The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Mark 8:27-38
Reading: Mark 8:27-38
In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have, in our Gospel reading for this week, reached a turning point. St Mark has been describing Jesus’ ministry. He has selected incidents and encounters of Jesus with people to illustrate it. Whatever else, Jesus has made an impact.
The reaction of the ordinary people to Jesus has been positive. The crowds have responded enthusiastically both to Jesus’ teaching and to his ability to heal and cast out demons. Everywhere Jesus goes the crowds rush to see him. In our Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, we read how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute (Mark 7:31-37). St Mark describes the reaction of those who saw it in a way that sums up popular opinion of Jesus. St Mark writes:
‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”’ (Mark 7:37)
The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, however, has been anything but positive. They have already had several serious arguments with Jesus: over his claim to have authority to forgive sins and to interpret God’s Law; over his breaking, as they see it, of the sabbath commandment; and over his rejection of the ‘tradition of the elders’. They can’t deny that Jesus has done some amazing things: they have themselves seen him do them. They have tried instead to explain them away as Jesus working in collaboration with Satan (Mark 3:19-30).
The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus is not just about a difference of opinions. The Pharisees and scribes see him as a dangerous threat to what they genuinely believe in. St Mark has told us that they are so opposed to what Jesus is teaching that they have entered into an alliance with the ‘Herodians’ in order to ‘destroy him’ (Mark 3:6).
The Herodians are those who are loyal to King Herod, who is the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. King Herod has been responsible for the arrest and death of John the Baptist. King Herod himself thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him, and he is not the only one to think that this is who Jesus is (Mark 6:14-16). Given Jesus’ close association with John the Baptist, the threat to Jesus is both clear and real.
It is important to see Jesus in this context if we are to appreciate where Jesus is at this point in his ministry. Jesus is popular, but the threat to him is very real. Seeing how real the threat is to Jesus helps us to understand the disciples a bit more.
Unfortunately, we have allowed ourselves to get the impression that Peter and his fellow disciples were weak people, even cowards, who had deserted Jesus because they were frightened of dying. This might fit well in sermons in which preachers want to encourage us to be brave and faithful, but it is not the picture of the disciples that emerges in the Gospels.
The disciples have left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28), something which Jesus himself acknowledges (Mark 10:29-31). They have been willing to make real sacrifices to follow Jesus out of a hope that he was the Messiah. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection put it:
‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21)
In the disciples’ minds, Israel wasn't going to be ‘redeemed’, that is, freed from pagan rule, without a fight and this, as Israel’s history showed all too clearly, would mean martyrs and death. If King Herod had not allowed John to go free, why would his attitude to John’s close associate be any different? The Pharisees and scribes know they have a powerful ally in the supporters of King Herod. Jesus’ disciples probably didn't want to die any more than we do, but it is important for us to see that in committing themselves to Jesus, given the hopes they had of him, they must have known there was a strong possibility that they were in real danger.
It is against this background, then, that St Mark tells us in our Gospel reading that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it had been called Paneas, after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip had enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It is against this background, then, that Jesus asks his disciples:
‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)
As Jesus’ name has become known, there has been much speculation as to his identity (Mark 6:14-16). As St Mark has already told us, some think Jesus is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as Elijah; still others, as one of the prophets. The disciples report these various opinions of him to Jesus. Jesus then asks them directly:
‘But who do you [in Greek it is plural] say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)
Peter answers him:
‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)
St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, therefore, is a massively important moment.
What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see, even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship and the Roman rulers who brought it with them, evidence of which was all around them. Jesus would be the One who would turn the pagans instead to worship the God of Israel. The disciples were looking forward to the day when God’s promises to Israel through the prophets would be fulfilled and their oppression would come to an end.
A passage from the Psalms of Solomon, which were written in the first century BC just before the time of Christ, gives an indication of what many people were hoping for:
‘See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth …’ (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-26)
‘You are the Messiah’, we have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would help set Israel free and get rid of the pagan gods. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had first joined John the Baptist and had become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus’ disciples saw themselves in their day much as the Taliban have seen themselves in ours. Rome was the America of its day. Rome had great power. The disciples were just a small group of potential freedom fighters, but they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed. In the past, the Jews, under the Maccabees, had fought and defeated one great Empire. Imagine what they could do with God’s Anointed leading them!
Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he is saying, ‘You are the One to lead us against all this and who will rid us of it’.
And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was both right and wrong at the same time.
Jesus has himself invited Peter’s answer, and it is obviously the right one. Jesus’ next words, then, come as something of a surprise:
‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)
‘Not telling anyone about him’ has been a theme in St Mark’s Gospel so far. Of course, it could all be about strategy: Jesus could be waiting for the right moment to reveal who he actually is and so take the Romans by surprise. Jesus, however, does not only order them to keep quiet about who he is. Immediately after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while the disciples are still on an emotional high, Jesus goes on to say something truly shocking. St Mark writes:
‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)
In other words, Jesus knows he won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will Jesus not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.
St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. There was no doubt in Peter and his fellow disciples’ minds who the enemy was. Here, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, they could see the enemy all too clearly. The Messiah was the One who was going to free them from all this.
Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about it by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, albeit misguided, words of an over-zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God. But Satan knows only too well how humans think and how to get them to do his will.
It is not Pan and the pagan gods or Caesar and the Romans who are the real enemy, the real enemy is far more dangerous, and, at this moment, Peter has become his representative and he, the chief apostle, is leading the attack on Jesus on his behalf.
Having first rebuked Peter, Jesus acts decisively. He calls, not only his disciples, but also the crowds to him. Now is the moment for Jesus to make absolutely clear what following him means and where it will lead. Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).
What would the phrase ‘take up your cross’ have meant to anyone who heard it? The answer is that it would have struck terror into their hearts. We have grown used to hearing about crucifixion, and crosses are everywhere. We even wear them as jewellery! The image of the Cross itself has little emotional impact on us. This is not how it was in the time of Jesus.
Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they also had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.
Jesus is telling anyone who wants to be his follower: ‘Yes, there is going to be death’, it is not, however, the pagan Romans who must die, but Jesus’ followers, and Jesus himself is going to lead the way to the place of death.
Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as one possible outcome. If they want to follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to take up their cross willingly and deny themselves deliberately. Their goal in life isn’t to be success and glory. Jesus, by using the image of the cross, is telling them that they must live as people who have accepted that there is to be no hope of success and glory in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.
Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, he is telling us that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.
It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world, who are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who, for Jesus’ sake, abandon seeking what they want in this life who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:
‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words 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.’ (Mark 8:38)
Jesus tells them that they must not be ashamed of either him or his words. Peter is ashamed. It was not how the Messiah was expected to think and speak. And to his shame, Peter has spoken for the enemy. Jesus, however, has now named the real enemies and exposed them: the real enemies are self and Satan.
Satan does indeed know how humans think and throughout the history of the human race, nothing has changed. Satan’s strategy has been the same from the beginning. In the book of Genesis, we read how, in the Garden of Eden, Satan sought to persuade Adam and Eve to turn from God and to turn instead to themselves and to what they wanted. He told them they should not listen to what God had said, but to pursue what they found pleasing and fulfilling.
In paganism, Satan gave humans gods that were a projection of themselves and of their own drives and desires. People worshipped these gods recognizing themselves in them. Satan’s most audacious move, however, is now being played out all around us. Tragically, we have either not seen it or have fallen for it, because, as with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we find it hard to resist what Satan is offering us. It appeals to our pride, our conceit, and our desire to be free from constraint. In the past, we were offered gods who mirrored our desires and who promised to satisfy them, now we are encouraged to worship ourselves and to follow our feelings.
Recently, I have been reading St Catherine of Siena. Saint Catherine is a 14th century saint. (I will say more about her another time.) St Catherine’s most famous work is her book, The Dialogue. This is a series of conversations between St Catherine and God.
During these conversations, God says to St Catherine, ‘I am he who is; you are she who is not’. When I first came across these words, I was shocked. It seemed as if God was denying that St Catherine had any value or worth as a human being. It was as if God really was the egotistical tyrant that many accuse
our God of being. If I were to say to you, ‘You are nothing’, you would be hurt and insulted. You would hear in my words contempt and rejection. But St Catherine herself heard in God’s words to her the exact opposite.
As St Catherine explains in The Dialogue, what God is saying is that he is our Creator, who has given us life and who is the One on whom we depend for our being. This is not about what we choose; it is something that simply is. As St Paul puts it, God is the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). We only have life as we have it in him. We have no life of ourselves. Whether we believe in him or not, like him or not, obey him or not, we cannot exist without him. Even as we are denying his existence, we are dependent on him for ours.
The lie that Satan wants us to believe is that we can have life without God. Satan only cares that we turn away from God. Once we have done that he doesn't need us to believe in him or consciously to worship him, he has already achieved his aim. By turning from ‘He who is’ to ourselves ‘who are not’, we are turning from him who alone can give meaning and fulfilment to our lives. We are, quite literally, turning to nothing.
By seeking the answers to life in ourselves, by believing that we can find meaning and fulfilment in ourselves and our own efforts, by thinking that we have in ourselves the resources we need to be able to pursue our goals and to satisfy our desires, we are putting our trust in he or she who is nothing. A society built on such self-belief is a society built on nothing; it is a society that has chosen death, not life.
Sadly, the Church’s message has become little more than a religious version of this Gospel of self; one that simply tells people what they want to hear. By setting our minds on human rather than divine things, the Church, like Peter, is speaking for Satan and not for God. Jesus doesn’t offer to accompany us on a journey of experience and self-discovery as we follow our dreams, rather he calls on us to follow him on his way of obedience and self-denial as we carry our cross. Jesus warns us not to be ashamed of him and his words. We need as his followers to have the courage to be honest in telling people what Jesus requires of anyone who is interested in becoming his follower.
If God was other than who He is, what Jesus is asking of us would be both frightening and beyond us. St Catherine, however, shows us there is no need to fear. St Catherine writes that not only did God create us and give us life, but that when he created us, he fell in love with us. If God were not love, the trust and obedience that Jesus asks of us would be terrible and terrifying. The One we are being asked to trust and obey, however, is not only the One who created us and sustains us in being, he is the One who loves us and longs for us to turn to him. St Catherine describes God as the ‘mad lover’. He loves us madly and completely, and he has demonstrated that love for us in Christ.
St Catherine is overwhelmed by God’s love for us. How can he love us creatures who are so wretched and sinful?
As I come into his light, I see all too clearly my sin, my failure, my weakness, and my inability to do even the good I want to do. Looking to myself, I am driven to despair for in myself I have nothing, can do nothing, and am nothing. But my hope is not in myself, my hope and trust is in my ‘mad lover’ who loves me despite who I am and what I have done, and who, in Christ, not only offers me love, but also the possibility of becoming who he created me to be.
When we see ourselves as we really are, we find it hard to believe anyone could love us. God, however, loves us despite how unlovable we are. Even though he sees us as we are, sees us better than anyone including ourselves sees us, because he loves us, he has mercy on us, and offers us in Christ forgiveness and salvation. God’s salvation is not only from our sin, but from ourselves.
‘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.’ (Mark 8:35)
May we, like St Catherine, lose our life for him and in losing it find our life in him.