On the Way
Pentecost 17 B / Proper 19 September 16, 2018
Isaiah 50:4-9a James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38
Pastor Susan Henry – House of Prayer Lutheran Church,
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We’re right smack in the middle of Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, but let’s look back to the start of it. There, Mark writes that this is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We’ve known who Jesus is from the very first verse of Mark’s gospel. But Jesus’ disciples and the crowds who seek him out don’t know who he is – yet. Some of the demons do, but nobody pays attention to them. Peter and the other disciples have heeded Jesus’ call to follow him, going where he goes, crossing the Sea of Galilee again and again, watching and listening as his ministry unfolds, as he heals people, feeds them, delivers them from what torments them, and teaches them. The disciples think they have a pretty good idea who Jesus is.
But they don’t, really. Today’s gospel testifies to that. Jesus is headed north to Caesarea Philippi, beyond Jewish territory, near some of the places where the Roman emperor is worshipped. “On the way,” Mark says, Jesus wants to know who people think he is. The disciples report that some think he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead or Elijah who was taken into heaven or one of the prophets of old who’ve come again. Any of them could have “a word from the Lord” for those with ears to hear.
But then Jesus asks a harder question: “But who do you say that I am?” It’s “you” in the plural – “you all” – but Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” You are the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah of God – which is the “right” answer. But then, instead of congratulating Peter on his insight, Jesus “sternly order[s] them not to tell anyone about him.” This confuses us – and I suspect it confused them, too. If they’ve got it right, why wouldn’t they share it? Isn’t this what people are waiting for?
We might imagine that Jews in Jesus’ time were all anticipating the coming of the Messiah, but Judaism then was more diverse than we used to think. Some Jews did expect a powerful leader from King David’s line who would throw off the oppressive rule of Rome and instead establish a reign of peace and an era of holiness. Some longed for a messianic age of religious purification. Others no doubt recalled how not only kings but also prophets and priests were “anointed ones.” Maybe “Messiah” was a word like a Rorschach test – what you saw said more about you than about anything else.
Peter has the right word about Jesus, but we’ll soon see that he has the wrong meaning. Maybe that’s why Jesus shuts the disciples down: “Don’t go around talking about something you don’t really understand.” When Jesus says that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter is appalled. He doesn’t want to hear anything remotely like that from Jesus. And, anyway, what kind of Messiah would suffer and die? It makes no sense, and Peter takes Jesus aside and starts to reproach him for saying such a thing. Jesus, however, comes back at Peter harshly, saying, “’Get behind me, Satan!’ You’ve got your priorities confused with God’s. Follow me, don’t get ahead of me because I’m not going where you want me to go. Back off, Peter!”
Where Jesus is going is no longer back and forth across the lake or around the villages and cities, but toward Jerusalem. From here on, he is on the way to rejection, to suffering, to death. And even though he has told the disciples that he will rise again, I can’t imagine they could hear that, let alone envision it. Whatever expectations they’ve held about a coming Messiah have been shattered. Within those diverse understandings among Jews, none include rejection or suffering, death or apparent failure. Surely any Messiah will come with strength and power, in glory and triumph.
While the disciples are still reeling from Jesus’ words, he gathers the crowd in with them and he tells all of them that following him will be costly. It won’t lead to glory or wealth or success or power or whatever else the world counts as “winning.” Our egos can be seduced by all those things, but if we define ourselves in terms of what our egos are desperate for, we will have a false sense of who we are. That false self is what Jesus will call his disciples to deny so that they can live with a true sense of who they are — formed in the image of God, made for relationship, called to freedom, meant for serving, created for love.
When we talked in Bible study about what it means to “deny ourselves,” we struggled to understand what Jesus was asking. If the disciples gave up everything to follow him, is that what Jesus calls us to do, too? Do we have to abandon the people we love or the work we do or the joy we find in life? Now, surely among God’s gifts to us are the people who love us and the right use of the abilities God has given us, so that can’t be what Jesus is talking about. When the word “priorities” came up, something shifted from fear about what we might lose if we follow Jesus to curiosity about what we might gain, even as we reckoned with making some sacrifices as we get our priorities straight.
In denying our false and inadequate selves, we may see our true selves more clearly. In acknowledging our own brokenness and in letting go of our selfishness – maybe only little by little — we will glimpse more of the full humanity God intends for us. In following Jesus more faithfully, we will be drawn deeper into the world’s suffering, into Jesus’ suffering for our own and the world’s sake. These are good things, but hard things. They remind us that, while we might not get the God we want, we get the God we need.
We get Jesus, who knows that our false selves get in our way and lead us to worship all the wrong things in all the wrong places. We get Jesus, who sees the messy, broken places in our lives and meets us there. We get Jesus, whose story ended not in his rejection, suffering and death, but in new life which is ours as well. And we get Jesus, who continues to love us out of our resistance to following him more faithfully, so that we can more fully experience life in him, in community, and in the kingdom of mercy and grace that is already but not yet here.
There’s hard stuff in the gospel today, for the disciples long ago and for us today, but let’s gather our courage and go where Jesus wants to take us, praying on the way that we may “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.”
 David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Mark,” Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014, p. 120.
 Richard of Chichester, 12th century