This is Rev. Geoff McKee’s sermon for 16 September 2018, based on Mark 8:27-38 in which Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah but misunderstands how that will play out in practice.
Mark 8:27-38 (New International Version)
Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Predicts His Death
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
The Way of the Cross
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Annie and I managed to get down to Edinburgh for a couple of nights last month and when we were there we went to the Scottish National Gallery where there is an exhibition of some of Rembrandt’s paintings on display at the moment.
It’s very impressive; even for someone like me who doesn’t know an awful lot about the visual arts.
It was explained in the presentation to the exhibition that Rembrandt specialised in the selfie!
Throughout his life he painted himself and so it’s fascinating, in an era long before the photographic camera, to view a changing face through the years as age began to take its toll.
One of the paintings on display is The Three Crosses and this contains one of Rembrandt’s most telling selfies. If you were to look at Rembrandt’s painting of The Three Crosses, your attention would be drawn first to the centre cross on which Jesus died. Then, as you would look at the crowd gathered around the foot of that cross, you’d be impressed by the various facial expressions and actions of the people involved in the awful crime of crucifying Jesus. Finally, your eyes would drift to the edge of the painting and catch sight of another figure, almost hidden in the shadows.
Art critics believe this is a representation of Rembrandt himself, for he recognised his responsibility, as a human being, for Jesus ending up on the cross.
The Gospel reading today should be a profoundly shocking one.
But it has largely lost its force to shock through a kind of indoctrination.
And that’s shocking in itself.
Peter was asked a question by Jesus and he got the answer right, only for Jesus to point out to him that Peter hadn’t understood the answer he had just given him.
The events took place in the villages of Caesaria Philippi. That’s the physical context which actually informs the political context – whether Peter was aware of that or not. Caesaria Philippi was the northern stronghold of Roman power and control in Palestine.
When Peter answered Jesus’ question with – you are the Messiah – he was effectively stating that Jesus was to be the liberator, the one who would proceed to take the Roman occupiers on and get rid of them from the land.
Messiah was a political concept.
The Messiah, the anointed one of God, would reign as God’s representative at Zion and the foreign oppressor would be no more.
For Peter, Messiah was all about triumph and success.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian wrote: “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”
Peter would begin to learn that particular truth through the harsh words that Jesus directed towards him.
The right answer to the question is not sufficient without an understanding of its meaning and that strikes right to the heart of the issue in this passage and has implications for us today.
Peter could not understand why his Messiah should, in any sense, have to suffer anything.
Yes, it may be the case that in the fight with the Romans he may take an occasional blow but that may be avoided! After all, what’s the sense in suffering for suffering’s sake?
And, what’s more, no more of this talk of Jesus’ followers having to suffer too.
If news like that gets out no-one will want to follow this Messiah anywhere. No, let’s be sensible – let’s be reasonable.
Poor Peter – we may nod to ourselves knowingly. After all, we may be aware through years of teaching, why Jesus had to suffer. It’s obvious, isn’t it? God’s judgement and God’s mercy need to be satisfied and exercised and in the giving of the perfect Christ the debt of humankind is paid and the mercy of God in the provision of such a solution is demonstrated.
The Cross in this sense is a necessity and lots of theological detail has filled in the frame of this kind of argument over the years to the extent that we receive it, often without questioning it.
But note how quiet the text is regarding the reasons. It simply states that he must undergo great suffering – he must. But what does that mean?
Our doctrine can be indoctrinating if it prevents us from asking questions.
We must always feel free to question – to probe and to analyse and to seek to discern the truth.
For so long the church has settled on a divine punishment / divine mercy meeting place in Christ and we accept that without questioning, and with the acceptance, I would suggest to you, the scandal of Peter’s confession is lost.
You see, the point Jesus was making to Peter through this critical moment was that humanity did not need a political saviour.
Humanity needs a God who must endure the depth of human pain in order that humanity may be reconciled to God.
There is no hint here of an external negotiation between judgement and mercy but of an intrinsic necessity; the outworking of God’s decision to enter into and to reclaim the whole of human existence.
Dwight Morrow, the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, once held a dinner party to which Calvin Coolidge had been invited. After Coolidge left, Morrow told the remaining guests that Coolidge would make a good president.
The others disagreed. They felt Coolidge was too quiet, that he lacked colour and personality. No one would like him, they said.
Anne, then age six, spoke up: “I like him,” she said. Then she displayed a finger with a small bandage around it. “He was the only one at the party who asked about my sore finger.”
“That’s why he would make a good president,” added Morrow.
The cult of personality was of no interest whatsoever to Jesus.
It was his compassion and feeling for his people, for the world, that marked him out as Messiah and that was the scandal to a people looking for a mighty deliverer.
May we be saved from the indoctrination of providing the right answer without an awareness of the profound challenge of ‘God with us’. For that is the true scandal of the Messiah.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Lying at your feet is your dog. Imagine, for the moment, that your dog and every dog is in deep distress. Some of us love dogs very much. If it would help all the dogs in the world to become like men, would you be willing to become a dog? Would you put down your human nature, leave your loved ones, your job, hobbies, your art and literature and music, and choose instead of the intimate communion with your beloved, the poor substitute of looking into the beloved’s face and wagging your tail, unable to smile or speak? Christ by becoming man limited the thing which to Him was the most precious thing in the world; his unhampered, unhindered communion with the Father.”
It is from there that our humanity is reclaimed for God. And that must be our way too.
It is in our self-limiting that we find the way of God before us.
All of this is, of course, a great scandal, but it is the only way in which we can live faithfully as followers.
May God enable us to do so faithfully.