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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 16, 2012

I was a counselor at the Episcopal Church camp in West Virginia for three years during my college summers. One of our rituals was a nightly vespers service on Prayer Hill, an outside chapel on the camp grounds. One day after vespers, a camper came running down the hill, really excited. “I found God!” the camper said. “I found God in the candlelight.” It was a defining moment for her, the moment she found her faith. One of the staff members, who had a little sister attending camp, was a bit skeptical. “Biz,” she said, referring to her sister, "does not have to find God because she never lost him.” Faith is like that. Sometimes there is a moment when you can say God became a real part of your life and other times it is a general growth out of baptism and Christian education on the part of church and parents. 

In the gospel of Mark, the disciples go through both of these stages. For the first half of Mark, they have watched Jesus heal people, exorcise demons and teach about the coming kingdom of God. The crowds have watched Jesus do these same things too. In this critical passage at the very center of Mark’s gospel, Jesus wants to know what the word is on the street. With what he has been doing, who do people think he is? The disciples have been listening, and they have answers. Some believe he is John the Baptist, come back to life. He is preaching the kingdom of God as John did. Some believe he is Elijah or one of the prophets because of his acts of power and his teachings, which are sometimes difficult to understand. Whatever the case, he has been sent by God as a forerunner of the Messiah. So far, he has not exhibited the qualities that make a messiah, working to restore Israel to its former glory. 

Then Jesus asks the pivotal question, “Who do you say that I am?” He is speaking to all the disciples because the you is plural, and he wants to check their understanding, which has been very limited. They have watched him as long as the crowd has, but their understanding has grown beyond the crowd’s. They have become first his acquaintances and then his friends and have spent a lot of time with him. So their faith has been unfolding as time has gone on and Jesus has educated them. In a defining moment, Peter confesses for all of the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah. They have had gradual growth in faith and they have had an “Aha” moment somewhere in the recent past. They may not have found God, but they have discovered the one sent by God to overthrow Rome and liberate Israel. 

Peter no doubt expected a pat on the back for this confession, as he got in Matthew. But all he got was an order to tell no one. He was silenced as Jesus silenced the demons and people he healed in Mark. The people he healed did not follow his command but instead shouted abroad what a wonderful miracle worker Jesus was. He was victorious over illness and the evil of demon possession, and the crowds are expecting more of the same. Peter is expecting an escalation of Jesus’ activities. He is waiting for the king to really appear. 

And then Peter and the other disciples are pulled up short. Jesus does not let a moment go by before he starts teaching about who the Messiah really is. The Messiah is someone who must undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed by religious and civil authorities and in three days rise again. “Now wait just a minute,” Peter thinks. “That is not going to happen to my Messiah. My Messiah is supposed to be a victor, not a victim. What is the good of a suffering and dying messiah?” It is likely that the disciples’ guts went into turmoil at the words of suffering, rejection and death, and they didn’t even hear “rise again in three days." They would not have known what it meant even if they had.

Peter has had enough of Jesus’ gloom and doom and begins to rebuke him for thinking this way, for saying these awful things about what will happen to him. But Jesus rebukes him and says, “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking the way men think and not the way God thinks. It is a very harsh rebuke. Jesus does not call anyone else Satan in the gospels, not even his betrayers, judges and executioners. Only Peter, because Peter is refusing to accept the suffering and death of the cross which the Messiah must go through to fulfill the divine plan.1 Only Peter, because Jesus is ever so tempted by Peter’s view of the Messiah. It is easier to remember that Peter is human and is only reacting like any human being would who has found “his” Messiah and then lost him again in the matter of a few moments. It is harder to remember that Jesus is fully human and can be tempted to turn against God’s will. 

As the master goes, so go the disciples. If a master reaps honor and glory, so will his followers. If a teacher is subject to suffering, rejection and death, so will his followers be if they proclaim the same news of the kingdom of God. And that is what Jesus tells the crowd. To be his disciples, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. This self-denial is a voluntary decision. It is not a tragic accident that befalls someone or some other difficult situation that is one’s cross to bear. It is putting aside one’s own will to follow Jesus, to proclaim the Gospel no matter what the risks. It is a Desmond Tutu working on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa. It is countless Christians who have spoken out against tyranny and for justice and been killed for it. And it has to be about the gospel and for Jesus’ sake. A paradox awaits all those who follow Jesus. If they lose their lives, they will gain them. If they want to save their lives they will lose them. 

I like the idea of gaining my life, but I’m with Peter. I don’t want to go through the losing part. This is a hard text to face. Not like Jesus tending the sheep or saying his yoke is easy and his burden light. It seems to be the opposite of those passages. It invites us to follow a hard road, a rough road. It is a road that leads to liberation, but not the kind Peter imagined. It is not a gospel of success, but a gospel of weakness and seeming failure. No matter what we want to believe, Easter does not come unless there is Good Friday. Jesus has to suffer and die to accomplish God’s work of reconciliation. Peter and the other disciples had to start all over in their trying to understand Jesus. They are still resistant to his other two passion predictions and hope that it will never happen, that somehow Jesus has gotten it wrong. 

Even if we can say who Jesus is without flinching, what can we say about ourselves in the light of his teaching about our discipleship? How do we understand our discipleship? How do we see Jesus as Lord? I am really glad that I have not been asked to give my life literally for the sake of the gospel and I bet you are too. We don’t want that to happen. I am not at all sure if the moment came, I could do what it took to warrant death for the gospel. I am not at all sure I could say to the Columbine killer that I was a Christian, as one girl did, knowing I would be killed for admitting it. I hope I could, since I have the promise of eternal life with God. I want to do God’s will in my life, but that means giving up control of the outcome and it is hard to do. So often I think human thoughts. 

Seeing Jesus as the Messiah means we must accept the hard parts of that definition as well as the warm and fuzzy parts. Peter and the other disciples did not even have the wonder of the resurrection and the amazing grace of Pentecost to draw on, only a somber prediction of death to come for Jesus and by extension for his followers. It is important that we examine our faith in the light of this gospel text. Have we found the crucified Jesus only to lose him again in the triumphalism of Easter and Revelation? Can we pick up our cross and follow him wherever he leads? The good news of this gospel is that Jesus is willing to do what God asks him to do to save us from sin and death. Are we willing to do what Jesus asks us to do, no matter what the cost?

AMEN

       - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Work cited
1. Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Mark (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 99