The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 9 we opened “Season II” of this exploration with the passage that many writers see as the hinge to the entire Gospel. Our main reading was from Mark 8:27-33. In addition, we heard from Hebrews 12:1-2.
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Do you know how it feels when you’ve become acquainted with a television show or a movie franchise and then at the beginning of a new season or installment there’s a pretty radical change? You think you know where the story is heading, and then all of a sudden there’s a new character? Or maybe a show that seemed to be really funny last year now seems to be steeped with political or social commentary. Perhaps there’s a plot twist as a beloved character dies, or is revealed to be a “bad guy”, or you find out that the last four episodes were really only a dream… You’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the way things are laid out, and then BAM! You’re in a different place.
Last season, in the hit series Preaching Through the Gospel of Mark with Pastor Dave, we witnessed the birth of the Jesus movement from two distinct viewpoints. We, the readers, knew where the narrator was going all along. We knew that because it’s all there in chapter 1, verse 1: “This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” That’s the introduction that the audience is given.
However, the characters in the story do not know everything that we know. To many of them, the Jesus story is constantly unfolding. The central character seems to be evolving. Is he a miracle worker? A wonderful teacher? A revolutionary sent to overthrow Roman oppression?
Throughout season one, which covered the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising. There are more crowds. The miracles are spectacular. His command of the room is just superb. Almost all of last year, we noticed that Jesus was YUGE!
But near the end of last season, there were glimmers of a different narrative developing. We saw conflict with the religious and political establishment; Jesus seemed to be intensifying his commitment to include foreigners, women, and others who had been marginalized in his culture; and perhaps most notably, we saw the narrative shifting from the center of Jewish life and moving further and further afield. Much of the beginning of Mark takes place in the region of the Galilee – an area that was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism, even if it was considered “the boondocks” by the learned elite inside the beltway of Jerusalem.
But now, season two of the Gospel opens in, of all places, Caesarea Philippi. This place was further away from the capital than Galilee! In fact it’s almost on the border of Lebanon. It had long been the site of pagan worship, and had only recently been rebuilt and dedicated to (and named after) the reigning Emperor of Rome! In this setting, the disciples would have been surrounded by symbols of human power, wealth, and accomplishment. To say it’s an unlikely setting is an understatement.
And yet Jesus takes advantage of the remote location to ask the disciples if they’ve checked the polls lately. “How are we doing?”, he asks. “Who do the people say that I am?”
The response is divided. Some are convinced that he is John the Baptist, the fearless prophet who’d been killed by Herod, come back to life. Others believe that he may have been a resurrected prophet, but not John: Elijah, the courageous spokesman who stood up to Jezebel and Ahab. And there are a few who are willing to concede that he’s someone pretty special, but they’re not sure exactly who. The good news, the disciples report, is that everyone thinks that Jesus is a pretty remarkable guy. Yet in spite of this, it would appear as though, for the most part, people have given up on the idea that Jesus was a conquering, militant Messiah who had come to expel the Romans and restore to Israel its former glory.
At this point, we get to one of the most important verses in all of Mark, and a fantastic opener to season II: Jesus looks at his friends and says, “OK, great. Who do yousay that I am?”
And Peter, God bless him, doesn’t miss a beat when he pronounces boldly, “You are the Messiah. You are the Christ of God.”
Now, you might not remember this, but for the entire first half of the Gospel, every time Jesus did something amazing, it led to questions. He drives out an evil spirit (1:27) and everybody stands around asking, “What kind of teaching is this?” He calms the sea and the storm (4:41), and his best friends wonder, “Who isthis guy?” He shows up and preaches a real barnburner in his home town (6:2) and people stare at each other and say, “Where does he come up with this stuff?”
Now, on the furthest edge of Jewish territory, surrounded by symbols of paganism and power, Peter pronounces matter-of-factly, that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter says, “Oh, yeah, we get it, Jesus. We gotyou!” He exchanges a knowing glance with Jesus and there are, presumably, fist bumps and high-fives all around. Peter returns to his seat and then Jesus launches into the next round of teaching.
And look at how that begins: “He then began to teach them…” Jesus beginsto teach them. They have said, correctly, that he is the Messiah. Now he’s got to teach them what a Messiah is. Season 1 is over. We came out to Caesarea Philippi for something new, so listen up, team…
What does he teach them? That “the Son of Man” must suffer many things… In the Gospel of Mark, the only title that Jesus chooses for himself is “the Son of Man.” In fact, you could argue that not only is it the only title that he chooses, but that he’s the only one to say it in the second Gospel. In choosing to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” so quickly after Peter acclaims him the Messiah or Christ, Jesus is reserving the right of self-definition. That is to say that he is unwilling to act into anyone else’s view of what it means to be the Messiah. Just after Peter gives the right answer, Jesus sits the folks down and says, “All righty, now let me tell you how this savior thing is going to work. I need to stress that it’s not pretty. It’s going to be rough. The path to Messiah-ship is through suffering and death…”
Well, quick as a wink Peter jumps up with an “over my dead body” kind of speech. “No, no, no Jesus – you’ve got it all wrong…” The word that Mark uses is that Peter “rebukes” Jesus.
“Rebuke” is Jesus’ word. It’s what Jesus does to evil spirits and angry winds.
Disciples do not “rebuke” the Son of Man. In fact, as Jesus shows us one verse later, it’s the other way around. He insists that the path to faithful living is one of sacrifice and obedience to God.
Here in the relative isolation of Caesarea Philippi, the Son of Man lays out the ground rules for season II: disciples are not to “handle” the Son of Man; they are not to “protect”, “advise”, or “interpret” Jesus. Disciples are to follow. Jesus goes so far as to call his friend and beloved disciple “Satan” because of his refusal to allow Jesus to be the Son of Man. “You get behindme, Peter”, says Jesus. In the next verse, which we didn’t read, he uses the exact same words when he says that all are invited to “come after” him – to “get behind” him. We follow. That’s what disciples do.
We don’t watch a lot of live television in our home, but we enjoy using using a DVR to skip the commercials. Whenever we finish an episode and the announcer says, “Stay tuned for a preview of next week’s program…”, my wife insists that we watch the recording until the end. She doesn’t want to miss the teaser about what’s coming next.
So here’s your preview: most of season II of the Gospel of Mark involves following Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem and exploring, in that context, what he means when he calls himself “the Son of Man.”
But before we leave today’s scripture, we’ve got to wrestle with the same critical question that he put before Peter.
Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean to you?
I would suspect that there are some in the room who hold Jesus in the highest respect and admiration. Jesus is a really, really good guy. He’s someone to whom we can point our children at various times and hope that they’ll choose to follow his example – in this way, we think, he’s not unlike Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Rogers.
And there are those who rely on Jesus to be their go-to backup when it comes to political arguments. I mean, you can go ahead and post your partisan stuff all you want, but when I trot out my Jesuswhen we talk about immigration or abortion or refugees or sexuality… well, that’s just a cosmic mic drop right there. I may flounder when I try to debate the issues, but if God said it, then, BOOM. And isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how frequently God agrees with my political opinions? I guess you could say that Jesus has my back. Which could mean that Jesus is behind me… which could mean I have something backwards…
Of course there are some of us who rely on Jesus as a wonder-working hero who is on call when it’s time for me to find a parking place in a hurry, or get a new car, or fix what’s broken in my marriage. Like a good wingman, he’s always around, ready to jump in whenever I need a bit of a hand.
But this passage indicates that Jesus, apparently, is not interested in offering advice, or providing muscle, or even saving my bacon.
Instead, he seems to be concerned with whether or not I am willing to follow him where he leads. Jesus invites us to walk behind him into an uncertain future.
He will not tolerate being manipulated, advised, or controlled. He expects to be followed.
When I think about the question, “Who do you say that I am”, I have to say, “You are my lord. You are the one who sets the agenda and establishes the priorities. I am a follower. I am a disciple. I am a servant.”
And here’s the thing – and we’ll get into this more next week, I’m sure: when we follow, where are our eyes? On the leader, right? We do not choose the other pilgrims. We can only decide how we will treat them as they come alongside of us in service to the one we follow.
So if you came to church looking for a motivational speaker, or some theological fireworks, or a chance to have all your problems solved… I’m sorry. I don’t have much to offer you.
But if you came looking to invest yourself in a lifetime of service and adventure and learning and wonder and growth – a journey that will cost everything you have and more – then I can only say that I hope you’ll come along and join me as I follow to the best of my ability. Thanks be to God. Amen.