Thinking God’s Thoughts; Mark 8:27-31
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; February 28, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
In Blessed Bookies this week, we discussed a book that touched on a number of themes, including a dying man’s reflection on whether or not he had made the right choices in his life, and had lived in the best way he could have. He wondered if his life had had meaning and purpose. As we talked together about this character who we perceived as a good and noble man, we wondered if this kind of reflection might be a normal and natural thing for a person to do when faced with a terminal diagnosis.
We remember how after his baptism and before the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, contemplating/discovering/coming to an understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah. For 40 days he was tempted by the devil, responding to the devil’s “invitation” to use that role to exalt himself, rather than humbling himself as God’s servant. Jesus replied each time to the devil’s testing with God’s Word. When this time was over, Jesus left the wilderness confirmed in his call, exhausted but righteous and was ministered to by angels.
We might think that his time of temptation has ended, but Jesus continues to be faced with it—perhaps every day—as he teaches his disciples and those who gather to listen. There were surely easier and more comfortable ways to spend his days… At any time he might have forgotten his call, chosen to ignore the people who gathered (reminds me of the older pastor who asked the younger pastor—have you met the people?), plugging his ears and telling them to just go away and leave him alone! Or, he could have let it all go to his head and become a first century rock star preacher, impressing all with his words and actions, even though it might require a little bending to the expectations of religious leaders. But Jesus didn’t do that. He remained faithful to his call, teaching and modeling, through word and example, what it meant to live in God’s ways.
Jesus and his disciples have traveled broadly, and are now near Caesarea Philippi, an area with significant Hellenistic/Greek influence where many pagans live. His face wouldn’t be so familiar here, he would be able to avoid the opposing forces in Galilee where he is better known. Here he could spend some time focused on teaching his disciples without great crowds pressing in.
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” We might wonder why he would ask them this question. Perhaps it is to learn if he is being received/recognized/read as he hopes he’s being received. It’s never a bad thing to ask for feedback. He listens to their responses and then he asks them—who do YOU say that I am? That’s when Peter immediately responds, “You are the Messiah.”
This is an important moment for Jesus and his disciples. It’s a moment when things begin to shift—not so much because of Peter’s answer, although he is the first one to proclaim that Jesus is Messiah. But the shift begins happening more because of the way in which Jesus responds.
That has to do with he and Peter’s differing definitions of “Messiah.” To Peter, and to others in Israel at the time, the Messiah is the one who they have been waiting to come save them. We’re not talking about saving their souls, we’re talking about saving their land, their country, their identity. They’ve been praying to God to free them from Roman occupation and captivity. What that will require is a wise general, a strong leader who will instruct and guide them in the necessary tactics to physically and completely erase Roman rule.
But Jesus’ response is not what they expect to hear. It had to have caused Peter’s heart to skip a beat, to make him need to sit down and take a deep breath. As he looks at Jesus incredulously, Jesus begins teaching Peter and the rest of the disciples, saying the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Wait, what? No, that’s not what’s going to happen.
What kind of leader goes into battle telling his troops: okay, we’re all going to die today, so you might as well wrap your head around that fact. I’m going to die and you most likely will be dying, too…
What coach cheers on his or her team, saying: you can do this! Prepare to lose! You thought we were going to take a trophy home today? Nope! That’s not going to happen today!
Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him that this isn’t the message they expect or want to hear. Get your game on, Jesus, we’re counting on you to lead us into victory! This is NOT the way to do it!
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that just a little bit ago, Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, and now he’s telling Jesus what to do.
Jesus turns toward the disciples. No doubt Peter isn’t the only one thinking these thoughts, he’s only the one courageous enough to speak them—directly to Jesus.
Jesus responds in a way that had to be as startling to Peter—as was his definition of Messiah: “Get behind me Satan…you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
That stops Peter in his tracks. How could it not? He’s speechless, at least for now.
There are a couple of ways that we might look at this. The first possibility, is that Jesus is responding to Peter in the same way that he responded to the devil in the wilderness. The Messiah that Peter has in mind is a powerful Messiah, one who would rule their world through might, through force. But Jesus has already been tempted with that possibility and knows that’s not what he’s going to do.
Another way of reading this interchange between Jesus and Peter, which is complementary to the first option, is that Jesus identifies Peter as an adversary to what he knows he’s being called to do. One of the resources I looked at in working on this text says that the original word used and translated as Satan isn’t the same word used to refer to Satan in other places. That writer says “adversary” is a better translation. Anyone who gets in between Jesus and his calling—who tries to stop or change that calling—is working against God. One who works against God is the devil/an adversary.
As Peter is bluntly honest with Jesus, Jesus responds to Peter, also being bluntly honest. That honesty is important. They need to make sure they’re both on the same track, working toward the same goals, not working against each other or sabotaging one another’s actions.
Jesus tells Peter that he’s setting his mind on human things. That doesn’t mean Peter is a bad person. He’s just being human. He’s learning. Coming to understand his role. Coming to understand this new identity he’s taking on...what it means to be a disciple.
Being human ourselves, we can understand that there are things that can get in the way of what we might feel God is calling us to do…
I think of the woman who considered becoming a missionary, who felt God might be calling her to do that. But she rejected the idea because she couldn’t see giving up the standard of living she’d grown accustomed to…
I think of the pastor who decided not to stand up for a justice issue in his community because he knew it wouldn’t be well accepted by members of his church. He said to a friend, “I’m too young to die on that cross right now.”
“You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus says to Peter, and perhaps to us, as well…
Jesus continues. “If you want to be my followers, this is what you must do. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
We can try to soften the edges of what Jesus says to his disciples and would-be followers, but I don’t think that would be true to what he’s saying to them, or to us.
Because following Jesus isn’t easy. Following him doesn’t mean everything is going fall into place, that your life will have a bit of a glow and that you’ll have in every moment the right answer, an obvious path, and a sense of continual satisfaction. Or that people will always like you or the decisions that you make based on what you understand scripture to be saying.
We’re left to answer these questions and to make the decision for ourselves.
What does it mean to you that Jesus is the Messiah?
How does that translate into the way you live?
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness answering this question for himself; we’re faced with that question (at least) every Lenten season, every year. It’s a time for honest review. For honest questions. For making adjustments if that seems right. Change is always a possibility.
In doing this, it can make a difference in our lives. Perhaps someday we can look back at the choices we’ve made, at the paths we’ve taken, and acknowledge that we’ve done our best to follow Jesus. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we’ve done our best. In doing this, may we acknowledge that following him has brought purpose and meaning.