On the Way
a sermon based on Mark 8:31-38
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Mark pulls us right up to the stage so we can
see the disciples traveling on the way that leads to Jerusalem. The dust of the
road forms a small tornado as twelve pairs of sandals follow behind their Leader. Jesus is
out in front walking twenty paces ahead. Disciples always walked behind their rabbis as a
sign of respect. The long silence of the journey is broken as Jesus suddenly spins around
still walking and says, "Hey, guys, what are you hearing about me these days?"
Up to this point in Marks story, no one is quite sure who Jesus is-except the
riff-raff and demonized. But they have their suspicions.
"Well," says one, "I heard some superstitious donkey peddlers saying
that you must be John the Baptist! Can you believe it! Hes been dead for at least
"Yeah," says Bartholomew. "I been hearing things too. Like that
youre Elijah. They think you must have zoomed in from heaven to have performed the
kind of miracles that youre doing."
By now, everyone of the twelve jumps in and names every name that theyve heard
over the past year about who Jesus is. But the question takes a rather serious turn when
Jesus asks, "and whom do you say I am?" Peter finally blurts it out.
"Why, youre the Messiah."
I admire Peters response. Its bold, clear, simple. No beating around the
bush. He says it right-a statement that reveals that someones been doing their
homework on Jesus. Thats the kind of answer were looking for around here. That
answer could land him a place on our Mission and Evangelism team. That answer might even
make us suspect that maybe hes been called to the ordained ministry. That answer
would qualify him to teach our children in Sunday School. Jesus has asked, "Who do
you say that I am?" And Peter, speaking for all of us, says, "You are the
Christ." That should end the discussion.
But it doesnt.
Were in for a no fists-barred, knockdown, drag-out argument-the worst argument in
the entire ministry of Jesus.
Peter says, "You are the Messiah." Jesus response has no affirmation, no
comfort, no "thats terrific, Peter" response. Instead Jesus whispers,
"Not one of you repeat that; you hear me? No one is to tell out that Im the
Messiah." Truth be known, Jesus hushes Peter with the Greek word, epitimao, which
carries the idea of ordering someone around. When demons got out of hand, Jesus used that
word to silence them. He commanded demons to come out of people and to be muzzled, or
silenced. When his family thought that Jesus had lost his mind, thats the word they
used. But who would expect Jesus to use that same word on his disciples, they werent
demons. Whats even more puzzling, Peter actually gave Jesus the right answer?
Isnt that the answer that we would have given? Wouldnt we have said, "Why
Mr. Jesus, we believe you to be the Messiah, the Savior." Seems to me as if Jesus got
out on the wrong side of bed. He seems much too harsh on his followers.
When a student of mine gives an appropriate answer, I always affirm them. Even when an
answer is off the wall, if theyve answered with integrity, I try to avoid
embarrassing them. In Matthews gospel, thats how Jesus responds to
Peters answer. In Matthews story, Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I
am?" And when Peter says "You are the Messiah," Jesus response? Why
Jesus praises Peter-just like we would have. "Why good for you, Peter, thats
exactly right," Jesus says. "Bingo." "Peter, your answer proves that
God has been helping you to understand who I am." Right then and there Jesus gives
the keys of the kingdom to Peter. But thats Matthews gospel. Unfortunately,
were in Marks gospel this morning and for us the plot only thickens.
About ten minutes later, Jesus begins to give them a little travelogue, a little
preview of coming attractions. "Now when we get to Jerusalem, Im going to be
pulled, profiled, roughed up. In fact, I wont survive their treatment of me, but
dont worry, that wont be the end of me, Ill rise right back up on the
Peter suddenly breaks rank and closes the twenty paces between them and Jesus.
"Youre gonna do what?" Peter blurts out. "What did I hear you
say, Jesus? Do you realize that youre going to break the morale of the rest of these
guys? Are you hard of hearing? Hallo! !I just got done saying that you are the Messiah.
And what do you go and do, but start talking about getting yourself murdered. Stop with
this nonsense. Remember, You are the Messiah."
Jesus looks to the side and notices the stunned look on the other disciples
faces. Then he wheels around a full 180 degrees with rage reserved only for Satan.
"Outta here, Satan. Youre so full of yourself, you couldnt possibly know
what Gods will is for me." Adding insult to injury, Jesus then summons right
then and there anyone within earshot to come to hear him make an announcement. Soon a
large crowd of fellow travelers swarm around him. He screams out into the open air:
"Listen, if anyone wants to come along with me," he told them, "you have to
carry your own cross just like me, and follow me--wherever I go. For whoever wants to save
their own skin will lose it; but whoever gives their life away for me and for the gospel
will save it."
Well, thats the story. And we need to be careful here. This story lies at the
core of Marks gospel; its placed right in the middle of the book--thats
the equivalent of placing ambulance and police sirens around it. Or grenades and mines.
For the earliest Christians, this story was not just another episode in an otherwise
routine day of travel. Theres some wisdom here that needs hearing.
What went wrong? Peter has the right answer, but its wrong! Hes given the
answer that any of us would have given. Jesus is not to us some Elijah or John the
Baptist, but the Messiah, the One whom God has sent into the world, conceived of the Holy
Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate. We own that answer. So why
the rebuke? Why this scolding "shut-up" kind of response to the very answer that
Jesus must have expected? If thats the way Jesus treated Peter, what makes our
answers about Jesus anymore right than Peters? A confusing story. Seems to tell us
that we can have the textbook answer, pass the test and fail the class. Peter had the
right answer, but is dead wrong.
Could it be that what Peter is really saying by his answer is that Jesus is the
Messiah--who will run the Romans out of town and set them up in a new society when they
arrive in Jerusalem? "You are the Messiah, the one who has come to meet our needs and
to fix whatever needs fixing," Peter seems to mean. Jesus challenges his disciples to
rearrange their ideas about him.
But what does this story mean to us? In a recent Doonesbury strip, a Yuppie,
church-shopping couple is shocked to hear an otherwise fine preacher use the word
"sin." As they leave church, they say, "Were looking for a church
thats supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves." Could it be
that we also face the same temptation? To reduce those words to a softer, gentler meaning
to us; to say our words week after week in this place, to sing them, pray them, and preach
them, yet to forget what those words-Jesus, you are the Messiah-say about us and what they
require of us? What does it mean to say, "Jesus, you are the Messiah at this church?
You are my Messiah?" Do those words mean to us that we should attend church
some of the time, volunteer occasionally-as long as were not inconvenienced, and
measure everything by our preferences?
The Jesus of the miracles in Mark we know. But have we embraced the word of the cross?
To truly say those words means that we could never be satisfied again with a silent
Christian faith, with a low-priority place for our faith. If we could grow into
Peters response-how would our churches change? How would we change? We would have a
problem on our hands: so many of us would volunteer to open their homes for our small care
groups that we wouldnt have anyone left to attend! There would be a groundswell of
Christians at the Peace Marches around the country and world to add our investment in
peace and not war with Iraq. Missions & Evangelism team would have a waiting list of
persons to join-because we suddenly realized that we had truly wonderful news to share
with our world. We would have to expand our nursery just to accommodate all of those
volunteering to help nurture our youngest members. Everything we would do around here
would not be a job, but a ministry. Our church could not hold-even with two services-the
neighbors that would come because we grew in our understanding of what Peters words
A word to the wise: go ahead! Say those words every day of your life and
begin to discover what they mean; through small groups, faithful witness, and
prayer, we can truly grow into the right answer to the question, "Who do you say
that I am?" Amen.