A week ago today, one of my best friends departed the planet. I met Chuck when he and I were freshmen in college. For those of you who do math, that was 1976. We’ve been close ever since. Back in the very early 80’s Meg and I were with Chuck and Nancy and Larry and Kristen when we stopped in the little town of Thomaston, Maine. In fact, we stopped right in front of this very church building, got out of the car, wandered around a bit and took some pictures. Little did I know that one day I would be the pastor here. Yesterday, Larry and Kristen and Meg and I and Nancy were together again, but it was for Chuck’s funeral. I’m off topic this morning, but that’s only because I’m off topic, but the only sermon that I have ever preached that was not my own, first belonged to Chuck. I introduced the sermon by saying, “The sermon that you are about to hear is a very good one.” And now Chuck is dead. Three weeks ago he fell ill with a fast-acting blood cancer. And so, his congregation is without a pastor, and his beloved family is without a husband and a father. Chuck turned 60 last month, and he and Nancy were eagerly anticipating their 40th wedding anniversary.
And even though Chuck was a pastor and a theologian and a biblical scholar, he and Nancy were very much looking forward to retirement as the next chapter of their lives together. I’ll bet they had plans. And I don’t think that that is so awfully bad, even though Jesus says that a faithful walk of discipleship is nothing less than a march to our own deaths.
We live in a culture where this life, the life that we live on this earth, is something that is supposed to be fulfilling and rewarding. We expect to live a life of ease and comfort, not one of suffering and death. We want our lives to evince both health and wealth, and we spend our energies and resources trying to achieve both.
And yet Jesus says, very shockingly, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deep down, none of us wants to deny ourselves anything. In fact, indulging ourselves seems to be the most appropriate course in our culture of rampant consumerism and idolatrous self-adoration.
Our passage this morning begins innocently enough. Jesus is playing the role of the curious questioner. What are you hearing guys, what’s the word on the street, who do people say that I am? That’s a tough question for the disciples. Where do they begin? Jesus is both incredibly popular and completely despised. Jesus, of course, knows this. He knows that opinion about him is very broad. Jesus knows that some of the religious leaders of his day believe that he is possessed of nothing less than a demon set on fire by the very pits of hell; that he is intent on destroying all that is sacred and holy.
But the disciples, curiously, and perhaps a bit wisely, don’t bother to bring that up. No sense talking about that stuff; although quite ironically, and in just a moment, Jesus will accuse Peter of being set on fire by hell.
So the first possibility, is John the Baptist raised from the dead. Jesus began his ministry at just about the same time that Herod terminated John the Baptist’s ministry, and some folks, Herod included, were convinced that Jesus might very well be a resurrected John the Baptist. Superstitions can be pretty strong even among persons of solid faith.
Another possibility is that Jesus is Elijah. Elijah, of course, being a revered prophet of the Scriptures, had the benefit of not having to die. It was God who terminated Elijah’s ministry. When it was time for Elijah to retire, God sent a heavenly limo for him, and he did not have to suffer the indignity of a normal death. But, and even more important than that, in Jesus’ day, Elijah was an end-times figure. Some Jews believed that in the last days that Elijah would return to this earth to have a second ministry. End-times fervor was very high in the first century, and Jesus seemed to be fulfilling some of the kinds of things that people expected to see in a returning Elijah.
And lastly, it was popular to believe that Jesus was one of the prophets of the old covenant returned to the earth. This also was an end-times Jewish belief. When the Old Testament prophets started showing up again, the end was surely near. The most popular prophet of all was Moses. And that’s curious, because Moses wasn’t popular at all during the days of his ministry. The people absolutely despised him. Moses had to die before people began to realize that Moses was the great deliverer of his people, and hope was brewing among the people that Jesus could potentially repeat the ministry of Moses, and deliver the people from the oppressive reign of the Romans.
Curiously, quickly on in this Gospel, just in chapter nine, it is Moses and Elijah who appear with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, and so the common people of Jesus’ day weren’t all that far off in their end-times predictions.
But the real question goes far beyond the word on the street. The word on the street is merely popular opinion. Jesus is looking for truth, not popular opinion, and as we should all know by now, there is a world of difference between popular opinion and truth. And so Jesus puts it straight to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter is all over it. He knows, and so he blurts it out, “You are the Messiah.” You are the long awaited one. You are the Redeemer. You are the Savior. You are the one all of history has eagerly anticipated. You are the fulfillment of faithful people’s prayers and the climax of God’s plan of redemption for all of the ages. You are the ultimate end-times figure.
But wham! As soon as Peter makes this glorious announcement, Jesus begins to talk very plainly about his up-coming death. There is no parable here, no metaphor to soften the blow, just plain talk about suffering and dying. Jesus says to his disciples that he 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.
And Peter is outraged! As far as Peter is concerned, Jesus has just denied his own Messianic status in the most obvious way possible. Now is not the time to be talking about suffering and death! Now is the time, Jesus, for you to emerge in your full glory and in your full power. Now is the time. Jesus, to usher in the age to come with all of its joy and wonder and peace and glory!
And in his rebuke of Jesus, Peter pretty much says, Jesus, I reject everything that you have just said! You’re wrong! Messiahs don’t die, Messiahs rule and reign in glory! I understand what Peter is thinking. If Messiahs don’t have to die, then neither do we. If Messiahs usher in a new age of wonder and glory, then we will participate in that new age of wonder and glory.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is equally strong. In the King James version, it is “Get thee behind me Satan!” Get out of the way! You are the opponent; you are the adversary. You are the enemy of God’s entire plan of redemption beginning with Adam and Eve, Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah and the great nation that sprung from his loins and her womb, and Moses who is the great redeemer. You have just negated all of the covenants of human history that God has made because of your own selfishness and greed. And, besides being Satan, you’re a human being, too! In Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, being the devil, and being a human being seem to be pretty much the same thing. That’s harsh! And as much as we don’t like it, we can’t ignore it.
So let’s come to Peter’s defense and our own defense for just a moment. At this point in his life, Peter is proud to be associated with Jesus.
That will, of course, change. He has some very rough days ahead, days that he would rather not have to endure, but along the way he will experience a level of grace and forgiveness that at this moment in his life he cannot even begin to imagine. Eventually though, in obedience to his Lord, he will take up his cross and follow Jesus, even after denying any association with him at all. Eventually Peter will learn to turn his mind away from human thinking and toward divine thinking.
I pray that we too, are pretty proud to be associated with Jesus. And have we not had some very rough days, and have we not endured that which we would rather have not endured? And have we not experienced what is truly an unimaginable and incomprehensible level of grace and forgiveness, even if we have also denied our Lord? So, can we sort out our own very human strivings and longings, even if they are very commendable, and focus on God’s divine plan for our lives? Can we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus? Can we put ourselves on the same track that Jesus put himself on? Can we embrace, as much as we wish to reject it, a path that leads to suffering and death? Jesus asks us, what does it profit us to gain the whole world forfeit our lives? Do not be deceived. That is a very difficult question that is too often carelessly and easily answered. Too often our voices speak carelessly and easily about faith, but our lives themselves demonstrate otherwise. Peter’s courtyard encounter at Jesus’ trial brought that reality home to him, much to his shock and horror. Peter discovered that neither his life nor his voice could speak about faith. Peter learned to speak about and live his faith only after he received forgiveness. It may very well be that the frightening words of verse 38 were relayed directly to Mark the evangelist by Peter the apostle.