Who am I? - A sermon for Pentecost 15 based on Mark 8: 27-38
My son is a Liverpool supporter. It was not always thus. He was brought up much better than that by a father who would try with some success to get him to sing "Glory, Glory Man United" in the supermarkets of Cornwall. Such promise but it all went wrong. One day on the Isle of Man he watched a programme about Michael Owen entitled "Zero to Hero!" From then on he was filled with a deep desire to worship at the shrine of Anfield.
Well today's Gospel reading has reminded us of how in a matter of minutes Peter crashed from hero to zero in his case exhibiting a brilliant insight only for that insight to be shown as marred and distorted.
The episode begins at Caesarea Philippi. In this town where Herod the Great had built a temple in honour to Caesar Augustus, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. Their answers link him with the prophetic tradition. This is significant as there are Jewish traditions which expect the likes of Moses and Elijah to be involved in God's ultimate mission. So this is a sign that people are taking the mission of Jesus very seriously indeed.
But Jesus doesn't stop here. For now the question becomes personal;
"But who do you say that I am?"
Now the question cannot be answered by hearsay. Those present are challenged to answer the question from the very depths of their being. And so Peter responds;
"You are the Messiah."
Wow! I wonder if there followed one of those silences in which one could hear a pin drop. Why? Because the Messiah was the long awaited one, annointed by God, who would restore the political fortunes of Israel.
It is truly a momentous statement. In a place where A Roman Emperor had been venerated, Peter was asserting Jesus to the one through whom God would bring about the liberation of a people under colonial rule. In this moment we see a point of tension between the Jesus way and that of the empire. Certainly there was a growing movement in the empire to worship of the emperor whilst the Jesus movement saw in Jesus a liberator. And this would be a growing tension for Mark's community who would face the real conflict between the Lordship of Jesus and the Lordship of Caesar.
Now we do well to note that this does not mean a claim for the divinity of Jesus. This is something that will take longer to emerge as the belief of the Jesus community. A Messiah was a human figure even though he was one who would be mightily used by God.
Anyhow back to the story. Peter having made his bold affirmation is going to come crashing down. For Jesus starts to talk about what is involved in being a Messiah. And it's full of surprises. For the future offers not so much triumphs and banquests but suffering, rejection by an unholy alliance of disparate parts of the religious establishment and ultimately death. Peter cannot stomach the thought of this. It goes against his hopes for one he loves. It goes against his and just about everyone else's understanding of Messiahship. So protest he must. And for this he gets an almighty rocketing;
"Get behind me Satan!"
He is being spoken to in just the sort of way that he has heard Jesus speaking to demons not so long before. Poor, poor Peter! He must have wished the ground would swallow him up. Well and truly has he gone from hero to zero! From thinking he knew what Jesus was about he is condemned for the mother of misunderstandings.
Mark's Gospel is going from here to be about exploring what the way of Jesus is about. For Jesus extends the concept of denial from being about himself to being about those who follow the Jesus way.
Now he offers the call to followers to take up their crosses. There is indeed something shocking about this. After all crucifixion is a violent means of execution inflicted by Rome primarily on the lower classes or those who had offended Rome most grievously. Not least among those who were stripped naked and made to suffer the pain and humiliation of such a death were those who rebelled against Rome. Indeed many a Zealot freedom fighter in the days of Jesus suffered this fate. But first they had to carry the cross on which they would die to the place of execution.
Now Jesus is using the process by which Rome dehumanised its victims to be the model of his new way. In this we are reminded that true Christianity is at odds with empire rather than being the means by which empire is justified as became the case under Constantine and has beeen the case too often since.
But this does not mean that Christians are called on to long for suffering and death as some less than healthy traditions have suggested. Far from that it recognises the reality of conflict with the powers. And in that conflict which has an aura of inevitability, Jesus' words remind us that the Kingdom of God has an absolute calim upon us which goes beyond the claimes of empire or any of the powers. And to the beauty of that Kingdom we are called to ever be true not counting the cost. For it is in giving all we have and are to that vision that we are enabled to embrace the fulfilment. Or to borrow an evangelical phraseology concerning the way of Christ, there has to be a cross before there can be a crown.
This episode comes after a two stage healing of a blind man. Perhaps we need more than two stages in the opening of our eyes to the ways of Christ. For Christ does not fit easy packaging. He doesn't even fit into our so called commonsense. Rather he challenges us to see the world in totally new ways. And like Peter we will stumble and fall but still we are encouraged to go on seeking the counter cultural way of Christ with its new priorities. And that means holding on to his call rather than the counterfeit calls of the powers.