a Homily for Proper 19B
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Jesus has it rough
You have got to feel for Jesus. It was so long ago that he was baptized by John in the Jordan and he took up GOD’s call. So long since he gathered His disciples two-by-two. He has been teaching them so very long and they just never seem to get it! It must be frustrating.
As they walk, Jesus asks them a simple enough question: “who do people say that I am?” So simple, in fact, it comes off like a poll question. They no doubt mistake it for something so innocent. We would. The subtext they hear is this: “You’re around people when I’m not. Give me the straight stuff. What are people saying about me?” He certainly knows what they will tell him: that he’s the holy man many expected to visit them from the grave: John the Baptizer or Elijah or that he’s a new prophet. Predictable responses. No surprise there.
So Jesus asks them the question: “who do you say that I am?” Peter no doubt jumps up and down with his hand stretched as high as it will go aping “Ooh ooh! I know! You’re the messiah!” The words so eager to come out of his lips. No doubt they know that Jesus is doing something and that He’s a big deal. The disciples have certainly talked about this among themselves. Who wouldn’t? And since I’m embellishing this story a little, it certainly would end with the face palm as Jesus says “Doh!” The word bubble floating near Jesus’s head saying “have they learned nothing?”
answering the wrong question
We often hear Peter as getting the answer correct, as if Jesus is testing them so straightforwardly and as if “messiah” would be the correct answer to that hypothetical question. But I don’t think so. The question isn’t “Who am I?” it was “who do you say that I am?” It sounds more like “what do you tell people about me?” And if Peter is calling Jesus the messiah, he certainly doesn’t understand what kind of messiah Jesus is. Imagine you are there and Jesus asks you what you’ve been telling people about Him and you say “I tell them that you’re a rebel crusader!” or “you’re a king to replace the earthly one!” or “you’re a military commander not allied with the Roman army!” because any of these will get the real point across. When we call Jesus a messiah, we are calling Him the revolutionary that transforms the world through sacrifice, not violence; it is ironic. But Peter doesn’t know that.
So when Jesus continues and announces for the first time what is going to happen, Peter is on the side of Satan. He thinks he’s doing the right thing for the movement. But Jesus, knowing what this moment means and what has to happen shouts at Peter “Dude! Stop being Satan!” Jesus tells Peter to get back in line because he isn’t listening. He isn’t listening because he still doesn’t get it, or more appropriately, doesn’t want to get it. To get it would mean facing the fact that the outcome of their work won’t match their ambitions for it. The Empire is still going to be there and Jesus is going to be dead. Peter doesn’t see how that is winning. Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. The disciples want something that isn’t theirs to possess: power. But Jesus is teaching them that power isn’t won or stolen. It only comes through sacrifice.
the turning point
We don’t like to hear that word: sacrifice. Because we’re just as caught up in that wanting to keep our lives, so we lose them thing. Every generation wants a crusader Christ to force His will upon the world. But that isn’t how it happens. That isn’t the kind of Messiah Jesus is.
This gospel story is a true turning point in the gospel we know as Mark. Everything up to this point has been teaching. Everything after it is The Way. One way we might imagine it is like training for the Olympics. All of the training and practices give us the skills necessary to compete. We employ them in the qualifying matches and heats. If we make it through, we get to London, where the real test is. For the disciples, the games are in Jerusalem. And they’ve practiced and trained and it is now time for the qualifiers.
My sense is that we downplay what an important moment this is in the text, because Jesus is, predicting for the first time, 1) His death, 2) where they are going, and 3) what will happen when they get there. And he tells them that they need to make a new sacrifice. They gave up their jobs and families to follow Him; now they must give up their very lives. This is big stuff. And we treat it as if Jesus isn’t asking anything of us except to be nice and polite and don’t drink too much alcohol and quit smoking. What part of “losing your life for [Jesus's] sake” do we fail to comprehend?
None of us likes to talk about sacrifice. Particularly when we feel as if we already are sacrificing something. Sacrifice is a tough pill to swallow. But it is the one Jesus offers us. Sacrifice isn’t about pain; it isn’t masochism. Sacrifice is a discipline of reorientation. Our lives require pruning, in which the dead limbs are removed so that we can grow better.
I was in a simplicity workshop in which we were each given a handout with 35 or so values. We were told to narrow the list first to 10, then to 5 so that we might determine what is most valuable. The exercise was extruciating. I read over the list of the thirtysome and decided to first cross out the obvious clunkers. I was still left with 24. Narrowing it down to 10 was awful. I swam around 13 or so for several minutes before I realized I needed to just get ruthless. But now I had to get rid of 5 of my most cherished values. What was left was essential: GOD, spouse, kids, mission, justice. It meant that I care for that stuff first.
GOD is calling on us to prune our discipleship; our sense of being Christian. To let go of all the stuff that gets in the way. To reorient our faith toward Jesus and love. To face the hard challenges in front of us with generosity and devotion to GOD, not to our self-preservation. That we best serve GOD in the way that GOD wants, not in the ways of this adulterous and sinful generation. That we seek the Way and embody the Dream with all that we have and with all that we can do and with all that we are.
May we find the face of Jesus by answering His question of us. May we face the challenge of pruning our priorities. And may we be so changed that we can’t help but transform the world around us. Amen.
Also see my video response to this text
- Dude, Stop Being Satan! (Eating Scripture) (drewdowns.net)