I have every sympathy with Peter in this text. He is caught up in a very exciting moment. Jesus just asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the first to speak the truth. “You are the messiah, the Christ,” he answers Jesus. Peter senses the long-awaited moment when the world will be made right, he is witness to the turning point of humanity, he is a part of history being made. But he quickly becomes uneasy as Jesus begins to lay out the future. Jesus says he’s going to suffer, the religious leaders are going to unite against him and kill him, and after three days he will rise from the dead.
When Jesus finishes, Peter has the audacity to pull Jesus aside and rebuke him. He just said, “You are the messiah,” but Peter is not above giving the messiah a little advice. “Pastor, we appreciate your sermons and your commitment, but that’s not how life is in the real world.” This does not fit with what the focus groups and polls say about the messiah Jesus. This will not help you with swing voters. You need a slogan like “A New Deal, Its Morning in Israel, A Bridge to the Future, Yes we Can, Make Israel Great Again, I’m with…well, anything but this crazy plan to go to Jerusalem and get killed.”
While there wasn’t the 21st century sophistication of political campaigns that include pollsters, target mailings, and scripted campaign appearances, even in the first century there was a script people expected the messiah to follow. Peter was speaking for that script. Do what the Maccabbees did. Raise a guerilla army and take over Jerusalem. Unite the religious leaders behind you and throw off the yoke of the Romans. Help us fulfill our spiritual and nationalistic ambitions and restore the Golden age of David. Be our King. Liberate us like Moses did.
Plenty of leaders tried to follow that script. Many scholars think that Mark’s Gospel was written about time when the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 AD, just 40 years after Jesus’ death. A group of rebels did manage to seize power in Jerusalem in 66 AD, which led to Roman legions coming and laying waste to the Temple as punishment. Jesus understood the power of marching feet and sharp steel. I’ll bet many of you saw the classic movie Spartacus, where Kirk Douglas played the leader of a slave revolt against Rome. The historical Spartacus managed to recruit 120,000 slaves to his cause and defeated the Roman legions for about 3 years before being utterly crushed. It likely that Jesus knew about Spartacus, who died in battle in 71 BCE. The Romans crucified 6000 captured slaves to make sure everyone knew about Spartacus. When Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” to Peter, he is rejecting the traditional script and throwing out all the expected campaign slogans and focus groups. Jesus correctly sees that such a script will lead to more violence and bloodshed and ultimately defeat. He will not be the Warrior Hero Messiah. Instead, he would be the Suffering Servant.
So the question comes again, “Who do you say that I am?” How might I go about answering this question today? I have empathy for Peter, for like him, I can be quick with the correct theological answer, but stubbornly slow at realizing the implications of the answer. Some questions require so much more of us than the correct answer; they require a reassessment and rearranging of our very lives. I wish the Christian faith could be an intellectual journey and then I could do my research and write about who Jesus is. I could even put together a list of important moral imperatives and ethical implications of Christ’s life. I wish the Christian faith could
be an assurance of happiness and success. I like the comfort of the Protestant work ethic, so that I could believe any comfort of a nice home and financial security was a sign of God’s blessing, that I am one of the chosen. I wish this journey was therapeutic, that I could talk to a wise counselor who would help me resolve all my issues, and that with some daily yoga and meditation I would be happy and at peace.
But I think there is more to answering Jesus than any of these paths. Jesus chose to enter into the fullness of human life, including the immense suffering, agony and travails of tears. He answered these great trials with his life. I do not merely mean that he died on the cross. Jesus was in agony and filled with compassion for the suffering long before the reality of the cross. Jesus was with the lepers, the hungry, the demon possessed, the widows, orphans and adulterers long before the cross.
If Peter was paying attention, he shouldn’t have been surprised to here Jesus talk about his death. If you have been following our readings this month in Mark’s Gospel, you have probably noted that Jesus is having some major conflicts with the religious leaders; the elders, scribes and Pharisees. In fact, in the first 8 chapters of Mark, Jesus has already had 9 major clashes with these groups. In chapter 3, we already know the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to kill him and in chapter 6 we found out that John the Baptist has been beheaded for his preaching. So it is no secret that the religious and political elite want to kill Jesus. Martin Luther King knew for months that someone was going to kill him. It wasn’t a death wish, it was simply watching what washappening. But at this point in Mark’s Gospel, the nature of Jesus’s messianic mission is utterly unfathomable to Peter or anyone else. When the messiah goes off and get killed it looks like failure, not success.
The original understanding of the word martyr in Greek culture referred to a person who was asked to be a witness in court to something they had seen happen. The first Christians that were executed for their faith were first sentenced to death in court. The word martyr was applied to them because they were there to witness to what they had seen and heard, that Jesus had raised from the dead and that the power of God love’s they had found in Christ could transform our lives. So many lost their lives this way that martyr came to mean “one who was killed for their faith.” When the importance of the death becomes more important than the sense of witnessing to the reality of God, then martyrdom becomes psychopathic, and people can be driven by a martyr complex. Jesus did not have a martyr complex. In Gethsemane, before his crucifixion, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but yours, God.” Jesus accepts death if it is a part of God’s plan to bring new life to humanity, but he does not seek death.
The notion that we must punish ourselves to be acceptable to God and that we should avoid earthly pleasure is an incompatible concept with what Jesus taught about God’s love and forgiveness. This destructive theology of martyrdom is a more a symptom of post-traumatic stress. When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” he was not glorifying death as a path to God. He was challenging people to live out the truth without fear of what society or the powerful elite thought of them. Take up cross –don’t be afraid of failure, don’t be afraid of loss, suffering or even death. Do our part without fear and seek fullness of life. Christianity costs us something. It is not merely an easy path to personal growth and self-fulfillment. Its much bigger than that. Jesus said to take stock before following him. Just as a builder would count the cost of putting up a building so the money doesn’t run out in the middle, we need to go the distance with faith. The next to the last paragraph of the UCC Statement of faith reads:
You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants
in the service of others, to proclaim the Gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.