“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way…”
“On the way…”
Jesus and his disciples are on the move yet again. They have returned from their sojourn in the Gentile regions of Phoenicia and the Decapolis, where they were last week, and are back in the Jewish region of Galilee, in Caesarea Philippi. This week, like last week’s readings, marks a transition. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is coming to an end. From here on, his face will be firmly set on Jerusalem, on Golgotha, on the cross. Today’s reading is the first time in Mark that Jesus predicts his impending crucifixion.
So Jesus and his disciples are “on the way” – on the way to the cross – when they stop to have a little chat.
In light of our sermon last week, I’d invite us to see Jesus as very human in this moment. I often think of Jesus’ questions as tests. For example, in this passage, when Jesus says, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “…who do you say that I am?” I imagine Jesus is testing his disciples. Have they figured it out yet?
But what if Jesus is asking genuinely? “What do people think about me? What do you, my friends think of me? Who do you say that I am?”
It’s very common to ask someone else about themselves. When we meet someone for the first time we might ask what their name is, where they live, where they’re from, what they do for work. You don’t have to be in close relationship to ask a question like that. It’s just small talk.
But to ask who someone else thinks you are? That’s an intimate question. One we often ask only those closest to us, one we only ask when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are unsure of who we are.
“Who am I?” “Who do you think I am?”
I think Jesus knows who he is, but he isn’t sure if his disciples, his best friends, know him. And so there is a genuine desire to be known and be understood as a human being, and I hear that desire in Jesus’ question. He’s been at this ministry thing for quite a while now, but, as anyone in ministry will tell you, there are times when you question your call. Is it making any difference? Do people understand what I’m trying to do?
“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks.
And then, to his closest friends, “Who do you say that I am?” Do you know me? Do you see me?
This is the beauty of the incarnation – God’s becoming human. God, in Christ, has entered into life with us, has drawn near to us, and asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”
Fortunately for Jesus, his disciples have seen him. They do know him. “You are the Messiah,” Peter says. Who knows if Peter and the other disciples had been thinking this for a while, or if the words just leapt from Peter’s mouth before he could think (that seems to be the way Peter does most of his talking – without thinking first), but he has come to know his friend Jesus for who he truly is: the Messiah. Well, kind of. He gets the title right, he gets the meaning of the title wrong.
The titles “Messiah” and “Christ” both mean “the anointed one.” “Messiah” in Hebrew and “Christ” in Greek. In the Old Testament, this term referred to an earthly king, usually in the line of David, or a high priest in the line of Aaron, Moses’ brother who was the first high priest. Over time, however, the term increasingly began to refer to a coming king or priest who would bring about God’s final redemption in the end days. This coming Messiah would be a political, military leader, a righteous judge, and – depending on the source – possibly a divine figure.
When Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” he means all of that. He’s saying that Jesus is hope of Israel incarnate. He is saying that the redemption of the earth is eminent. The Messiah would right all wrongs, reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Peter is saying that Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for. When the Messiah would come, the Israelites expected an apocalyptic reordering of the cosmos.
What they were not expecting was a suffering Messiah. This went contrary to all notions of who the Messiah would be. Today, we read about the “suffering servant” in Isaiah and connect this prophesy to Jesus, but prior to Jesus’ coming, no one made that connection. A suffering Messiah, a crucified Messiah, was unthinkable. So Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…” is completely understandable. Most likely, the other 11 disciples would have said the same thing if Peter didn’t beat them to it. As soon as Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah, he immediately expects Jesus to be something he isn’t.
This could be the reason for the “messianic secret.” Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells demons and people who know who he is, as well as many of those he heals, not to tell anyone. Scholars have puzzled over this for centuries. One theory, and I think it makes sense, is that Jesus is trying to prevent precisely what happens in this passage. As soon as Jesus is declared the Messiah, or the Son of God, people make assumptions about who he is and what that means that run contrary to who he really is. They see a certain path for him, a path of military victory and political control, not a path toward the cross.
Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know he’s the Messiah until after he’s raised from the dead. To understand who the Messiah really is, one must see the whole picture: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Messiah we declare must be the crucified Messiah. The Messiah as he really is and not as we want him to be.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter reveals that the human idea of the Messiah and the divine idea of the Messiah are incompatible. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The reason Jesus “must suffer” is that his fulfillment of what it means to truly be the Messiah will inevitably lead him into conflict with those who have other ideas of what Messiah means. It’s not that Jesus is called to suffer for the sake of suffering, but suffering will be the inevitable consequence of his obedience to God in opposition to those who obey only their own selfish desires for wealth, power, and control.
In fact, it’s Jesus’ new idea of what it means to be the Messiah that ultimately gets him killed. It’s his replacing the victorious warrior Messiah with the humble, suffering Messiah that seals his fate. When he is brought before the Jewish council, the high priest asks him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” and Jesus responds, “I am.” At this, the high priest and the council lose their minds and condemn him to death (Mark 14:61-64) because he says he’s the Messiah, but he doesn’t look the way a Messiah should look.
Instead of a political victor, he will be crucified on a cross, a punishment reserved for political enemies. Instead of a conqueror, he will suffer in solidarity with the conquered. Instead of killing his enemies, he will love them even as he is killed by them.
The Messiah will not redeem through conquest, but through solidarity.
Will not overcome through violence but through peace.
Will not hate his enemies but will wear them down with never-ending love.
The Messiah won’t hold on to wealth, to prestige, to power, or to security. The Messiah will, instead give of himself to others. This is what it means to be the “Son of Man” which some biblical translations and commentators translate, “the Human One.” This is what it means to be human.
This is what it means for us to be human. This path isn’t only for the Messiah, but also for all those who would follow him. If we are to become fully human – fully ourselves – we must follow in the way of “the Human One.” The title for those who follow Jesus, the Human One, on this path is “disciple.” When we confess Jesus as Lord, we commit ourselves to a life of discipleship. The final section of our passage today describes what it means to be a disciple.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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,[b] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[c] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This section is so important, but so dangerous. We must understand it correctly. Not to be too dramatic, but how we interpret this passage can, quite literally, be a matter of life and death.
So let me be clear:
This passage does not mean we ignore injustice for ourselves or anyone else. It does not mean that we allow abuse for ourselves or anyone else. It does not mean we devalue life, ours or anyone else’s. It does not mean that we ignore suffering, ours or anyone else’s.
This passage has been used to keep victims in abusive relationship, to keep the oppressed oppressed, and to deny the rights of the vulnerable. Those at the center have often used teachings like this one to maintain their power at the expense of those on the margins.
This is certainly not what Jesus means. He means, on the contrary, that we must fight against these things, even at great personal cost. Following Jesus will inevitably disrupt the status quo, that is why following him leads to the cross, because following Jesus will mean standing up for those on the margins, providing sanctuary for those fleeing violence, and challenging unjust laws and policies that deny the humanity of any of God’s children – whether it’s another’s humanity or our own. History has shown that to do this kind of work, to follow Jesus in radical love and hospitality, will bring us into opposition with the powers and principalities – with the crucifiers. In Jesus’ day it was the elders, chief priests, and the scribes.
One commentary I read put it this way, “The cross Jesus invites his hearers to take up refers not to the burdens life imposes from without but rather to painful, redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others.”
Here’s an example: this week I sat with other clergy who had participated in the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice’s “August of Action.” We were asked to reflect on what was “reverberating” for us as we reflected on the past month. One pastor, who had been arrested in an act of civil disobedience shared that, of all things, joy was reverberating for her. That she was shocked at how easy the work was. That she thought this past month would be hard work, but it was remarkably easy. “The burden was light,” she said. She gave of herself, risked arrest, and somehow found deep joy in her solidarity with the imprisoned men at Sheridan and NORCOR who have suffered inhumane abuses: being handcuffed for up to 26 hours, being forced to eat next to toilets, sleeping in overcrowded rooms, denied medical aid, spiritual visits, and legal assistance. I think this pastor’s story is a small window into what it means to save our lives by losing them.
Everywhere I look I see people who are lost, trying to find themselves by buying nicer clothes, nicer cars, nicer homes. Trying to save their lives by building up walls and cloistering themselves away from all who aren’t like them. Trying to find value through more social media followers, more likes on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. People constructing crosses for others instead of picking up their own. This is not the way to life, but following Jesus is.
To follow Jesus is no small task. It requires that we pick up our cross daily, that we submit our present and future to God’s leading, that we ask not “what’s best for my career, for my bank account, for my peace of mind?” but, “what is God calling me to at this place and time? What things in my life must I let die so that some new life can be born?” and that we trust wholeheartedly in Jesus, the Messiah, who leads us. We ask these questions not only as individuals, but also as a community of disciples. What is God calling us to as a church body? What are the dreams, desires, assumptions, and expectations of this faith community that we must let die so that something new can be born?
There is so much more to discipleship than Sunday mornings. Instead, I think Sunday mornings are like our reading from today. Sunday mornings are when we stop while we are “on our way” and respond to the question: who is Jesus? And we declare through our prayers, our songs, and our worship that Jesus is Lord – Jesus is the Messiah. But then, almost every Sunday, we are confronted with something about Jesus that doesn’t sit right with us, just as Peter was. And we say, “No, that can’t be right, Jesus.” I have been a Christian my whole life, I’ve read the Bible all the way through multiple times. I’ve read the Gospels more times than I could count, and yet, almost every Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I’m surprised by Jesus. He makes me uncomfortable. So, on Sunday mornings, we witness the clash of our ideas of who we think the Messiah should be and who the Messiah really is in Jesus. Then we learn from Jesus what it means to follow him, what it means to be a disciple.
But, as I’ve been saying, the life of discipleship is much bigger than Sunday mornings. So here is my challenge to you: find a time every day when you can have this conversation with Jesus. Where you can learn about what it means for him to be the Messiah, where you can wrestle with your own preconceived notions of what it means, and then learn from him what it really means. And then you can end by asking him what path he’s calling you to each day at your job, in your home, with your family and friends. What does following Jesus mean for you in your unique context? What does it mean for you to be a disciple?
Our passage this morning begins with the question of who Jesus is, but ends with a statement about who we are – or who we are to be. It begins with the Messiah and ends with the disciples. What we confess about Jesus, then, has everything to do with who we are. In his identity we find our own identity, our path is his path, his cross is our cross.
His life is our life.
 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 154.