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The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B)
Sunday, 16 September 2018

O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 116
James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18
Mark 8:27-38

Jesus is seeming grumpy. No one gets it. The Pharisees don't get it, the disciples don't get it. They all see what Jesus is doing, but either find fault or misunderstand. The disciples and everyone else, for that matter, have seen Jesus heal the sick, cure the deaf, drive out spirits, and feed the crowd. It isn't that these actions are especially strange in this world. The gentiles expected that there would be those gifted in magic or favoured by the gods who could accomplish these deeds. The Jews expected that a messiah would come and perform signs and wonders and would usher in the Day of the Lord, but they imagined someone like King David, a mighty warrior and ruler. Those open to Jesus saw him as this kind of messiah, those not open to him saw someone defying the law and even blaspheming.

Yet we who know the whole story, just like those who were listening to the travelling storyteller who most likely first brought them the Gospel of Mark, know that Jesus is not a Hellenistic magician, nor is he a blasphemer or the Davidic messiah. He is something completely different, something completely unexpected. He is the messiah who will suffer and die, and on the third day be raised from the dead. Perhaps those who read Isaiah with care might have imagined such a messiah. Most people, however, expected something else, and certainly not Jesus.

In the passage between last week's story about the healing of the deaf man and today's lesson, a grumpy Jesus seems a little fed up with the disciples as he tried to help them understand everything that has happened. "Do you not yet understand or grasp what has happened. Is the heart of all of you still hardened? Do you have eyes and not really see, and ears and not really hear?" he asks. Didn't you watch me take five loaves and feed five thousand with twelves baskets left over? Didn't you watch me take seven and feed four thousand with seven left over? "And still do you not grasp what has happened?" Jesus here is using language from Jeremiah to chastise his friends for "not recognising the wondrous acts of God" [1] in his deeds. In this mood, Jesus continues his work of healing, this time with a blind man, and then heads off to Caesarea Philippi with the disciples, where we meet them today.For my part, I am imagining that Jesus, while he certainly loves the disciples, has finally had it with them.

In this mood, he finally asks, OK, "Who do people say that I am?" "And they told him, 'John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets." All are, of course, possibilities seen from the Jewish perspective, but are all wide of the mark. He then asks his friends, who should know better, who had witnessed all those deeds, "who do you say that I am?" Peter unhesitatingly answers,"You are the Christ," using the Greek word for the messiah, the anointed one.

While there were a number of different perspectives on what this messiah, or anointed one, would look like and do, Peter thinks he is the Davidic messiah, who will bring justice and favour to Israel, and who would be a political threat to Roman authority. [2] Jesus knows that Peter has his terminology correct, but missed the true meaning. Jesus explains, therefore, that he is a different kind of messiah, the suffering messiah: "[teaching] them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." This is the essence of the message of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is the Son of Man who will suffer and die and rise again. This is what sets him apart, this is what puts him in solidarity with his people, gives him the authority to inaugurate the kingdom, inaugurate the reconciliation of God and humanity.

And this is a message Peter just can't hear. He can not get his head around this aspect of Jesus' messianic identity, although it is its very essence. Jesus rebukes Peter, as he has rebuked his followers before for not getting it, but he doesn't give up. He still keeps on teaching about the suffering messiah and what it means to follow him.

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?

Here he frames his explanation in terms of inversions. To follow Jesus you take up the cross, that symbol of Roman execution, and embark on a difficult path, one that will involve hardship and suffering. If you save your life or gain riches, but do so at the expense of your life—really your psyche, your essence, the "inner core of the person, what constitutes the self" [3]—you will loose your deep connection with God, love, the deepest reality of the cosmos to which we are drawn. Earthly power, and we know that is what Jesus is getting at as he uses the language of commerce, of profit and loss, is meaningless if you have given up your soul to the world. But if you devote that inner core, that essence to the Gospel and to Jesus, Jesus the suffering messiah, then you will gain that which truly matters. Jesus says all this and the disciples still don't get it. They keep not getting it. Not untill the end, and even then. But despite his seeming a little grumpy, Jesus kept on sharing his good news even to the end and we, we who know the whole story, know.

"Who do you say that I am?" This is the essential question not only of Mark's Gospel but of the journey of faith: Who is Jesus really and what does it mean to follow him? Mark's was the community that resonated with the idea of the disciples "making headway painfully" that night Jesus came to them walking on the water. If Jesus is the messiah who will suffer and yet transcend, overcome suffering, and he comes to us to strengthen and help us in our journey, how much can this comfort and strengthen us when the going gets tough?

We see and know what the disciples don't, we know the whole story. We know that this is the messiah God has sent, the one who will, despite suffering and death, rise on the third day. Knowing who Jesus really is, knowing that he isn't a Greek magician or a Hebrew prophet, knowing that he isn't even the messiah who comes riding in on a white horse to save the day and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel, helps us understand. We are given a model for how we can be disciples even in troubled times, even when it is hard or counter-cultural. We are to take heart, to know that we won't always succeed, that we will meet opposition and resistance. We are to know that in and through all these challenges, we are given the gift to share in the life of the resurrection, to choose love and justice, to be aligned in purpose and action with God.

 

Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
15 September 2018

 

1 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagima, 2 (Collegeville,MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 253; Jer. 5:21
2 Harrington and Donahue 2002, 261.
3 Harrington and Donahue 2002, 263.


© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume