Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2018 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38
Imagine with me today’s Gospel story as told me the perspective of the disciple Peter.
The coals in the cooking fire still smolder hours after the last log is cast on them. I awake in the pre-dawn chill and warm my fingers over the scant heat. Mine is the night’s last watch, and I mutter to myself about the pointlessness of posting a sentry. But our resident Zealot, the other Simon, has convinced the others about the need for vigilance. The foggy, half-light of dawn creeps through our camp, and I see movement coming through the scrub from the foothills. I’m about to wake the Zealot when I hear the tune of a psalm carried on the breeze, and then Jesus himself steps out of the mist. Under one arm, he has a load of sticks and twigs. Blowing gently on the embers, he rekindles the fire and sits down next to me.
“Lord, you shouldn’t go off alone like that. It isn’t safe.”
“You’re right,” he says, “It probably isn’t safe.” He turns to look at me and smiles. “But I wasn’t alone, Peter. None of us is ever alone.” He pauses, holds his breath, then calls to those still sleeping. “Gather around, everyone. I have something to tell you.” Once the rest of our group is seated at the fire, Jesus greets us each by name. “My friends,” he says, “I wonder who people say that I am?” My companions venture a few guesses, things they’ve heard from the crowds. But I have another answer, which surges up from my gut: “You’re the Messiah!” It’s like the words have a life of their own. They need to be spoken, and they choose my voice to utter them.
Jesus raises an eyebrow in my direction. “Don’t tell anyone, all right? I fear people won’t understand, not after what’s coming.” He stirs the fire, and his voice barely rises over the crackling flames. “Peter has just cautioned me about the danger of going off alone. Simon has you all standing guard through the night. I thank them both for their devotion to our safety. However, this morning I must tell you where our story is going, where my path is leading. Soon, I will abandon the safety of the countryside and go to Jerusalem. Once there, I will ask you not to protect me. Men from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes will come, and they will arrest me, and they will beat me, and they will kill me. And three days later I will be raised from the dead.”
I stand up and look down at Jesus. I don’t know what to say. Twenty minutes ago he was rekindling the fire, and now he’s talking about his own fire being snuffed out. I look around at my companions—stunned into silence every one. I start walking away. I need to get away.
I thought I had everything figured out. I thought I knew what was to come. I saw him do amazing things: I saw him make the blind see and the lame walk. I saw him cleanse the leper’s skin. I saw him feed five thousand with enough to feed five. I saw him cry out in the storm and calm the waves. The words of the prophets were coming to life before my very eyes. When I said, “You’re the Messiah,” something inside me that was not myself told me I had spoken the truth.
But what kind of Messiah lets himself be led like some silent sheep to the slaughter? What kind of Messiah allows himself to be killed? The Messiah is the heir to David’s throne, the king who brings victory over our oppressors, the one who will usher in a new age of freedom and enlightenment. Not one who surrenders. Not a victim. Not a dead man.
I drop to one knee and put my head in my hands. My cheeks are moist with tears. I feel a hand on my shoulder and look up. Jesus is there, looking down at me. “Why, Lord?” Then I stand up and shout in his face: “Why? I trusted you. I called you Messiah and you didn’t deny it. I gave you my life, and for what? So I might dig your grave?”
I start walking away again, but Jesus spins me around to face him. When he speaks, his voice is calm and commanding, like when he had rebuked the storm. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then he walks back to camp, leaving me alone in the morning fog.
“None of us is ever alone.” I hear the echo of his voice, as in a distant memory, and I still feel his presence close by even though he’s back warming himself by the fire. “You’re the Messiah,” I say to myself. The words were just as true now as when I spoke them earlier. What happened? What changed?
I hear Jesus laughing in the distance, and a flash of insight sparks in my mind. I’ve been clinging so tightly to my own image of the Messiah that I failed to see this new, brilliant vision of the Christ in my midst. Where were his armies marshaling to drive out the Romans? Where were his generals and siege towers and chariots? Of course, there were none. Instead of soldiers there were blind men with new eyes. Instead of swords and shields there were loaves and fishes. Instead of slaughter and death there was healing and life for all.
When did I become the blind one? A lifetime of expectations prepared me to misunderstand his mission. How hard it is to overcome such unexamined expectations! Now I see. Now I see Jesus is the savior I did not expect, but the one I most need. For he will not let me take the easy way out. He will not let me mimic the isolating, dominating, death-dealing ways of the empire. He will not let me lose myself in the chasm of bitterness and revenge. He will only help me find my true self, the one that is ready to be healed, the one that is ready to be a healer.
But still, why does my healer have to suffer? Why does he have to die? Surely not because God ordains it. Surely not because suffering is good. No. Whatever suffering is to come for Jesus – for me – is a natural consequence of choosing to stand against the death-dealing ways of the world. How much harder is it to speak a word of peace than a word of war? How much harder is it to speak a word of reconciliation than a word of division? And yet, that is what Jesus calls me to do. And I don’t know if I can. I think I’ll be too scared when it comes right down to it, too isolated, too alone.
“None of us is ever alone.” Jesus’ words come to me a second time, and I can taste their truth on my tongue, sweet like honey in the comb. Whether he is standing next to me or is far away, I feel his presence whispering to me words of peace, healing, reconciliation. These are the divine things. These are the things that bring true enlightenment, true freedom. These are the things that mark the true Messiah. And I can only hope and pray these things will mark a follower like me.
This sermon began its life way back in 2008, but if you read both versions, you will see that the second half of this one differs markedly from the first.