2/25/18: Who Do You Say That I Am? Mark 8:27-38
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Second in the series: Crucial Questions
First Lesson: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Second Lesson: Mark 8:27-38
Rev. Scott Dickison
Last week we began our Lenten sermon focus on question asking. It so happens that each of the lectionary texts we’re given over these six week includes a question of some kind. In some cases, like our scripture today from Mark, there are several questions. And our working assumption in all of this is that questions are a perfect vehicle for the gospel because questions—or good questions, at least—dislocate us from our usual modes of thinking and even feeling, and open up space for us to consider something new, which is the project of this season of Easter preparation in the first place.
You can almost think of the Gospel of Mark as a two-act play. This is the beginning of the second act and it mirrors the beginning of the first. You’ll remember that the Gospel begins abruptly with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.” Then John the Baptist appears there at the River Jordan, with Jesus joining him in the waters. The Spirit promptly drives Jesus out into his own wilderness, and when he returns, he comes to Galilee and begins to proclaim the nearness of God. He goes to the lake shore, calls after a few fisherman and invite them to come and join him in this mission, who immediately drop their nets to follow after him, and we’re off: the story of Jesus has begun. All of this happens in the span of 20 verses at the beginning of Mark, setting the stage for the story ahead: introducing characters and themes that will be teased out later. It’s a kind of prologue to the book—an overture in musical terms. And here at the beginning of Act Two we have a similar prologue or overture.
We’re once again “on the way,” though just where on the way has changed. We’re no longer preparing a way in the wilderness, but on the way to Jerusalem; moving from the margins of the region of Palestine down Southward to its center to confront the powers there. And where the first act begins with the voice from heaven telling Jesus who he is, now the question of Jesus’ identity is again raised, this time by Jesus himself. And it comes in the form of a question to his disciples: Who do you say that I am?
This is the great question of Mark’s Gospel: who is this mysterious Jesus: Who calls people and they immediately answer?
Who casts out demons and heals the sick?
Who calms the storm and raises the dead—who is he?
And just as important, what does it mean for him to be who he is?
As Ched Myers put it in his landmark commentary on Mark, the answer to this question of Jesus’ identity is “the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances.” But not only that, “upon our answer hangs the character of Christianity in the world.”
I’m haunted by this. In other words, Jesus being the God’s Beloved Son, come to proclaim the nearness of God, is one thing—an important thing. But it’s another thing for us, his followers, to understand just what this means, and what it means for us, otherwise we risk being people of a different gospel—a lesser gospel. And it’s the line between these two that Peter walks.
He gets the first part right. He steps up and answers for the rest of them, whom you might imagine just kind of looking at each other or at the ground, trying not to make eye contact—like in our house when Audrey or I ask, Who did this? Even the baby looks away.
You’re the Messiah, he declares. Or as it actually says in the Greek, the Christ. But the question is, what does he think that means?
In Hebrew, the title of messiah simply means “God’s anointed.” The Greek translation—Christos, from which we get Christ—means the same. In the Old Testament the title of messiah refers to anyone who’s been marked by God’s blessing or consecrated into some kind of high office, which was done ceremonially through anointing with oil. It could refer to priests, but more often, kings. King David was the prototype for God’s messiah. But by the time we get to the birth of Jesus, the term had taken on a new meaning. The line of Israelite Kings had long-since fallen. The people of Israel had been overtaken by foreign power after foreign power—this time it was the Romans. They were an oppressed people and longed for a day when they would be free from foreign imperial control. And so they saw in the prophets and the psalms a vision for a future messiah of God; a great king, a strong man, sent with the authority of God who would defeat the foreign powers and reestablish the line of David and the Kingdom of God as they knew it, which was the earthly Kingdom of Israel. Then everything would be better. It’d be like it was in the good old days, when things were as they should be—you see, this hope for the future was actually a return to a distant, and as is always the case, fictitious past.
But God isn’t interested in a return to a past that never existed in the first place. The Christian story proclaims that God instead dreamed of something entirely new. And so the Messiah who would lead them in this newness couldn’t be like the messiahs of old.
Jesus seems to know that Peter and the rest of them didn’t understand this just yet and so he tells them not to speak of it to anyone, and then he begins to explain just how different this business of being God’s New and Final Messiah would be.
He tells them how this Messiah would invert their notions of power and strength and authority. He would be not a strong-man leading through force or intimidation, but would instead undergo walk the path of non-violence and endure great suffering for it. He wouldn’t be celebrated by the well-heeled and well-credentialed, but instead would be rejected as an embarrassment and killed, thrown in a forgotten grave. In short, he would not win. By any standards available at the time, he would lose—and this is how it must be.
And Mark tells us he says all of these things “quite openly.” Do you see the contrast here? On the one hand, the secrecy about being the Messiah, but on the other, the “quite open” teaching about suffering and death? This is the part they needed to understand, lest they perpetuate the myth of how God works in the world. This is critical to understanding what it means for Jesus to be God’s anointed, and what it means to follow him.
And so it’s understandable that Peter would have none of it—who among us would?! He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him! The only other times in the gospel something or someone is rebuked, it’s Jesus rebuking the winds and the waves over the Sea of Galilee or rebuking demons when he casts them out. Jesus whirls around and looks at the disciples to make sure they’re watching, rebukes Peter and tells him, Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things! In other words: You still don’t get it. Then he gathers the rest of them and anyone else would listen and tells them, If anyone here wants to follow me, they should deny themselves and take up their cross. 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 is it to gain the whole world but lose your life?
And thus the prologue to the Second Act is over, and Jesus and his disciples—still not altogether clear about what this all means—set out to make their way to Jerusalem.
And we’re still not clear what all this means. We in the church, I mean. We don’t know what to make of a Suffering, Crucified Messiah—when we’re honest this isn’t the Messiah we’d prefer. Most days we’d rather got for the more conventional version. And neither do self-denial and taking up crosses come easy for most of us, and even more than that, it’s often the case these notions are used to justify the suffering of others. How many abused women and marginalized people through the years have been told to stay in their place because their suffering is for Christ? That they should deny their own needs and wants and futures, that this is their cross to bear? We’ve got to be careful with these things, and remember Jesus didn't seek suffering and didn’t ask his followers to seek it either. And he always, always stands with the abused, not the abuser. It’s just when you live a life like Jesus, a life committed to the way of loving service to others, a life of standing up to those traditional notions of power and strength that are defined by violence and self-protection, suffering has a way of finding you.
But so does abundant life. The kind of life that’s worth living in the first place—and this is the part we tend to miss in all of this. The point of all of this: the questions Jesus asks the disciples, the talk of what it means to be the Messiah and all that will happen to him, the suffering and death and the invitation to join him—and even on a larger scale, the whole reimagining of what it means to be God’s incarnate presence in the world, the great divine experiment that is Jesus—all it has to do with life, and how we can live it, not death. The mystery of it all is that to live this kind of life, which can only be lived completely when all others are able to live it to, well, this kind of life requires a kind of death. Not a physical death—though the promise of life beyond the limits of this world is a comfort and part of the story, too. But death of another kind. A dying to certain things. A loss. I laying aside of one way, of one kind if life or living, in order to pick up another. It’s in the story of Jesus that we find this mysterious, holy interplay between loss and new life.
We’ve made available a Lenten devotional this year that pairs Scripture with the poetry of Mary Oliver, who you’ve heard quote plenty of times from this pulpit. This week’s devotional paired this passage from Mark with a poem entitled “In Blackwater Woods.” Like so many of her poems, this one finds the poet in the woods and looking at the trees over a pond, how they’re “giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,” and
“the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders of the ponds.” Which leads her to reflect on how the whole forest turns itself over each year with the change of seasons, year after year. The whole forest, she comes to understand, is a testament to loss, but also to life, and how the two are interwoven.
At the poem’s end she writes,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
To hold what is mortal, knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
When we speak of these traditional notions of power and strength, we argue that they’re simply the natural way of things: the strongest survive, hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed. And those things are certainly found in the natural world. But isn’t it true that underneath these things, hidden in the very ground upon which we walk, is an even more natural way? The way of gentle handing over.
The way of loving deeply and then when the time comes, letting go.
And don’t we find in this letting go, that new life already grows within us? In the way we feel the world? In the way we know, deep down, we’re a part of it. In the way that, through our loss, we’ve somehow claimed our place, as she says in another poem, in the family of things? And don’t we learn, most times the hard way, that despite our impulses, it’s in holding on, tightly, that we lose whatever it is we hope to keep?
When I think of the losses in my own life, and the ways my world was turned upside down, when I finally got to some other side—and there is another side—it really was in the letting go that life came and found me. I didn’t find it. It found me.
Isn’t this strength of a different sort? Isn’t it finally more powerful than anything else?
Is it possible this is what God had in mind the whole time?
What do you think?
 Ched Myers’ landmark, Binding of the Strong ManL A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, explains the structure of Mark beautifully, and was immensely helpful for me here.
 Myers, 237-238
 Myers, 235
 William Platcher, Mark, from the Belief series, 116
 Anna Case Winters, Matthew, from the Belief series, 211