When I was a child life was, in many ways, much less complex. We only had three TV stations – and they didn’t broadcast much during the day. Only one had adverts, the others were BBC stations. Many more people read newspapers than do nowadays and in an age before the internet, multiple sources of media and the ease of making videos, adverts were mainly print based. The Catholic Enquiry Office used to have an advert they ran in lots of papers which had a silhouette of Jesus and His question: Who do you say that I am? People who saw the advert could write off and get a booklet which would start to explore that question. It’s an approach that it is still used and an Internet search failed to find the original advert – not surprising as the ad went out long before the Internet was even thought of – but there are many examples of modern versions of it. It seems to me the key to today’s reading, and of our Christian life, is the answer to that question: who do you say that I am?
In the reading Peter clearly gets it – at first. Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is and then pushes them – who do you say that I am. Of course, this being Mark, we only get a highlight of the conversation – we don’t know what the others said, if anything nor how long it took to get to this point. Peter, however, gets it. He discerns Jesus as the Messiah. In New Testament Judaism the term Messiah was interesting. The word means anointed one or saviour. It’s hard for us to think of this term without adding our own layers of meaning. However, there had been a non-Jewish Messiah – Cyrus who freed the Jews and allowed the Temple to be rebuilt. Normally, however, the Jews of the New Testament era saw the Messiah as a liberator, a king, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. This is what Peter discerned Jesus to be.
We lose this emphasis as the Greek translation of the word Messiah is Christ. We use that almost as a surname for Jesus, if pushed we might remember it means anointed one but we have lost the radical, political understanding of the word. In Jesus’ time the term Messiah was edgy – the Romans and Temple authorities were on the lookout for anyone who dared use or had that term used about them. Messiahs led to revolutions, revolutions led to repression and such freedom as the Jewish leadership had managed to carve out under Roman rule would have been denied them. No wonder that Jesus “sternly” told the disciples to keep quiet about this designation.
With the benefit of knowing all the story we marvel at Peter getting things wrong so quickly after getting things right. In another story, he has faith to walk on water to find Jesus but then loses his confidence and sinks beneath the waves. At the Last Supper he promises undying loyalty to Jesus only a few hours later to deny knowing him. In today’s reading it’s tempting to see the same thing going on – he proclaims Jesus as the Messiah but a few verses later Jesus rebukes him calling him Satan! However, we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter as he is, this time, being consistent and, I think, Jesus gets it.
The Messiah was to be a political leader. Jews at the time of the New Testament were desperate to throw of Roman rule and to live as a free country again. Peter’s assertion that Jesus was the Messiah meant that he thought this is what Jesus would do – and Jesus doesn’t contradict him. So, imagine Peter’s utter confusion when Jesus says, without any ambiguity, that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, the scribes and be killed and would rise again in three days. I think Peter could be forgiven for both missing the rising again bit but protesting. Political leaders aren’t much good if they get killed by their opponents. Clearly Peter was pointing this out to Jesus – Mark has it “and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” As a result he gets called Satan for his pains.
If you’ve been reading the Daily Devotions from the URC that go out by email every morning you will know that we’re currently working through the Book of Job. We’ve invited a retired Old Testament lecturer from our college in Cambridge to write them. The book of Job starts off with God and Satan having a chat about Job and debating if he would still be a faithful disciple if everything went wrong. The writer of Job doesn’t see Satan as a source of evil or a fearsome creature but simply as “the tempter.” It’s as if Satan has a role in the heavens given him by God. This is the sense I think Jesus was using the term to Peter.
Whatever Peter said to Jesus was very tempting. No Lord, no need to suffer and die, take up arms, throw the Romans out, end the collaboration with Rome, set up the Kingdom of Israel – people will flock to you… In many ways this isn’t that different to the temptation to take political power that the Tempter torments Jesus with in Matthew and Luke’s account of the Temptations. So Jesus is saying – get behind me you tempter. Peter’s solution was based, not unsurprisingly, on human solutions, Jesus knew his journey would be harder for him and for us.
Jesus doesn’t reject the Messiah title – much of his preaching is about liberation after all. He never seems to attack the Romans – he heals a Centurion’s boy after all – has a mixed relationship with Pilate but is contemptuous to Herod and seems to annoy the Pharisees. It’s not fair to say his religious programme was devoid of political consequences but it is fair to say that he wasn’t just about political transformation. He knew that more was needed than another political career starting in promise and ending, as they all do, in tears. His rebuke to Peter leads to some of his hardest words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’
So What Do We Make of This?
Jesus tells us a lot about what it means to be his disciple and the key to being a disciple is what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah: the Cross. This is as outrageous to us as it was to Peter – and we, like Peter, keep hoping that Jesus will change his mind.
Messiahship for Jesus involved suffering, injustice and death. The cost of discipleship is the same – why else would he say that his disciples need to deny themselves and take up their cross? We know that Peter was also crucified and that most, if not all, of the other disciples were martyred for their faith. The history of the Church is full of martyrs – some killed for simply being Christian, others killed because their faith led them to political activity – the Reformation Catholic martyrs killed in Elizabeth’s England or Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Lutheran pastor convinced he had to join a plot to assassinate Hitler for example. The way of the Cross is hard. Peter thought he’d signed up for a crown not a cross.
Thankfully in Scotland in the 21st Century we’re not called to be martyrs for our faith but Jesus’ call remains. We’d prefer to ignore it, prefer discipleship to be about being nice, going to a few more coffee mornings, giving a bit more but it’s harder than that. The key is Jesus’ first command – to deny ourselves.
At the start of the year, in the Covenant service, we read the Covenant prayer. The introduction to this noted that sometimes we can please Jesus and ourselves but sometimes what Jesus asks of us are against our natural inclinations and material interests and we can only please Jesus by denying ourselves. In a culture with easy credit, which craves instant results denial is something we aren’t used to. Part of taking up our cross – in the West – is about denial. We should do with less so that others can have more. We should give up some of what we have so that others can have something. We should forego some of our rights and entitlements so as to make the world better.
To take up the Cross meant death. No first Century Jew, or Roman for that matter, would have understood it in any other way. Hopefully, we will only ever be called to die to self – to die to our material interests, inclinations and pleasures for the sake of the Kingdom; many have throughout the years, and even now, had to die for their faith.
But this isn’t all. Jesus does foretell suffering, injustice and death but he also told his disciples he would rise again. That, gets lost when we read this passage – Peter was appalled at the death thing he overlooked the resurrection promise. Yes we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, die to self but there is also the promise of new life, of abundant life, of resurrection, of a new world order where all shall have what they need to flourish.
Knowing how the story ends helps – as disciples we are called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses but we’re also secure in the knowledge that death gives away to new life, new possibilities and new chances.
Will you pray with me?
Lord Jesus, Messiah, anointed one, Christ,
You call us to follow you by denying ourselves
and taking up our crosses,
inspire us by your persistent love
that, being steadfast in the face of death and denial,
we may also know the place of resurrection in our lives,
in your name, Amen.