After a brief summer break we are back into the gospel of Mark. Today’s passage occurs at the mid-point of this gospel. The first half of Mark contains the stories of Jesus using his marvelous gifts. He is a teacher and a healer and a worker of miracles. These are wonderful, amazing stories. This half of the book also describes the mounting tension between Jesus and the established religious leaders of the time. Then the second half of Mark is the story of the road to Jerusalem, Jesus’ passion and resurrection. In the first part Jesus is quite public with what he does and speaks to large crowds of people. In the second, Jesus speaks primarily to his closest followers to prepare them for the time when he will no longer be with them on this earth. Today’s reading is right in the middle of the two sections; it is the hinge or turning point that connects the two parts, finishing the focus of the first and moving ahead into the focus of the second.
Specifically there are three things going on in this particular passage. First is how Jesus is perceived by others, including the famous question answered by Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” The second is Jesus predicting his future passion and the third describes the life of a disciple as a paradox: those who want to save their life must lose it and those who lose their life for Jesus will find it.
I want to take a closer look at the reading commenting briefly on three perspectives of it. The first is as one of the original disciples might have experienced it. The second is as someone in the community for which Mark wrote the gospel might have heard it and the third is as we hear it today.
There are some things that are the same in all three perspectives. In many small towns both today and two thousand years ago, reputations carry great weight. The same is true in larger cities which have smaller community environments, such as in a major hospital system or big company or in a university setting, reputations are important. Who we are is often defined by our title, or by which family we come from, or who our teachers were, or what we have done in the past. For example, in small town rural Tennessee I am accepted because of who my grandfather was and who my cousins are. People don’t really know me, the individual Chris, but rather I am deemed ok because of what family I am related to. Or, at the U of I someone at the beginning of their career might be accepted in the inner circles because their teacher was Professor Solberg. Or at Carle, the title of surgeon or department head may cause people to listen a bit more. The reputation and connection make the difference. Perhaps this is just a part of the human condition, but for sure, this was the case in Jesus time, in Mark’s time as well as today. In all eras Jesus invites us to go deeper than reputations in our relationship with him.
At the beginning of this gospel Jesus and his disciples are walking towards the villages of Caesarea Philipi. This geographical region was known for its beautiful scenery but also as a site of pagan worship. The group has been traveling around to various villages to spread Jesus’ message. This destination was a distance away and traveling on foot offered good chances for conversation; it helped to pass the time.
So let’s put ourselves into these disciples place.
At first they were enjoying today’s conversation. Everywhere they have been people have been talking about Jesus. The buzz could be felt in the air. People must have often asked them, “Who is your master; what is he doing now; what do you think he will do next? What is it like to be so close to him?” And because they were close to him they had some notoriety themselves. And so they are happy to be in this conversation, to pass on the gossip. They don’t tell Jesus the uncomplimentary answers they had heard, such as “He must be possessed; who does he think he is?”
No, they give him the answers that put them all into a better picture. Many of the disciples enter into this part of the conversation. It is easy to say that some people think that Jesus is Elijah come back to earth as a sign that God was about to intervene in their lives. It is easy to say that some people think that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life or that he is going to continue in John’s mission of preparing people for the coming of God’s reign. It is easy to say that some people think that Jesus has come to bring messages to the people from God, that he is another in the long line of prophets. The discussion flows freely at this point. The message that Jesus is an important person sent from God has been heard and it is easy and pleasant to be a part of this conversation.
But then Jesus turns the question away from what others have said about him to ask who they, his closest followers, think he is. And the discussion stops. When the question changes from being about others and turns to themselves it is much harder to answer. It takes the brash, outspoken Peter, to answer. Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” Now most likely at this point in the time-line of Jesus’ life, Peter did not know exactly what he meant when he spoke this word Messiah. Messiah, meaning God’s anointed one, the one sent by God to be the redeemer. Yet because Peter said these words, answered Jesus’ question, the real teaching and learning continued. Jesus went on to explain the truth of what God meant by this title, messiah.
And that truth is not at all pleasant. Jesus says, there will be great suffering, emotional and physical pain, pain that will result in his death before he would be resurrected on the third day. The same outspoken Peter immediately rebuked Jesus saying it cannot be so. This isn’t the type of Messiah they expected!
And Jesus tells Peter very forcibly that Peter is wrong. God’s messiah will work in a different way. Jesus suffering and death will bring him into all areas of human life and then the redemption Jesus will bring will be full and total redemption.
This is disturbing news to the disciples; they do not understand it. Jesus’ teaching will continue to help them learn the truth about what messiah means. Carrying the disturbing lesson even further, the passage ends with Jesus description of what it will mean to be his disciple. They too will have very difficult times; the writer used the metaphor of the cross to describe what their lives may look like.
These last two messages for the original disciples would need repeating before they would begin to be able to comprehend what Jesus was saying. They would need time to live into these words.
Now, let’s look briefly at the story from the perspective of the community for which this gospel was written. Most likely Mark wrote during the years 60-70 CE. At that time many of Jesus’ original followers were dying or had already died. It was important that the events that actual observers and participants had seen and told be preserved. During those same years Roman oppression was high, even higher than it had been during Jesus’ lifetime.
For safety, small groups of Jesus’ followers met in secret to avoid punishment and even death if they were found out. The Messiah had not freed this community of that political domination. Also, this group had expected Jesus’ return would happen in their lifetime and yet it had not. Their lives were difficult and discouraging. Mark knew the issues his community faced. Writing this particular episode in Jesus life was meant to help them in their understanding of discipleship and what kind of a messiah God had given them. They would have found comfort in these words.
So, now I wonder, where do we in the year 2018 and in this part of the world fit into this story from so long ago? What does this story mean for us?
One thing to gain from this gospel today is that words are important; words have power. Peter used the word Messiah and even though he had little idea of what that really meant, his naming of Jesus as Messiah shaped the rest of his life. Peter’s answer was a statement of faith, not of knowledge or understanding. It was a statement of what Peter believed rather than an explanation of what Peter understood. It is a statement made from his relationship with Jesus and his relationship with God. From living with Jesus day to day, from being in his presence, from learning about God from an early age Peter took the leap to use the word Messiah. Later, over time, Peter will grow in knowing its meaning.
Hearing the words said aloud is important for our faith journeys as well. That is partly why we come here each week, to hear the words, to hear the stories. It is important for us to remember that we also have a responsibility to pass on these stories, these words. We speak for others benefit, but also for ourselves. Our spoken words are an important part of the growth process in our relationship with Christ.
Today’s gospel also offers comfort to us in that our words do not have to be dissertations or books, though certainly they could be and eventually they might be. We don’t have to have it all figured out to make an answer. Peter is the example. He answered, and then his entire life was spent learning what that meant. Just as the original disciples and as those first Christians, Jesus invites us modern day believers to become a part of this dialogue and to grow in our understanding of who He is. Our faith deepens when we become a part of the discussion.
So we enter this gospel this morning when we hear and then answer Jesus question posed to us as it has been posed to his disciples throughout time. What is your answer?
Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” Hear the question and as we continue in our worship with the Creed, ponder our answer.