesus is staying in and offers him forgiveness before offering healing, the questions come up, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And when he is in the boat with his disciples and he calms the storm, the disciples ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Even Jesus’ question about what other people are saying about him gives the disciples time to ponder who Jesus is.
Then he turns and asks them all, “Who do you say that I am?” When he says, “You are the Messiah” or the Christ, Peter becomes the spokesperson for the group. But in calling Jesus the Messiah, Peter isn’t calling Jesus divine or even delving into Trinitarian theology.
We have the benefit of reading these words on this side of the resurrection, of knowing how the church has wrestled with answering Jesus’ question for millennia. But in that time and place, what Peter meant in calling Jesus “the Messiah” is that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the heir to the throne of David. Not Herod, not Caesar. But Jesus was the long awaited king that they had all been waiting for.
I always have wondered what the teacher’s expression was when he heard Peter’s answer. Was it a look of relief, “You finally got it”? Or was it more of, “Well, you got the right answer, but show me your work.”
Now that Peter made his confession, Jesus begins to teach them something new, something different than they had ever been taught before about the Messiah. Peter and the disciples had a specific job description for the Messiah: Cleanse and rebuild the temple, defeat the enemies of God’s people, and bring God’s justice upon Israel and the world.
But that isn’t what Jesus had been doing, he wasn’t gathering a military force or announcing plans to kick out the Romans or the temple authorities. From the get go, he has been re-defining and re-describing what the Messiah would look like. And now he adds a new layer to it: There is danger ahead, and Jesus must walk straight into it. It was certain death and it was what he, as the Messiah, had to do.
Now, I really like how N.T. Wright describes what must have been going through Peter’s head. It would be like the new football captain telling his team that he was intending to let the opposition score 10 goals right away. The disciples had probably deduced that Jesus had something else in mind besides a military take over, but for sure they never thought he was going straight to his death. To their ears, they were hearing that Jesus was going to lose, and worse yet, he was inviting them to come and lose along side him. They want to play follow the leader, not follow the loser. No wonder Peter pulls Jesus aside to give him some career counseling on proper Messiahship, how the Messiah is supposed to play the game.
So, what happened? Peter gets the right answer, which leads Jesus to command them not to tell anyone, followed by the harsh prediction of the future that awaited Jesus, and finally by an exchange of mutual rebukes by Peter and Jesus that end with Jesus linking Peter to Satan. It appears Peter got the right answer wrongly. This exchange between Peter and Jesus gives the indication that this suffering Messiah is not the one the disciples planned on following.
Now, if a suffering Messiah is hard enough for Peter to swallow, Jesus turns and open begins to teach what it means to follow him, to lead a life as his disciple. They include denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus. Peter probably thought that confessing Jesus as the Messiah put him on the winning side of things to come and a glorious leadership role, not the possibility of ending up on a cross himself.
And this is where Jesus calls for a change of human perspective to a divine perspective. Of course Peter is looking at things from a human perspective; he is a man, how else does Jesus expect him to look at things? Peter sees him as the one who will support his human wants and desires. Peter sees him as the one who will sustain the values he wants in enhanced in his life and country. Peter sees Jesus as the one who will enable him to become a winner and ruler in the age to come.
But Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can, and we can, set our minds on divine things. In our relationship with Jesus, as we have seen what he has and is doing in our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and in the life of the church, there is a promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through. In Jesus, God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enabling us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, and enabling us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.
Even with the added benefit of reading Jesus’ words on this side of the resurrection, it can still be a struggle to discern the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” We want a Messiah who will set the world right on our terms, but God gives us a suffering Christ who brings forth a new creation on God’s terms. We don’t get the Messiah we want, we get the Messiah we need.
And in answering the question of “Who is Jesus?” in light of Mark’s answer to that question, we can come to a clearer understanding of the question, “Who am I?” It is not only about what we confess we believe about him, it is also about what we do in light of that confession. We are disciples, his disciples: learners who follow Jesus; followers who learn from him. And what we learn above all else from our teacher is that we follow him in obedience in the will of God, even though it may mean our suffering and death of the self. Because when we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are also following him to his and our own resurrection, participating with the power of God to bring life out of death. Amen.