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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 Mark’s 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! He’s been dead for at least two months!"

"Yeah," says Bartholomew. "I been hearing things too. Like that you’re Elijah. They think you must have zoomed in from heaven to have performed the kind of miracles that you’re doing."

By now, everyone of the twelve jumps in and names every name that they’ve 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, you’re the Messiah."

I admire Peter’s response. It’s bold, clear, simple. No beating around the bush. He says it right-a statement that reveals that someone’s been doing their homework on Jesus. That’s the kind of answer we’re 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 he’s 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 doesn’t.

We’re 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 "that’s terrific, Peter" response. Instead Jesus whispers, "Not one of you repeat that; you hear me? No one is to tell out that I’m 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, that’s the word they used. But who would expect Jesus to use that same word on his disciples, they weren’t demons. What’s even more puzzling, Peter actually gave Jesus the right answer? Isn’t that the answer that we would have given? Wouldn’t 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 they’ve answered with integrity, I try to avoid embarrassing them. In Matthew’s gospel, that’s how Jesus responds to Peter’s answer. In Matthew’s 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, that’s 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 that’s Matthew’s gospel. Unfortunately, we’re in Mark’s 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, I’m going to be pulled, profiled, roughed up. In fact, I won’t survive their treatment of me, but don’t worry, that won’t be the end of me, I’ll rise right back up on the third day."

Peter suddenly breaks rank and closes the twenty paces between them and Jesus. "You’re gonna do what?" Peter blurts out. "What did I hear you say, Jesus? Do you realize that you’re 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. You’re so full of yourself, you couldn’t possibly know what God’s 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, that’s the story. And we need to be careful here. This story lies at the core of Mark’s gospel; it’s placed right in the middle of the book--that’s 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. There’s some wisdom here that needs hearing.

What went wrong? Peter has the right answer, but it’s wrong! He’s 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 that’s the way Jesus treated Peter, what makes our answers about Jesus anymore right than Peter’s? 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, "We’re looking for a church that’s 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 we’re 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 Peter’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Peter’s words meant.

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.