In today’s Gospel reading we continue our journey, following Jesus, as he travels from place to place sharing God’s love with everyday people along the way. We’re concentrating on Mark’s version of this story, which of the four Gospels is considered the earliest and most basic. This morning we read the drama in three developing movements from Mark 8; imagine three small chapters in a short story. And I’ve given them chapter titles to help you follow the themes. So if you’re ready, hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 1: Who Is Jesus Anyway?
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
I’ve often wondered what was at the heart of Jesus’ questions to his disciples here. Certainly it was more than idle curiosity, I think. Someone suggested earlier this week that, in the spirit of the presidential election down south, it might have been a 1st Century version of the “opinion poll” in which Jesus is analyzing how different phrases are tracking with his population base as his candidacy is developing … but probably not. It did remind me though of a Sunday School class when the teacher asked the kids, “Who is the Saviour of the World?” and as usual most of the kids bashfully studied their shoe laces while the class know-it-all fervently waved his hand. The teacher, hoping to find the answer anywhere else, asked child after child, but received only a chorus of headshakes, shrugs, and “I dunnos” … finally she turned to the overly enthusiastic Peter, who stood up in his place and announced boldly, “ His first name is Jesus. And his last name is Christ!”
I suspect that most of us at some point in our growing up also believed that Jesus’ last name was Christ, but eventually became aware that Christ was a title, not his name, the title which the early church gave him, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning the Anointed. And when that “know it all” Peter in Mark’s story answers, “you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed,” it’s a game-changer in the journey that Jesus and his followers are on.
Of all the possible, obvious answers, some of which you heard, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets,” it’s the title Messiah which seems to shock Jesus, who then quickly and sternly tells them to keep it under wraps, probably because the ancient Hebrew idea of Messiah carried with it such a charged political agenda. Many believed that the Messiah would, by political might and military force, marshal the power of Almighty God to overthrow the Roman oppressors and establish once and for all the realm of God on earth. And whatever Jesus may have realized about what his role in history and relationship to God might be, he appears reluctant here to allow this idea of Messiah to be the image that would identify him.
So what, then? What’s the take home message for us? Perhaps it’s as basic as pondering who Jesus is for you, today. And like back then, the possible answers are as many as they are obvious. Is Jesus Saviour, or Lord, or Son of God, or Teacher, or Friend, or Role Model, or Sacrifice, or Guide, or whatever? It’s not who they say Jesus is that matters most. It’s who you say. And as you contemplate this, you may want to stretch beyond the obvious, and wrestle with an image that could be the game-changer in your faith, in your life, in your relationship with God. And let me encourage you as you reflect, to find one person with whom you can talk about this … that itself could be the game-changer. Who do you say that Jesus is?
Chapter 2: Fantasy or Reality
31Then Jesus 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
So in an attempt to unpack the title Messiah, Jesus uses another Hebrew phrase that was popular in his day, “the Son of Man.” In fact, in the 4 Gospels Jesus uses this phrase more than any other to describe himself, maybe because it’s a very complex and elusive image. Often it is translated simply “man” or “human,” the creature made in God’s image, human being as God intended it. But it also carried with it the sense of divine purpose, fulfilling a sacred destiny, including the disturbing idea that suffering and rejection and tragedy and even death were necessary parts of the character of the Son of Man. But one thing for sure – it certainly was not part of the fantasy of the coming Messiah.
And that’s what our favourite know-it-all Peter appears to react to here. “No Jesus. Not that. Not to you. Not to our Messiah.” And Jesus’ response? “The tempter wants you to believe foolishly in the fantasy. I want you to live faithfully with the reality.” Actually, that’s my interpretation of what Jesus really says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Nice Messiah, eh? But you get the drift.
I’m of a mind to believe that like every human, Jesus too is wrestling with the temptation to believe the fantasy that God’s idea of life on this earth should be without pain or suffering; and that like Jesus, with Jesus, we too are encouraged to live faithfully with the reality. Yes, friends, it’s sad but true – just because we are God’s beloved does not give us a pass on difficulty or heartbreak. Yet because we are God’s beloved, like Jesus, we are promised the grace to live and love faithfully even in the midst of the worst this earthly life can toss at us, and trust in the promise of meaningful life that thrives through it and beyond it.
Chapter 3: Followers of Jesus
34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
In one of last week’s Bible studies we wrestled with the word “life” in these verses, mostly because of the impression that we too quickly interpret losing life as physical death. And even though that is one meaning, it may not be the only meaning. So it may just be too simple to define saving life as eternal life and losing life as the end human existence on earth.
In an older translation the familiar verse read, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Soul gets more to the idea of life here … it’s more about our whole humanness really – physical, emotional, intellectual, relational and yes spiritual life … it’s about losing or saving our essential humanity, our meaning and our identity as human beings. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to confuse selfishness with abundant life, because followers of Jesus realize that real life is so much more. And that’s who followers of Jesus are; we are human beings who find meaning in the way Jesus honoured human life in what he taught, how he lived, and most profoundly in his unflinching willingness to share God’s love with others, even in the midst his own suffering and dying. And although I suspect that the metaphor of taking up our crosses and following Jesus was more the early church’s language than it would have been Jesus’ own way of talking, the idea of carrying our crosses does remind us of Jesus’ choice and his encouragement to live faithfully amid all human realities, and in so doing to choose God’s love as our way of living.
Last Monday one of our Care & Support members, Pat, was laid to rest after a long and difficult illness. In my reflection at her memorial, I observed, “Pat lived in the sacred conviction that caring for others gave meaning to her life, and that gave her all the courage and hope necessary to face her own struggles. Many of us who saw that in her were moved by her faithfulness. Indeed in her presence we felt certain of the promise of the 23rd Psalm – that the Lord was Pat’s shepherd. That meant everything to her; and because it did, she did not want for meaning or purpose in her life. She lived every day like God welcomed her in green pastures, led her beside still waters, and yes restored her soul … every day. So much so, that through it all she cared for others as her way of trusting in God’s care for her.” Could this be what it means to live as followers of Jesus – to resist the temptation of selfishness by loving others with God’s compassion? If so, then surely the essential humanness we gain will bring meaning to this life and the next.