29 March 2020
No honest person ever said that living a life of faithfulness to Jesus Christ would be easy. In a goodly chunk of our passage today, Jesus very plainly states that a faithful walk of discipleship is nothing less than a march to our own deaths. And deep down, many of us reject that. We demand that it mean something other than what Jesus says. And that is because we live in a world 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. We may even believe that this is our birthright. We reject a life of suffering and death. We want our lives on this planet to be moving continually in the direction of health and wealth, and we spend our energies and resources trying to achieve both. This is our definition of the good life. We do not want to engage with Jesus, when he looks deeply into our eyes and hearts and says, “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.” We don’t like that. It all seems so out of place and so wrong-headed.
And I think that the Apostle Peter is struggling with the wrong-headedness of everything that he has heard Jesus say. On the one hand he is reacting with faithfulness and obedience and with glorious insight. He knows that Jesus is Messiah. And, on the other hand, he is reacting with demonic perversity. How very much like Peter we find ourselves to be!
This passage begins innocently enough. Jesus is playing the role of the curious questioner with his disciples. What are you hearing, guys? What are people saying about me? Who do people say that I am? And the disciples are ready with their answer, because they have heard it all. They’ve heard the good, the bad, the ugly, and even the hopeful. But they are not stupid, either. They are being very careful with their answer. If they are human, like us, the first thing that comes to mind for them is the negative. That sort of seems to be human nature. The negative thoughts always seem to come to minds first, especially when we consider the character traits of someone else. And the disciples know full well that many of the religious leaders of their day believe that Jesus is nothing less than a demon set on fire by the pits of hell; that Jesus is intent on destroying all that is sacred and holy. But wisely, and perhaps out of deep respect for Jesus, they don’t mention it. They leave this bit out. It’s not part of the conversation. But they do mention three of the most popular conceptions of Jesus’ identity. One of them is that Jesus is John the Baptist, raised from the dead. That’s understandable. Jesus began his ministry at just about the same time that Herod concluded the ministry of John the Baptist. And some folks might have thought that Jesus, with his powers that superseded those of John, might very well be a resurrected John the Baptist. Some people believed that if someone were to be raised from the dead, that a necessary benefit of that resurrection would be added or enhanced powers. Herod certainly believed this about Jesus. So yeah, Jesus, there are some folk out there who think that you are a divinely enhanced John the Baptist.
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. When God concluded Elijah’s ministry, God sent a heavenly limo for him, and he did not have to suffer the indignity of a normal death. Some Jewish thinking at the time indicated that in the last days, that Elijah would return to have a second ministry on the earth. This ministry would usher in the end of this age, and the beginning of the age to come. For some people, Jesus’ ministry seemed to be portraying the kinds of things that they expected to see in a returning Elijah.
And lastly, it was popular to believe that Jesus was one of the prophets of old who had returned to earth. The most popular prophet of all time, of course was Moses. And that’s curious, because Moses wasn’t popular at all during his ministry. He was pretty much despised during his ministry. Only later, long after his death, did he gain heroic status,, when later generations began to comprehend the absolute epic nature of Moses’ ministry. Moses was the great deliverer of his people, and hope was brewing among the people that Jesus could potentially repeat Moses’ ministry of deliverance.
Curiously, and this is fodder for additional consideration, so we won’t go there right now, but later on in Mark’s Gospel, it is Moses and Elijah who appear with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. Suffice it to say that the common people weren’t all that far off in their speculations about Jesus.
But the real question is not what to do the people think that they know about Jesus, but rather what do those who are closest to Jesus believe about him. And so Jesus puts it straight to them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter is ready. He’s figured it out, and so he blurts it out. “You are the Messiah.” You are the Christ. 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 salvation for all of the ages! Now, of course, Peter did not say all of that. But all of that is certainly included in Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah.
And so, good for you, Peter, you’ve nailed it. You’re spot on. But Jesus has to go and spoil it all for you. Tragically, as soon as Peter makes his pronouncement, Jesus begins to talk very plainly about his upcoming suffering and death. There is no parable here. There is no metaphor. There is only plain talk about rejection, suffering and dying. And not only that, but very plain talk about how that suffering and dying is to come about. 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 violently rejects every word that Jesus says about this! I don’t think Peter heard the part about resurrection, and even if he did, he was too flummoxed and too dismayed to comprehend it. As far as Peter was concerned, it was all bad news. Jesus is trash-talking. Ponder this with me: Jesus is incredibly popular among the people. Never has the world seen a prophet so amazing as Jesus. His public ministry is going extraordinarily well, and it is an exciting ministry, and it has tremendous potential to change the world. And really, it is just getting off the ground. And Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter can see ahead. He can envision that’s Jesus’ ministry will continue to grow and to develop until it reaches the glorious climax of God’s kingdom on this earth. Now is not the time, Jesus, to be talking about suffering and death! Now is the time to emerge with your full glory and your full power! Be the Messiah! Jesus, I reject everything that you have said so far! You are wrong! Messiah’s don’t die. Messiah’s rule and reign in glory! Consider yourself rebuked, Jesus!
There are many Scriptures that indicate that Messiah must suffer and die. But in the first century, they weren’t interpreted that way. With the pronouncement that he is the Messiah, Jesus has brought, rather suddenly and dramatically, a whole new understanding to the role of Messiah. Jesus is reinterpreting the role of Messiah. And so now it is time for Jesus to rebuke Peter. And the rebuke is 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. You are the one who is opposed to the will and the work of God. You are wrong, Peter!
And here is the dilemma that we face: after giving Peter the worst and most offensive insult that there is, in all of heaven and on earth, Jesus accuses Peter of being guilty of thinking like a human being. And maybe, from Jesus’ perspective, being the devil, and thinking like a human being are pretty much the same thing. To me, that is a very scary thing. What one of us is comfortable criticizing Peter for his admirable, but misguided views about Jesus? It sure did seem like Jesus’ ministry was on an upward trend that could see no limits. Who wants Jesus’ ministry to come to an inglorious end that involves suffering and death? This is certainly nothing that we want for our own lives.
At this particular moment in his life, Peter is proud to be associated with Jesus. That will soon change, of course, but for now, he is glad that he’s a part of of what Jesus is doing in his world. But he also needs to stop thinking on a human plane and to start thinking with a more divine perspective, and so do we. But how do we do that? How do we sort out our own, oftentimes very commendable ambitions from God’s divine plan for our lives?
I believe that it goes back to where we began this sermon. It involves denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. It involves putting our lives on the same path that Jesus put himself on, which, as much as we reject it, is a path of suffering and death.
Jesus asks us, what does it profit us to gain the whole world and then forfeit our lives in the transaction? And that is the question we need always to be asking ourselves. And in answering it honestly, we will be setting our minds on divine things, and not on human things.