September 16, 2012
Last week I mentioned the importance of geography in Mark’s gospel. We saw Jesus travel to Tyre, west of his customary stomping grounds in the Galilee. After his visit to Tyre, he traveled in a roundabout fashion, via Sidon, to the Decapolis (the ten cities) which lay east of the sea of Galilee. Again, it was Gentile territory. In today’s gospel, he is on the road again. Now he has moved north of Galilee to the region of Caesarea Philippi. It too was gentile territory, but more importantly perhaps, its name proclaims its significance.
Caesarea Philippi was originally built by Herod the Great, and dedicated to Herod’s patron, Caesar Augustus. Philip, his son and successor in this territory, continued his father’s practice of building Caesarea as a symbol of his connection with Roman power. Both used their spending in this city as a way of currying favor with Rome, demonstrating their commitment to Roman power. Herod the Great had built Roman temples, for example.
So Caesarea stood as a symbol of the Roman Empire, of its power and wealth. That Jesus asked precisely the question of his disciples that we hear him asking seems not to have been coincidental. In the shadow of Roman imperial power, Jesus queried his disciples about his identity.
Now this episode comes almost at the very middle of the gospel and it is very much shaped by Mark’s overall purpose and intent in writing the gospel.What makes this text so important in Mark’s gospel is that for one thing, this is the first time that any of Jesus’ disciples call him the Messiah. Jesus asks his friends what people think of him, and they give him all sorts of answers–Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. Clearly, Jesus is seen to be a remarkable individual, perhaps even super-human, a reincarnation of a great religious leader. But it is Peter who responds quickly and confidently to Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter replies. Yet that response, that confession of faith in Jesus as the chosen one of God, really doesn’t answer any questions. What does it mean to be the Messiah? Jesus goes on to talk about what the Messiah is, what his role is, and makes the first of several predictions of his execution in Jerusalem. It turns out that this vision of Messiah-ship is not at all what Peter had in mind when he called Jesus the Messiah. And for challenging Jesus’ re-interpretation of the role of the Messiah, Peter is sternly rebuked. What was it that so bothered Peter? That Jesus predicted the Messiah would undergo suffering and death. For Peter and his contemporaries were waiting for a Messiah to deliver the Jewish people from the occupying Roman empire. Apparently, when Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, he hoped Jesus would be that deliverer. But for Jesus, messiah-ship meant something quite different. But it is not just the notion of the Messiah that Jesus radically reinterprets. He also turns upside-down the expectations of what it meant to follow him. For if the Messiah was going to be a revolutionary, a political deliverer, then his followers would also be revolutionaries, fighting against the Roman occupation. But Jesus understands discipleship in very different terms. For Jesus, to be a disciple means to share in his suffering and death. Jesus put it quite clearly, “If you want to follow me, take up your cross and follow me.” Following Jesus means following him to the bitter end, expecting the same fate that Jesus knew was awaiting him in Jerusalem. To follow the Messiah, to follow Jesus, did not mean sharing in his glorious victory over the forces of Rome. It meant just the opposite, to share in his suffering and death. Let’s return to that interchange between Jesus and Peter and let’s think about it in a slightly different way. Think for a moment about your ordinary conception of the meaning of Jesus. What is your favorite image of Jesus, of the Messiah–the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the one who died for your sins? No doubt it is a comforting, a reassuring image, a message of hope in time of trouble. Well, of course, Jesus is those things, but that is not all he is. The Christian faith is not just about getting reassurance in times of trouble, getting a lift a when we’re down. To think of Jesus, to understand following Jesus only in those terms is to miss the mark. Peter was projecting on to Jesus an image that gave him hope; just like we all do. But how does Jesus respond to Peter? By challenging his assumptions, making him rethink his notion of what a Messiah is, by rocking his world. Peter had probably taken up with Jesus precisely because he thought here was a great opportunity to be a part of something really big. For Peter and the other disciples, Jesus was going to change the world. He had already shown what kind of power he had, healing the sick, casting out demons and the like. What would happen if he used his power on the Romans? But Jesus tells Peter, “Sorry, you just don’t get it yet.” That’s what today’s Gospel is meant to do, to challenge the way we think about ourselves and about Jesus. Jesus confronts our assumptions about him, he confronts our complacency, our everyday world and tells us, “Friends, that’s not what it means to follow me.” And then we come to what I consider the key verse in this passage: “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.” How does one go about trying to save one’s life? By losing it? If you want to, or try to, save your life, you will lose it. If you really think about what this verse is saying, you’re left wondering what to do. We can think about this literally, and that’s probably what the gospel writer intended to say, that discipleship means suffering and death, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus to his execution. But we can also think about this metaphorically. That is, we can ask ourselves what we think is most important in life, what matters most to us, what we want most deeply for ourselves and for our families. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Whatever it means, it is clear that following Jesus means giving up all of our lives, everything. And boy, that’s where it gets uncomfortable. We like to put Jesus, put our religious lives in a box, bring it out when we need it. We go to church on Sunday, we may have a rich prayer life, we may read the Bible daily. We go along, making plans, living our lives. We may come to church, sing the hymns, listen to scripture, but then along comes a gospel reading like this to shake us up. Jesus stands in front of us, asking us, like he asked Peter and the other disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” But confession is not enough, empty words, no matter how profound, don’t matter. Peter’s words were easy, because he hadn’t gotten Jesus’ point about what he was about. Okay, Jesus said, you think I’m the Messiah? Well, here’s what that means. And when Jesus made clear what messiah-ship was, Peter turned around and said that he didn’t sign up for suffering and death. We want easy answers, Jesus doesn’t give them. We want a Jesus, a God who fits tidily into our preconceptions, a God who keeps us in our comfort zone. We may even want discipleship, so long as there are no serious consequences. But here Jesus says that discipleship, following him, isn’t going to be easy; it’s going to shatter our world, shake up our complacency. What does it mean to follow Jesus? For Mark’s readers, for Peter, it meant walking the road to martyrdom. What does it mean for us? How does Jesus challenge the core of our existence? Where is he asking us to follow him?