My sermon from September 16, 2012
Every time Jesus asks the disciples a question in scripture, my heart goes out to them in sympathy. Because they never answer it correctly. The disciples are our stand-ins, and one of the narrative devices in the Gospel that allows Jesus to get his message across is to contrast it with the testimony of us poor mortals. Today is, perhaps, the rare exception, when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” A safe question—just repeating hearsay. Other people say Jesus is Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets… you don’t have to take a stand to respond to “Who do people say that I am?”
But then Jesus gets personal. “But who do you say that I am?” Now it’s personal. Now you aren’t just providing information, you’re laying yourself out there. Who do you say that Jesus is? What word, what title comes to mind for you? What would you say if you were in Caesarea Phillipi that day with Jesus?
When I imagine this scene in my mind, I imagine there is a very long pause after Jesus asks that question. I imagine them all looking around at each other… because of course, they’ve talked about this among themselves, when Jesus wasn’t present. They’ve debated if he’s the Messiah, or the Son of Man, or the Son of God, or a reincarnation of Elijah or another prophet. But now he’s asking them to go on the record. They’re hoping they know who Jesus is… but what if they’re wrong?
And so it’s into that void—that awkward, tense, silent void, where everyone is looking at everyone else and hoping that someone else will pipe up, that Peter takes the risk and speaks. “You are the Messiah.” And that affirmation turns into a gateway—it allows Jesus to move forward with a more in-depth explanation of why and where he is leading them.
And then Jesus begins the first of several predictions in the next chapters of Mark’s gospel about what it means to be the Messiah: his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. And Peter, poor Peter, high on the excitement of finally, for once, answering a question correctly, descends into the seduction of rebuking Jesus and trying to redirect him away from suffering, away from the cross. Peter wants things to be easier, Peter wants to avoid conflict, Peter wants to find another way to the Kingdom of God. A way that doesn’t involved rejection and shame and death. Peter wants the type of Messiah he’s been dreaming of, not the type of Messiah Jesus will actually prove to be. But of course, Jesus doesn’t only prophesy his sufferings today, he also prophesies his resurrection.
I know how sometimes when I’m listening to someone and they say something provocative I stop listening to what they’re continuing to say and get kind of stuck on the first or second thing they said. And so I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus say “and after three days rise again.” Did Peter get so hung up on Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death that he missed the resolution of the story?
When Jesus comes to us and says “suffering and death are coming,” how do we respond? There will be suffering, there will be death in this mortal life. But Jesus is also, here, promising his resurrection, and if we get so hung up on the first things he says that we miss the end we are going to be like Peter and miss the point: resurrection follows death. Death does not have the last word, for Jesus, or for Peter, or for us. And so you can only understand the context of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering if you also understand that they don’t have the final word; perhaps the reason that Jesus cautions the disciples not to share his identity as the Messiah (and many other signs and healings throughout Mark’s gospel) is because there’s this arc to his story that doesn’t make sense if you only see one part of it. If you only know Jesus the healer and miracle worker, you can start thinking of him as almost a magician—he does the magic tricks with five loaves and two fish or healing the blind and the lame but it’s a very functionalist understanding of who Jesus is. And if you only see Jesus during his suffering and rejection and crucifixion, that is Good News for us when we are suffering and see ourselves in Christ’s passion and viceversa, but it doesn’t give us a complete picture of who Jesus is or who we are. And if you only encounter the Jesus of the resurrection, without the awareness of the cost he has borne to get to that point, and the teachings that guide the earthly life, then you’re only seeing a very simplified reduction of the Messiah. It’s like there are three chapters to Jesus’ identity, and Peter cannot comprehend the second and third chapters of Jesus as Messiah because he has only encountered the first chapter so far.
Now as a parish this week we experienced a death. The death of a Peter, in fact—Peter Smith, to be exact, who lived a long and vivid and varied life before finding out just how hard it could be to have Jesus tell him to take up his cross. He was quite public about his story, sharing it with many of us at gatherings, including just last Saturday at our Stewardship Workshop. Peter encountered faith as a younger man in England through the Reverend John Stott, perhaps the greatest Anglican Evanglical of the late 20th Century, a big theologian, a committed evangelist for sharing the Gospel around the world, and the Anglican link to Billy Graham, whom he counted as a friend. Stott told Peter , in the midst of a young man’s life of privilege and debauchery, that he just needed to believe. So Peter tried to believe, and found a community that engaged and enlightened him. Years passed, and Peter came into our church’s life about a year ago after losing both his son and his wife in the past year. He had discovered what it was to suffer. A lot. He had taken up his cross—or had the cross thrust upon him, more accurately, and was looking for Jesus to follow.
He spoke so openly and so eloquently about his desire to find his faith again. To really come back to believe that the very God who had let his wife and son die could be a loving God of resurrection. To believe in the whole Messiah, and not just the first chapter that he had encountered before. To find God in the suffering, not despite the suffering, and to really believe in that promise of resurrection and gaining your whole life.
The central chapter in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is the cross. We look back from the cross to the teachings, and ahead to the resurrection, but it’s the cross that joins them. And if we find Simon Peters in our lives who try to put blinders on us to cover up the suffering that is in front of us, or who try to convince us to walk the safe path rather than the Christian path, we have to, like Jesus, reject that advice. But as we encounter suffering and death on our path, we cling to Jesus’ witness that it is not the final word in our lives or in our world. And I think Peter Smith found that here—from the outpouring of love and affection for him that I’ve heard in response to his death, I know he felt loved and knew there was a home for him here, in our community, to share our joy and make it is own.
Peter’s spiritual mentor, John Stott, put it like this: “The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.”
Now Bishop Sisk, who firmly believes that only the words in the Prayer Book should be said at worship, and that if you deviate from them, you will be punished, always begins the Creed at our annual clergy renewal of vows with words that do not come from the prayer book, but they are so beautiful that I guess even Bishop Sisk knows they should be shared. John Stott told Peter to believe. Bishop Sisk tells us, “My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say… we believe…” and then goes into the Nicene Creed. It is only through love that we can believe. So I invite you today to stand up now. My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say, “We believe in one God….”