A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Today we jump forward in Mark’s gospel. We pick up the narrative about half way through. Todd Weir points out that today’s ancient word “…is a peak moment in Mark’s narrative about Jesus. Before this chapter lies a series of miracles and triumphs. Jesus feeds 5000 people, heals the sick, and wins theological arguments with the Pharisees. He is definitely on the rise, his fame stretching throughout the small region of Palestine” (Todd Weir, “Who Do You Say that I Am?” January 6, 2018, withallmysoul.com). But things are about to take a decided turn in a different direction.
As an itinerant teacher, Jesus uses the time that he and the disciples are walking from village to village as teaching time. “Alright, you’ve been with me on this journey for a while. You’ve heard what I’ve said and you’ve seen what I’ve done. I have a question for you. Who do people say that I am?” Seems like a sensible question. After leaving their lives behind to follow, after traveling with him for a period of time, after having observed him up close and personal, they ought to have some idea of what people are saying about him. What’s the buzz around Galilee?
Oh, they’ve got this one. They’ve been listening to all the accolades as they made their journey. They fall all over themselves in their eagerness to respond. “John the Baptist.” “Elijah.” “Isaiah.” “Jeremiah.” “Micah.” “Amos.” They all agreed that he was someone sent from God. And, then, he asked the harder question, “But who do you say that I am?” They were only quieted for a moment before good, old, impulsive Peter blurted out the hope they were all holding in their hearts. “You are the Messiah. God’s anointed one, chosen for the salvation of God’s people.”
Did Peter get it right? We’ll come back to that, but let’s stop for a moment. Presumably everyone here knows something about Jesus. We may not have journeyed with him literally, but we have, in some way or other, traveled with him in word or in spirit. So, let’s pretend that Jesus walked in our front door and joined us in worship. After the excitement dies down a little, I gladly turn the microphone over to him. He looks around the room, then asks us that same question of us, “Who do people say that I am?” How would you respond? What have you heard on the street, read in the papers, seen on the evening news? What’s the word on Jesus?
Now you know what’s coming next. He takes a closer look at the congregation, piercing eyes seeimg deep inside. “But who do you say that I am?” That’s a tougher question. It’s one thing to report objectively what you have heard; it’s another thing to open up and share from the heart your own thoughts and feelings. Still, the question lingers, “Who do you say Jesus is? Who is he for you?”
It seemed important for Jesus to take stock at this point in Mark’s gospel. Maybe he wanted to know what his followers were thinking and feeling before moving on. And yet, with the urgency characteristic of Mark’s gospel, he knew his time was growing short. He needed to move their understanding of his mission to a deeper level. In this week’s Midweek Message, I suggested that, in this passage, we watch “Peter as he slides directly from the top of the mountain to the bottom on a straight line, like a skier who trips in the starting gate and tumbles down the mountainside, ending up in a heap at the bottom of the run.” Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the Winter Olympics, but it seems that Peter, like some athletes, plunges from the top of the podium to ignominy in short order.
“Hey, you’re the Messiah, Jesus!” “You got that right, Peter.” Don’t you imagine that this was a high point in Peter’s life, this deep intuition that Jesus was, indeed, the long-expected Messiah, come to set his people free? Todd Weir describes Peter at this peak point in the story, “He is caught up in a very exciting moment. He is the first to speak an important truth…Peter senses the long-awaited moment when the world will be made right, he is witness to the turning point of humanity, he is a part of history being made” (Weir, op. cit.). Pretty heady stuff, if you ask me. How do you think you would have felt in Peter’s sandals at this moment on a sunny afternoon, wandering around Caesarea Philippi, when you recognize and call out Jesus’ true identity?
So, Jesus takes Peter’s confession as an indication that he might be able to move them all more deeply into God’s plan for the Messiah. “Now let me tell you what the Messiah is supposed to be and do.” “…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.”
Right away, Peter draws him aside. “Oh no, that can’t be. The Messiah has to be God’s favored leader, anointed by God to save God’s people.” He can’t let Jesus head off in the wrong direction. David Lose writes, “No wonder Peter rebukes him. This sounds like blasphemy. The savior of the world, suffer? God’s messiah, die? Are you mad?” He continues, “Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God. Like so many of his day, he’s looking for a descendant of mighty king David to come and overthrow Roman rule and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations.” Peter can’t imagine it any other way. “Jesus has to be that person. After all, he’s already brought relief, comfort, healing, and life. So, what’s all this talk about suffering and death?” (David Lose, “The Heartbreaking Messiah, September 13, 2009,” day1.org).
To our ears, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter may seem especially harsh. We tend to see Satan as our modern-day notion of the Devil. But in Hebrew, Satan is the adversary, the accuser, or the tempter. What Jesus is confronting here, in Peter, is the very real temptation to be the Messiah Peter expects. But remember, Jesus dealt with that temptation in the wilderness, wrestling with Satan, face-to-face. Jesus’ face is now set steadfastly toward Jerusalem, following God’s way and working God’s will. God’s Messiah is not a conquering hero, God’s Messiah is a suffering servant. That was difficult for Peter and the first disciples to wrap their minds around and, I daresay, it is for us as well.
Todd Weir, again, suggests of Messiah as suffering servant that “Jesus chose to enter into the fullness of human life, including the immense suffering, agony and travails of tears. He answered these great trials with his life.” In other, words his compassion overcame his glory. To live fully is to live with self-giving rather than self-centeredness. Weir continues, “I do not merely mean that he died on the cross. Jesus was in agony and filled with compassion for the suffering long before the reality of the cross. Jesus was with the lepers, the hungry, the demon possessed, the widows, orphans and adulterers long before the cross” (Weir, op. cit.). What would it mean for us, as followers, to do likewise? In this Lenten season might we not wrestle with that old, old question of what it means to “take up your cross and follow”?
Believe me, I know that it’s hard to follow Jesus. This business of discipleship is difficult, hard to pin down, treacherous to follow, often times painful, even deadly. “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Remember the rich man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones in order to hoard his abundant harvest? That very night, he died, I imagine from “heart failure”.
As followers of Jesus, what will we do with these words? What will make of this teaching? I have no easy answers for you. It’s hard to follow Jesus, but then he never said it would be easy. Comfortable armchair Christianity does not recognize the cost of discipleship. Perhaps we can pin some hope on what Peter seems to miss in Jesus’ proclamation about the Messiah, “The Son of Man must…be killed, AND after three days rise again.” Not resurrection as some sort of Disneyland spectacle, not cheap grace, but rising in fulfillment of our lives in service to God, to God’s creation, and to the promise of life abundant in God’s Beloved Community.
Let me close with a little tale I picked up from Facebook this week. As I imagine many of you have been, I have been greatly impressed and deeply moved by the efforts of our children and youth to bring about a world less riddled by gunfire, mass murder, and school violence. Their leadership is inspiring. I printed out this meme so you can see it for yourselves. But here is the story. The person who first posted it commented ruefully, “We live in a world where teachers have to have this talk with our children. After this teacher told her students what they should do if a shooter enters their classroom, she was stunned by their response.” Having given the required the instructions, she added this personal word. “Being in a wheelchair, I will not be able to protect you the way an able-bodied teacher will. And if there is a chance for you to escape, I want you to go. Do not worry about me. Your safety is my number one priority.” Talk about self-sacrifice! “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
But the story doesn’t end there. She reports, “Slowly, quietly, as the words I had said sunk in, [a] student raised [her] hand. She said, ‘Mrs. Schimmoeller, we already talked about it. If anything happens, we are going to carry you.’” I had to look away from my computer and wipe away the tears. Oh yes, it’s hard to follow Jesus. But then this. It reminded me that Jesus also said, “’Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that God’s Beloved Community belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive God’s Beloved Community as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:14-16). Now I see why. Perhaps, he was thinking of Isaiah’s great vision of peace and well-being. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…” (Isaiah 11:6). If it’s too hard to follow Jesus, maybe we could try following the children. Just a thought. Amen.