This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on February 25, 2018 (Year B Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38).
Immediately preceding the Gospel text we read today, we see Jesus challenging his students, asking “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter seems to get it right when he replies… “You are the Messiah.” An astute answer.
Jesus then begins to teach his students about what will happen to him, he speaks about rejection, suffering, death and resurrection. He shares how…
…he will not be recognized as a political leader by the established powers…
…he will not be heralded as the instigator of a new Jewish kingship…
…he has not come to take on the colonizing power of Rome…
…instead, he will be rejected, suffer, and die.
Simon Peter, who had just gotten so much right, pulls Jesus aside, to say, “Surely, not like this?”
“Surely, this isn’t what a Messiah does?”
You see, Simon Peter, like the rest of the disciples, has a lot on the line here. Jesus isn’t just some spiritual leader whose inspirational videos he likes to watch after work while he’s on the elliptical.
Jesus is the man that he left his family, his livelihood, and his hometown for. Jesus is the man who was supposed to fulfil all of his expectations of political liberation!
We first see Simon, in the Gospel of Mark, fishing with his brother Andrew. Jesus calls them, and they drop their nets to follow a man who tells them he’ll show them how to “fish for people”.
We then find Jesus at Simon’s house, where he witnesses, first hand, Jesus’ miraculous powers. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick and Jesus heals her.
If Simon has a mother-in-law we can also presume he has more family—a wife, maybe some children. He then leaves to travel with Jesus throughout Galilee—maybe he leaves his family behind, or maybe them come with him—we’re not sure.
But, leaving your hometown is no small feat, in a world where family ties were the social welfare system; where livelihood meant life or death—it was a serious thing to unanchor yourself from your kin, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, spends time unpacking what it means to find a chosen family in Christ.
As he follows Jesus throughout the Judean countryside, Simon, who is renamed Peter, watches Jesus teach scripture, tame demons, command the weather, heal the chronically ill, and multiple bread!
Then we arrive at our text for today. Jesus has just told Simon Peter that he is not going to be the liberator that Simon Peter was waiting for. Can we blame him for his bewilderment? For his anxiety? How could this man, who Simon Peter gave so much up to follow, not be what he was expecting?
Have you ever taken a big risk, only to find it wasn’t what you thought it was? Do you remember the clammy coldness that spreads throughout your body when you realize what you’d done? What you’ve given up?
This is how I envision Simon Peter.
Because, he had good reason to believe Jesus was the person he expected: Jesus had taken on the scribes and Pharisees in religious debates, he taught with authority, and preached a radical message. Sure, he wasn’t from a royal lineage, he was some Carpenter from Nazareth—Mary’s son. And, yes he kept inviting the wrong kind of people to dinner—tax collectors and sex workers—but Simon Peter was also the wrong kind of person. He was an uneducated fisherman from a backwater town.
Jesus was going to usher in a new political reality! The oppressed were going to liberated from their chains of bondage, and Rome was going to be pushed back! Jerusalem would be restored to its old glory!
But here he was, here Jesus was, the messiah—the anointed one, telling Simon Peter that he wasn’t there to usher in a new era of liberation for Israel—instead, he spoke of rejection, suffering and death.
Is it any wonder that Simon Peter, who had just gotten so much right, pulls Jesus aside, to say, “Surely, not like this?”
Jesus rebukes Simon, harshly. He calls him “Satan”, which means adversary—but adversary isn’t the only name Jesus gives him.
Simon, his given name, means “he has heard”, but earlier in the story Jesus renames him “rock”. He is the thick-headed disciple, who never seems to get it right. Peter, the too eager. Peter who falls asleep in the garden. Peter who denies his teacher. Peter, the one who doesn’t listen. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t go easy on him.
Our expectations can cloud us from seeing things as they are.
My mother used to like experimenting with recipes when I was little. And, I remember distinctly this bright orange soup she made us once. She explained that it was called Four Potato Soup. Obviously, it had carrots in it because it was pylon orange, and I tucked into a bowl, taking a big spoonful. …it was awful. It was really gross tasting, and I told her. She was very used to this because she was always concocting new foods.
“Mom, this is the worst carrot soup I’ve ever tasted!” …she looked at me, puzzled. “It’s potato soup…there’s no carrot.”
It took a few moments for the cogs to turn—for me to realize that it was orange because of the sweet potato! …I took another bite… it was really delicious potato soup.
Mark’s Peter is too preoccupied with how he thinks Jesus should be, to be able to see him fully as he is. He isn’t listening to the “Son of Man” statements in Mark, these are the statements where Jesus reveals who he is.
Now, it can be hard to read this story and not want to criticize Simon Peter—I believe the author has written him as a foil for us. But we’re watching it all unfold on the page, from a distant place. We have a different understanding of messiahship, crafted from two-thousand years of Christian reflection.
But, we do carry our own expectations of who Jesus is—expectations that filter how we see him. We privilege some stories over others. It’s pretty easy to ignore the parts we don’t like—the things we’re not comfortable with.
“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.”
I don’t want to hear that, that’s hard, that’s uncomfortable. I want to skip the rejection, suffering and death, and move right on to resurrection!
But, we are in the season of Lent, and in Lent we make space to focus on the uncomfortable parts—it is when we reflect the most on rejection, suffering, and death.
It is easy to become like Simon Peter, whose last words in this gospel account are “I do not know this [Jesus] you are talking about”. It is easy to ignore the parts we don’t like, that don’t match up with who we see Jesus as—instead of wrestling to hear him in the text.
We miss hearing him say that to follow him is also to be rejected, to suffer, and to die—but that new life is found there—an unexpected liberation is found there.
Can you hear these words being read aloud in an early house church, where believers were experiencing persecution and death at the hands of Rome?
Can you hear the words now, as Jesus proclaims that we can be made whole by exchanging the expectations of this world, for those of our creator?
My hope is that throughout this Lenten season, your ears will be attuned to the difficult things—but that by wrestling with them, you will experience more fully the liberation of Easter. Amen.