This week we learn, with and through Peter and the disciples, the true identity of Jesus the Holy One of God, or Messiah. And this revelation has implications not only for theological understandings about the true identity and purpose of Jesus but it has major implications for what if means to us as followers, as Peter discovers, because the One we decided to follow is so much more than we realised and that following is going to ask of us so much more than we bargained for! (RCL Mark 8:27-38)
The placing of this story within the text is no accident – as nothing is in Mark’s gospel. This week’s story is the centrepiece structurally of the gospel – and it is a significant centrepiece! It is the “hinge” or transition between the two halves of the gospel. This is not only the half way milestone it is the point in Mark’s account when we learn, with and through Peter and the disciples, the true identity of Jesus the Holy One of God, or Messiah. And this revelation has implications not only for theological understandings about the true identity and purpose of Jesus but it has major implications for what if means to follow as Peter discovers that the One he decided to follow is so much more than he realised and that following is going to ask of him so much more than he had bargained for!
So let us with Peter discover who Jesus is, and who and what he is becoming for us at this point in our faith journey. (In the few verses before this week’s text Mark has relayed the story of the blind man being cured by degrees who first only sees stick figures of people and then eventually sees clearly - Mark wants us to get the symbolism, the metaphor that the disciples like the man being cured, are blind and only in stages do they “see” who Jesus really is and what sort of a Messiah he is.) So we too need to be gently and humble enough to grow in our capacity to see and understand.
There are so many wonderful details in the text that all point to significant information. The first is about real estate or location, location, location: Caesarea Philippi. Now Caesarea Philippi was an ancient city now taken over by the Romans. It had been a pagan place of worship since at least three centuries before Christ. There was a grotto in which there were many carved niches in the walls and people brought statues and symbols of their particular local gods and worshipped them there. Later when Rome took over altars were set up to the Roman gods such as Zeus. So Jesus stands in front of all these symbols of the gods of daily life and of the oppressive rulers and asks “Well who do you say that I am? You’ve been following me for a while now and seen all these deeds of power and healing and heard me teach, who and what do you understand about me and what I am trying to do and be here?” The question suddenly gets a lot more exciting doesn’t it? Jesus is really contrasting himself with both the superstitious gods of old and the current powers of the world as they know it.
So Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but it takes him much longer to see what sort of a Messiah he is. Peter, like most of us, wants his Messiah to be powerful, successful, to be the new King David, to be on the winning side of history. Talk of dying and suffering was not attractive or even comprehensible to Peter and is not for many of us now. But Mark makes it clear. Only as the suffering Son of Man is Jesus the Messiah. A Messiah who is vulnerable. A Christ who is on his way to Jerusalem. A Son of King David whose only crown will be one of thorns. Mark’s portrait of Jesus subverts popular norms of greatness and power. Mark’s image is informed by history as it unfolded and also by theology, by Mark’s understanding of the nature of God. Jesus is the clearest image we have of God. Therefore we cannot get away from the confronting image of God as vulnerable, suffering, as available to the marginalised, the oppressed and the dubious. And as continuing in relationship with the disciples even when they, and we, get it wrong – or only half right.
Indeed Peter, and therefore us, only come to see clearly slowly, over time and across many moments of revelation, just as the blind man was healed slowly.
And delightfully and hope-fillingly even the rebuke received by Peter is a call to conversion and growth. Most translations of the Greek say that Jesus tells Peter to “get behind me” not “go away”. This has two meanings – that in Peter’s misunderstanding, too small an understanding, he is inadvertently acting as Satan, as a hindrance to the purposes of God. There is also an echo of his original call to follow, to get behind, Jesus. So this correction is to challenge Peter to “get behind” or get with the programme and follow rather than to assume to lead. And very much it is the continuing challenge to enter into the larger mind of God’s purposes and reign. So even a rebuke is an invitation to deeper following and an enlarging of the mind. Good news for Peter and for us.
So what might all this mean for us today in our ordinary lives? I think we are being challenged, as each generation of faithful is, to see for ourselves what sort of Messiah Jesus is. It is not enough to simply say Jesus is the Messiah – we are effectively challenged to think about: “Well, so what? Or, the Messiah of what?” And all of Mark’s gospel has Jesus proclaiming not himself but the kingdom of God. And in this story, standing before the grotto of other gods, we are asked to see that Jesus comes pointing us to another way of being – of realizing the kingdom of God on earth now. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus came to establish a different order of power and authority. The power of vulnerability and compassion and inclusion, the authority of justice and mercy and reconciliation.
I also think we are being invited into the necessary but unattractive process of dying to the old life and being born, or gaining, a new life – a life in which kingdom values rule. Daily. In every situation. We like Peter get it in one breath and then get it wrong in the next. It is a daily commitment to more and more clearly see what placing God and God’s priorities at the centre of our lives requires. Dying to self and living into God applies to both the melodramatic and big decisions of life, but also to the small and everyday.
At this time of year we are surrounded by reminders in the natural environment – in the southern hemisphere last year’s bare branches are bursting with this year’s flowers ready to fruit, places burnt out are different with new growth, some things didn’t survive the winter and others are a year taller. In the northern hemisphere you are no doubt enjoying last warm days and picking fruit ready for the closing down of winter’s cycle.
In our own hearts maybe a long held desire or an ambition has died away and made room for a simpler desire. Maybe a long held view against some group in society has been softened by a new compassion. Sometimes in a moment but often slowly old ways die away to make room for new understandings or even growing to have such faith that we can live without understanding everything and instead the ability to live with uncertainty but still with hope. Jesus is the sort of Messiah who once he rules our hearts will continue to call us each day into new ways of being, new sacrifices of our independence and pride, and into new ways of seeing and being the people of God.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and call us to follow behind, to open our minds and hearts to the greater dream of God.