Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 13, 2015
Proper 19B: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8: James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Preached by the Dr. L. Wm. Countryman from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Berkeley on September 13, 2015:
The story we just heard—the one where Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah—is right smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. All the rest of the book circles around it. Mark means for us to pay attention.
And it’s a great high point. Peter gets it right. He’s the first person to say out loud who Jesus is.
But then, as we heard, it all falls apart. Jesus starts to explain that being Messiah is not going to be all triumph and glory for him, and Peter interrupts: “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.” Jesus makes a meaningful turn of the head away from Peter to look at the rest of the disciples— just to let them know he’s talking to them, too—and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And then, just to be perfectly clear that he means the message as broadly as possible, he calls the crowd in alongside his disciples and says to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
That was a fast slide down a slippery slope, wasn’t it?
so, what do we have here? We’ve got pluses and minuses. We’ve got hope of glory and intimations of suffering. We’ve got a big-time revelation and a big-time mistake. And Mark sets it up to make us to pay close attention, doesn’t he? Mark thought it was critically important to the story he was telling. And it’s also critically important right now in the world we’re living in. So let’s think about it some more.
Peter gets it right; he has his great moment of insight. And that leaves him thinking he’s got everything sewed up. He’ll be riding the Messiah’s coattails into a new and better world. Exactly how he pictured that world is impossible to know, but there’s a good chance that it included a lot fewer Romans than the world he was actually living in. There’d be a better deal for Peter’s own people—the farmers and herders and fishermen who made up the Galilean country folk. There would probably be a lot less arrogance from the big-shots in Jerusalem. It was going to be a new era of true religion and prosperity for the right people—his people.
But Jesus hauls him up short and says, “You’ve got a very inadequate notion of the Messiah. You didn’t pay attention when they read Isaiah in synagogue, did you? ‘I gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.’ If you’d listened, you’d know that God’s Anointed isn’t going to get an enthusiastic welcome in this world.”
And Jesus goes on to say to Peter and everybody else, “You won’t be getting rich or powerful off my messianic ministry. Just the reverse. Drop that idea right now.”
You may remember that, of course, they did no such thing. Jesus would have to keep repeating that lesson over and over again.
Now, I said that this passage was particularly important for us in the world we live in. Why? Because we’re living in another age when people are determined, like Peter, to translate their revelations into power plays. Not just religious revelations: atheists have proven as good at it as the religious have. (Just think Nazism and Soviet Communism.) I sometimes think scientists may be the most adept of all. Just think, for example, of all the money that’s changed hands over the last couple of decades because of people who’ve had a revelation that what you really need to be eating is the opposite of what you’ve been eating and then offered to sell you a pre-packaged version of the truth.
But I’m going to focus on religious temptations because, after all, that’s what we know best. And it’s easy to pick an example because it’s been all over the news—the case of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who decided that her religion had full possession of the truth and gave her the privilege of ignoring her legal duties and oppressing her neighbors. She turned her religious faith into a campaign to control the world around her, including people whose faith differs from hers.
And that, of course, is something we see a lot of now. It’s not just Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. Islam, at the moment, is rife with it—some of it in a much more vicious form. Even Buddhism is having its turn in Myanmar.
Judaism, isn’t immune to the temptation, either. The Settler movement in Israel and the West Bank is another example of it, particularly mind-boggling given that modern Israel was founded as a refuge from precisely this sort of treatment elsewhere. Was Peter envisioning a kind of Jewish caliphate? Did he want a Jewish Taliban? I don’t suppose he had that detailed a plan, but he was probably moving in that direction.
There is something scary about the way we human beings slip from our moments of revelation to the moment of imposing our insight on others. First, we just want everyone to share our insight. And then we move on to the point of thinking that our insight is so clear and so true that it cannot be questioned. And then it begins to seem obvious that we ought to compel others to see it, too. Peter was heading right down that path when Jesus brought him up short with “Get behind me, Satan.”
We mild-mannered Episcopalians may think we’re exempt, but we’re not. Historically, we’ve had our persecutorial moments, and we’ve certainly been known to entertain feelings of superiority (of which our fellow Christians are well aware). And add to that the fact that this is a liberal congregation. When liberals embrace new enthusiasms, we, too, can be quite political about demanding that others conform. We’re gathered here in Berkeley, right? We, if anyone, should know that political correctness has a certain tyrannical potential. This isn’t just a myth made up by Republican politicians, though they’ve certainly milked it for everything it’s worth.
No human being is safe from imitating Peter’s error. Like him, we persistently fail to get the message. We think that, because we’ve seen this revelation, everybody else has to as well—and in our time frame and on our terms. But no. The Messiah’s revolution isn’t going to proceed from triumph to triumph. It comes about through the persistence of trust and hope and love in the face of suffering and weakness. Beware of thinking that we’ll be able to bypass all that and just have a lovely wallow in our own brilliant grasp of truth—lovely as it may sound.
And now that I’ve said all this, you may think that I’m going to sum up here by telling us all not to be so damned confident. (Notice that I’m choosing my language in imitation of Our Lord.) But, in fact, that’s not quite it either. Mark isn’t saying that Peter’s revelation was wrong. It was what Peter wanted to do with it that was wrong.
There really is a revelation here. It’s just that Peter—like the rest of us—was very slow to understand it. What had he seen that made him acclaim Jesus as Messiah? He had seen in him a revelation of the heart of the universe. He saw in Jesus that God, moved by passionate love, had come looking for him, had come to draw him into God’s embrace, had come to reveal the true center of existence.
He went wrong in that he couldn’t, at first, accept that offer of love in it almost unimaginable breadth and depth. He could only think of it in the familiar terms: power, money, celebrity, religious certainty—all those things, you know, that Satan tempts Jesus with in another familiar gospel story. But it’s none of those things. It’s love.
Jesus wasn’t telling Peter to soft-pedal his revelation. And Peter understood that. Jesus was telling him to understand it more deeply and more truly. God, in Jesus, has taken the profound risk of coming right here among an ordinary bunch of people like us to offer us love. That’s the revelation we celebrate every Sunday at this Holy Table. And we draw from it hope and we pray that we will become deeper and wiser and more loving by it—not so that we can inflict it on others, but so that we can share it and welcome one another—everyone whom God touches with it.
Peter accepted the “Get behind me, Satan” and still confessed the “You are the Messiah.” It took patience and trust. That’s where we want to go, too.