Peter’s Confession 09/16/18 (Proper 19B)

TEXT: MARK 8:27-38

Today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel revolves entirely around Peter’s confession. Jesus and his disciples have moved east from Tyre to Caesarea Philippi, an ancient Roman city located at the base of Mount Hermon. As they walked along, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

These aren’t unreasonable guesses. After all, Jesus’ ministry thus far – a ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing – has much in common with those people the have been named. He fits easily into the category, “prophet,” as much as he does into the categories of “preacher,” “teacher,” and “healer.”

But why do people refer to Jesus as John the Baptist and Elijah, specifically?

Among other things, Elijah confronted Israel’s leader Ahab when he succumbed to pressures from his wife Jezebel to worship Baal. And since Elijah didn’t die but was carried to heaven on a chariot of fire, there was a widely held expectation that Elijah would return before “the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Malachi 4:5)

Many thought John the Baptist was Elijah, finally returned. He preached that the Day of the Lord was near, and he continued Elijah’s prophetic work, confronting Herod for his decadent lifestyle and his marriage to Herodias, his sister-in-law. Indeed, John was such a threat to Herod’s sense of power – and it turns out that Herodias was even more threatened – that Herodias demanded John be beheaded.

When Jesus arrived on the scene and was thought to be John the Baptist or Elijah before him, or maybe in some sense both at the same time, Herod was terrified. We will, of course, soon see how that fear plays itself out – as fear so often does: in violence and destruction.

When the disciples say that people think he might be John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, Jesus “neither confirms nor denies” these assertions. Rather, he makes the question a more personal one: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, ever the good and eager student, quickly responds, “You are the Messiah.”

To us, more than 20 centuries later, Peter’s confession is spot-on. It makes perfect sense. But that is only because we know how the story turns out. Back then, however, Peter really had no reason to call Jesus Messiah, or Christ. It’s not a terrible stretch to argue that Jesus has demonstrated that he walks in the lines of the prophets, but he definitely hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he’s the long-awaited Messiah.

After all, the anticipated Jewish Messiah (in Hebrew) or Christ (in Greek) was “associated in the Jewish tradition with an anointed king, a royal figure in the line of David expected to come and free Israel from their Gentile oppressors, purify the people, and restore Israel’s independence and glory.” [1] As of this point in the story, Jesus has done nothing to indicate that he’s going to confront the powers-that-be or work to change the broader situation of the people.

So it’s a little puzzling as to why Peter would make this confession. But it’s not surprising in the least that he is absolutely baffled – even horrified – at Jesus’ response.

After all, immediately following Peter’s confession, Jesus orders the disciples to not tell anyone. He doesn’t deny the identity Peter has named. But if he is the Messiah, why wouldn’t they let everyone know the good news?

What he says next would have seemed like anything but good news. The Son of Man, he says, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Sure, he also says the Messiah will rise after three days. But that part of the message seems to get lost. Peter has stopped listening after the suffering, rejection, and death part. And who can blame him? No wonder he tells Jesus to stop this nonsense. We can hear him say, “No, no, no, Jesus, this is not the way it’s supposed to go. The Messiah is supposed to conquer the Romans, not get killed by them. What good is a dead Messiah?” [2]

But Jesus refuses to say any more about what it means to be the Messiah, and he stops Peter from continued argument. Eventually they’ll understand – not until the end, to be sure – but eventually. Instead of focusing on who he is, Jesus now turns to what it means to be one of his disciples. Speaking not just to the Twelve but also to the crowd that has gathered around him, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

When Jesus speaks of taking up their cross, he is inviting them to go willingly into suffering. He isn’t telling them that they must seek out suffering, nor that they should be martyrs per se. No, what he is telling them is that to be his disciple, they must be willing to offer themselves in service to others, even if such service costs them discomfort or pain. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” he says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

But what might it mean to lose one’s life? Moreover, what does it mean to lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel? To understand that, we need to understand what family and community meant to the people of Jesus’ time and culture.

Scholar Elisabeth Johns explains it this way:

Cross-cultural specialists underscore the contrast between Western and Mediterranean notions of personality and the self. In the Western culture, people develop a keen sense of individualism, self-reliance, independence from others, and personal competence.

In the Middle East, people are urged to focus primarily on the family and forge their identity according to the family. Simon Peter is known as son of Jonah; Jesus is the carpenter’s or Mary’s son. Middle Easterners depend upon the family for everything. Indeed, the rule is “take care of family first.”…People in these cultures always feel the need of forming a coalition to achieve anything. No one dares to dream of personal initiative. [3]

When Jesus called the disciples, he was asking them to leave their families: not just physically, but also in terms of the way they understood their religion and the world itself. He was, in short, creating a new family: a family of students and evangelists who would not only talk about Jesus, but who would carry on his ministries of teaching, healing, and caring for the lost and the least. And this – this following in the way of Jesus – would inevitably cost them a great deal. They would share all that they had in common and would uproot themselves in order to take care of those in need. Some of them would even be killed.

We can’t blame Peter and the other disciples for resisting this idea, for being reluctant to embrace the image of a suffering Messiah who asked them to suffer too. After all, if we’re honest with ourselves, we might discover that most of us resist such a Savior and such a command too. As one commentator has written:

We want someone who is strong and powerful, someone who will rescue us from our troubles and defeat our enemies. Too often…Jesus is presented this way – as a kind of superhero who solves every problem for us, as a guarantor of prosperity and success. Nothing could be further from what Jesus had in mind.

We would like a Savior who is a winner, and one who makes us winners, but Jesus insists on identifying with the lowliest of losers. [4]

We who gather here week after week to worship God gather around this Savior, this Messiah, who insists on identifying with the lowliest of losers. We gather around this Savior, this Messiah, to do our best to follow him. Although we enjoy our social time together, like this afternoon’s Homecoming Luncheon, we aren’t just a social club. Although we are deeply committed to our good works and missions like the Food Pantry and the Pumpkin Patch and T-Shirts for Autism, we aren’t just a society of People Who Do Good Works.

No, we are specifically a family of Christians who gather around Jesus Christ, trying to discern who he is and what he is asking of us communally and personally.

So as we officially kick off this church year, as we are gathered in in the name of Christ, I invite us all to think of who Jesus is to us? Who is Jesus to you personally in your inner spiritual and prayer life? Who is Jesus to us together as a family of faith?

To ponder those questions, I’d like to offer you the following reflection from Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Jesus is God’s best selfie,
and humanity’s true DNA.
Jesus is the great overlapping.
Jesus is God’s fragile hope set loose in the world,
God’s vulnerability surviving among us,
the living wound of the Beloved.
Jesus is the tear in the world where we see through to God,
what we look like when we let the Divine burn in us.
Jesus is the living bit of love that every empire trips over,
the peasant who shatters the world,
the victim who ruins our judgments
and leaves us with nothing but mercy.

Jesus is my wizard, my teacher, my elder,
my big brother and little sister,
my comrade, my accomplice, my troublemaker, my trickster.
Jesus is my healer, my lover, my peace,
and not mine.
Jesus is my possibility. The flavor of God.
Infinite mystery in an old shirt.
Jesus is the coach who expects almost too much of me,
and is never disappointed.
Jesus pushes me out of uncomfortable places,
and pulls me into them.
Jesus invites me into the world’s wound
deep enough to find light.
Jesus is always dying so I get the hang of it.
And rising.
Jesus is always a step ahead of me
except when he’s disappeared into me, waiting,
always pouring God out at my feet,
always weeping and joyful and curious.
Jesus is always setting me up on blind dates with God,
and then coming along just to watch.
He’s got heaven all over him like pollen on a bee’s legs.
Jesus is my glasses, my hearing aid. Also my hard hat.
Jesus has light spilling out all over, especially through
those holes in his hands.
Jesus has a million questions, and most of them are the same one:
“Do you know how much I love you?”

“Do you know how much I love you?” That’s the Good News in the midst of this difficult teaching. To quote scholar Elisabeth Johnson one final time:

The whole story tells us that Jesus was faithful, unto death, while all around him proved faithless, and that God raised him to new life. Because of this, we know that God’s life-giving power is far stronger than the worst that human hands can do. Because of this, we know that there is no sin or failure so great that it can finally separate us from the love of God in Christ. [5]

And for that, what else can we say but, “Thanks be to God.”

[1] Elisabeth Johnson. September 16, 2018,

[2] Johnson.

[3] John J. Pilch. “Attaching to Jesus.” The Sunday Website at St. Louis University.

[4] Johnson.

[5] Johnson.

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