Mark 8 27 – 38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.’
Gossip makes the world go round, and few of us can resist the latest rumours and scandals, as newspaper and magazine sales figures make clear. Even if we have ourselves been the victim of false rumours, there is always the temptation to believe stories about other people often with no evidence whatsoever. “No smoke without fire” must be one of the most depressing maxims in existence when it is applied to idle gossip, and we even manage to pass on gossip with a clear conscience long as we add the caveat “I have heardbut of course I have no idea if it is true or not. I know that this is a generalisation but I suspect all of us at some time have passed on or listened to rumours and gossip.
Jesus ministry was attended by a great many rumours. For a lot of the time he was followed about by large groups of people who had heard stories about him and, in those pre-newspaper and TV days, could only join in the gossip by actually being there. In the Gospels we hear the stories of those who come into direct contact with Jesus, but we hear very little about the others, the shadowy mass of people hanging round the edges of all the action, the hangers on. Jesus and his disciples have their hands full with people wanting his ministry and dealing with his enemies to think about the people on the fringe.
But suddenly in today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. This question is crucial and in reply, the disciples, give the best wrong answers. First, Jesus asks “Who do people say I am?” They are his friends so they do not pass on the unkind rumours that they have heard about Jesus sanity, or the suggestions about his paternity, they just pass on the acceptable gossip and they supply several of the better opinions they heard from the crowds. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Now those were good answers, but they were wrong. Why? Because all those people were dead. Jesus was not some dusty old prophet who had climbed up out of a tomb. The disciples knew Jesus was not from the grave below, but from heaven above. Jesus came not with an old message but a new one. But who was He? They weren’t sure. So Jesus forces the issue going straight to the heart of it. “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Suddenly it goes very quiet, the disciples look nervously at one another or stare down at their feet. Only Peter is prepared to risk an answer and steps forward and announces, “You are the Messiah.” That’s the right answer. For a brief moment, Peter must have basked in the glow of being Jesus’ star disciple. Yet he was about to find out he had the best worst answer. He had the right answer but for the wrong reason. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One, and the Son of the living God. In the mind of Peter the fisherman that meant revolution, conquest and victory. To Peter and others, the Messiah is a warrior hero, like David, who drives out their hated enemies, conquers all the neighbouring countries and spreads a Jewish empire defeating the Roman empire. His kingdom will last forever. His kingdom will have no end.
But when Jesus describes His true mission, it shatters Peter’s dreams. For the first time, Jesus reveals His game plan: He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. Peter has been so influenced by what everyone was saying a Messiah should be that he starts to try and contradict Jesus, “Never, Lord!” “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus, this is bad ‘Public Relations. Your approval ratings will plummet if you keep up all this negative talk about dying. We all know the Messiah will live forever. Jesus responds with a rebuke that sears deep into Peter’s soul. With the same voice He used to cast out demons, Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In other words Satan is speaking through you Peter. You are a temptation, a trap, and an obstacle in my path. That’s not God’s will, but your will.’ Peter had the Right answer for the Wrong reason. One moment Peter is a blessing, the next, a barrier. First the voice of God speaks through him and then the voice of Satan. What happened proves to us that it is possible to have all the right information about Jesus, and still be wrong. You may have a theological education and not live a Christ like life. You can sit in your pews year after year, attend all the meetings going and still not know the Lord. And there are multitudes of people out there who claim to believe in Jesus Christ or God and yet want nothing to do with His family - the Church.
And so we come to the crucial question. Who do we say that he is? Who is Jesus? An historical figure. A wise teacher. A prophet. A crazy man who taught a lot of impractical things. If that’s all He is, He’s easy to ignore, avoid, or to dismiss. He changes nothing.
But if Peter is right, if the angels who sang at Jesus birth were right, if Jesus is “the Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord” then that changes everything. If Jesus is Saviour, Christ and Lord, if that’s who Jesus is, then it changes who we are. It changes the purpose of our life. If we read on a bit in the story we see that Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Here are three crucial steps:
Step One: Deny Yourself. He doesn’t mean deny yourself something – chocolate, coffee, watching Eastenders on the TV. To deny yourself is to surrender the ownership of your life, so that God becomes the director of your life. Now why would you want to do a crazy thing like that? Because no matter how much you think you own your life, the reality is you are going to lose it one day. That’s why Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” The purpose of your life is not to acquire, accumulate, and achieve. No matter how hard you hang on to your life, you will still lose it in the end. That comes with a 100% guarantee. But if you give over the ownership of your life to Jesus, you get it back – now and for eternity. That also comes with a 100% guarantee.
Step Two: Take Up Your Cross. When a person says, “That’s just my cross to bear” they usually mean some frustrating, irritating, exasperating burden, but that is not what it means to take up your cross. In Jesus’ day, when anyone picked up a cross it meant only one thing – they were going off to die. Condemned prisoners were compelled to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. So it involved a journey of death. That is not what the disciples expected. When Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he assumed the next thing this Warrior Messiah would say is, “Take up your arms and let’s put the enemy to death.” Instead He said, “Take up your cross and put yourself to death.” In other words we need to continually put our selfish self to death. That is not a negative thing, the more we do it the freer we will become and we will have less baggage to carry.
Step Three: Follow Me. To follow Jesus is to do what Jesus did. It means to walk His walk and talk His talk. It all comes down to His question: Who do you say that I am? Now is not the time to phone a friend, or ask the congregation. We have to make our own response. There is no halfway house, we cannot have a foot in both camps. Is it My will or Thy will? My way or God’s way? Amen
15th after Trinity