Sunday, September 16, 2012

Follow Me

Mark 8:27-38
September 16, 2012

            My parents love to watch Jeopardy and when I’m visiting I will sometimes watch it with them.  But I don’t like it.  Not because it’s not a good show.  I think it’s actually one of the best out there.  But watching it makes me a nervous wreck.  I feel so sorry for someone when they don’t get the right answer.  I feel terrible for the contestant who bets everything she’s won so far on that final jeopardy question then gets it wrong and is left with nothing.  I just hate it when someone doesn’t get the right answer on national television.
            But I don’t have to feel this way about the question Jesus puts to the disciples in this passage from Mark.  Because Peter gets it right, doesn’t he?  Jesus and the disciples are on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asks his followers a question. 
            “Who do people say that I am?” 
            They answered, “John the Baptist.”  “Some others are saying you’re Elijah”  “And others think you’re one of the prophets.” 
            But then Jesus looked at them and said, “But who do you say that I am?”
            Peter answered for the group.  “You are the Messiah.”
            Then, true to what scholars call the Messianic secret, Jesus tells them not to share this with anyone else.  Under no circumstances are they to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.  Yet he continues on.  Since they now understand that he is the Messiah, then should also fully understand what this means. 
            Because he is the Messiah, the Son of Man, he is going to have to go through terrible suffering.  He is going to be rejected by the religious leaders and many people who claim to love Jesus will follow in their wake.  He will be killed.  After three days of death he will rise again.
            As the text tells us, “he said all this quite openly.”  But Peter can’t believe what he’s hearing.  He can’t believe the obvious nonsense that Jesus is proclaiming.  It’s upsetting him and if it’s upsetting him, surely it’s upsetting the other disciples as well.
            So he pulls Jesus off to one side and rebukes him.  This is much stronger language than the English translation suggests.  Peter’s rebuke is the same rebuke Jesus uses on the storm when he stills it, and on demons when he casts them out.  It’s strong language.  And Peter is rebuking Jesus! 
            We can’t know the exact words Peter used to rebuke Jesus, but we can use our imaginations to guess.  I suspect the conversation went something like this, “What the heck are you saying, Jesus?  Why are you telling us this kind of stuff?  You’re upsetting everyone.  You’re not going to be killed!  Don’t say that anymore!  Got it?”
            However Jesus doesn’t listen to this very long.  He turns the tables on Peter and rebukes him.  And do we know exactly what Jesus said in response to Peter.  “Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 
            No matter how many times I read this passage, no matter how many times I preach on it, I can’t quite wrap my head around Jesus saying what he does.  “Get behind me Satan!” 
            One commentator wrote that in the temptation stories, Matthew and Luke both describe the exact temptations that Satan uses to try and knock Jesus off course.  Mark, as we know, doesn’t.  Until now.  This is a specific temptation by Peter.
 Don’t talk about this Jesus.  If you don’t talk about it, you can walk away from it.  If you walk away from it, it just won’t happen. 
But Jesus steps neatly out of that tempting snare.  I doubt Peter knew that’s what he was doing, but he was.  And Jesus rebukes him.  “Get behind me Satan.  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
            Jesus is trying to tell Peter and all the disciples that this is what it means to be Messiah.  It’s not about glory or power or wealth.  It’s about suffering and death.  Peter has now confessed Jesus as the Messiah – an extraordinary and deeply insightful confession for Peter to make.  But now that he’s made it, now that he’s answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” correctly, he can’t change the outcome.  He can’t make the Messiah look or act or do what he wants.  If Peter, if any of the 12, if any in the crowd truly wants to be his disciple, his follower, then they have to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. 
            Jesus tells them, if you want to save your life, you’ll end up losing it.  But if you are willing to lose your life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, then you will save it.
            Gone are the days when Jesus stopped beside some fishermen casting their nets and called them to follow him.  Again, as different commentators have pointed out, the days of preaching and teaching and establishing Jesus’ ministry are essentially done.  From this point on they are headed toward Jerusalem and the cross. 
            Following Jesus means not only making their way towards his cross.  They must also pick up their own cross.  Following Jesus is about life and death.  It is a choice between safety and sacrifice.  This is what it means to follow the Messiah.  And anyone who tries to stand in the way of that, who tries to stop from happening what must happen, is not a follower.  Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan!”
            This is the perhaps one of the most critical passages in Mark’s gospel.  This passage represents the crucial turning point, not only in the narrative, but in what is Jesus’ message and purpose.  Jesus posing these questions to his disciples is a way of looking back, assessing what has been done and what has been learned so far.  But when Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” he is turning them in a new direction.  As I said earlier, from now one Jesus’ face is toward Jerusalem.  There is no going back.  There is no standing still.  What lies ahead is the cross.  If they will follow him, then they must be willing to bear their own crosses as well.
            “Who do you say that I am?” 
            It isn’t just a question, it is a call.  Not only is it a call to confess Jesus as Lord, as the one who saves, but it is a call to take our place in the walk toward Jerusalem.  It is a call to pick up crosses and get going. 
            When my parents were still living in Tennessee they were active in a New Church start of the Reformed Church of America.   Their pastor was a genuinely nice man who worked very hard.  I was home visiting from Richmond about a month before I started seminary and he called and asked to take me out for coffee. 
While we were talking and I was sharing my excitement and anxiety about this new path I’d chosen, he told me a story.  When the reformation came to the Netherland the people would go from church to church and take down anything iconographic that adorned the church’s walls.  There would be no pictures, no crucifixes, no ornamentation of any kind.  Nothing that would smack of Catholocism or the old way of worship.  But they would add one thing.  They would hang a cross at the back of the church.  It would hang where the congregation couldn’t see it while they worshipped, only as they processed out of the church and into the world once again.  But the pastor could see it.  The reformers believed the pastor, especially, needed to see it.  It was a reminder of Jesus’ life and death.  It was a reminder of the cross the pastor was called to carry. 
Yet if we choose to follow him, then seeing that cross is a reminder that we all need.  Picking up our cross is more than just self-denial or delayed gratification.  It is about claiming the fact that our identity is not formed by our culture as much as it is by whom we choose to follow.  The cross, wherever it hangs, is a reminder that when Jesus asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” and we answer, “You are the Messiah,” then we now follow a different way.  Jesus asks each one of us this question.  We may know the answer, but are we ready for the consequences?  Are we ready to follow?  Are we prepared to carry our cross?  If we will follow him, then let us pick up our cross and go.  Alleluia!  Amen.

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