Pentecost 17: 16 September Mark 8:27-38
This passage is often seen as a turning point in Mark’s gospel. It signals a moment of recognition: Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. But it all goes terribly wrong. One cannot escape the message: confession of Jesus as Christ is not enough! In the same way it will not be enough for the rich man in 10:17 to kneel before Jesus. There is no shortage of successors to Peter and the rich man in history and in the present day. Attributing status to Jesus, even adoration of Jesus, can deserve the same response now as then: ‘Get behind me, Satan. Your focus is not on God’s way but human ways’.
Mark knows of Peter’s position of leadership among the disciples and his foundational role at the birth of the Church after Easter (16:7). So the passage is deliberately shocking. What was the problem? The disciples had not been faring well in 8:14-21. Mark portrays them as behaving like outsiders who cannot grasp what Jesus is saying (compare 8:16-18 with 4:10-12!). He sets in contrast to their blindness the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26) - deliberate symbolism. So we should not really be expecting a breakthrough in our passage which immediately follows.
In 8:27-28 the disciples report current assessments of Jesus, already noted in 6:14-15. Jesus could be John the Baptist returning, or Elijah or one of the prophets. For the latter, Mark probably had Deut 18:15-18 in mind, which promises a prophet like Moses. Elijah was, and still is, a figure of Jewish hope (Malachi 4:5; Mark 15:35-36). Both are figures of hope and will appear with Jesus in the transfiguration story (9:2-13), where greater focus falls on Elijah and his identification with John. These assessments are not very wide of the mark. The words from heaven in the transfiguration scene appear to echo the passage in Deut 18, "Listen to him!". Elijah and Moses in different traditions are to accompany God’s final initiative to rescue the people. Jesus belongs here somewhere.
Peter’s assessment, ‘the Christ’, (the Anointed, anglicised Hebrew: Messiah), represented the belief, well documented in Jewish literature of the period, not least in the Dead Scrolls, and lived out as a claim by not a few in this period, that God would deliver Israel from oppression by sending a new ruler, like David. There appears to have been some diversity in the way people expected the Messiah to act, with some emphasising the military and others the miraculous. There must have been sufficient flexibility in the term for Christians to apply it to Jesus, even though he was far from the military option. It stood as an accusation against Jesus in his trial. The Barabbas figure, the companions in execution, and the charge on the cross reflect how dominant the revolutionary understanding was.
So Peter got it right in form, but got it wrong in substance. We see that, when he rejects Jesus’ suggestion in 8:31 that Jesus would not be successful in the usual sense of the word. Jesus said he would suffer and die and then rise, like the holy ones in Daniel, from which also the term, ‘Son of Man’ is drawn, where it originally symbolised the people (Daniel 7). Yes, Jesus is Messiah, but not the usual kind of Messiah which most apparently expected. 8:33 suggests that there is something more at stake than Peter’s view of messiahship: behind it is a view of God.
Failure to grasp the way of the Son of Man - and, in effect, the way of God - repeats itself twice more, making a typical group of 3 occasions of which Mark is fond. The next prediction of the Son of Man suffering finds the disciples arguing who should be the greatest (9:30-37). The final one has James and John petitioning Jesus about the top jobs! We will meet them again in weeks to come (10:32-45).
Mark makes it plain. Only as the suffering Son of Man is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Messiah will be vulnerable. He is on the way to Jerusalem. His crowning will be on a cross with a crown of thorns. Mark’s portrait of Jesus subverts popular norms of greatness and power. Why does Mark portray Jesus like this? It must have something to do with history. It also has something to do with his understanding of God and his understanding of what it means to be human, to be a disciple. The latter could not be clearer, when we read 8:34-37. Losing one’s life is the way to find it! This is not abandonment of self care, but abandonment of preoccupation with building and maintaining a self at the expense of others, disempowering and impoverishing others. Mark’s hearers may well have been facing this in an acute form: weakness and failure need not be disaster.
Does it really affect our understanding of God? Or do we have one norm for Jesus and the disciples of lowly vulnerability, and another for God? Surely the main thing about God is being almighty? There are huge problems if we make God an exception, or, to put it another way, make Jesus an exception in the life of God, as if to say: "Normally God is not like Jesus. In Jesus, vulnerability was a temporary divine ploy to win us back. In the end God is not like that." This would make 8:33 really difficult. The evidence suggests that, on the contrary, Mark wants us to see God like that, too: caring, vulnerability, and love are the central features in Mark’s theology (of God).
The saying in 8:38 employs characteristic apocalyptic language to sum up what counts in the end: confessing or denying Jesus. Tragically this (and indeed the whole passage) has been understood as a call to blind allegiance, like people swear themselves to support a sports club to the end or worse, enter totalitarian allegiances which frequently end in disaster for themselves and for others. Totalitarian allegiance to a Christ confession has often made Peters into enemies of the gospel (in the name of Christ!) and still does. Whenever our image of Jesus the king replaces the crown of thorns with a traditional crown and sceptre, and replaces his cross with a throne, we should beware.
But be fair to Peter. He grasped something which many have not grasped: Jesus’ agenda was political as much as it was religious. It was about liberating individuals from oppression. It was about power-change in individuals and communities. It was good news for the poor, that would really count as good news. Our danger today is less that we might ally with the messiahship of success and change which Peter knew and more that we too often ally with a notion of Jesus’ messiahship which is spiritualised into irrelevance - especially for the world of the poor.
Philip’s Caesarea, honouring Roman might, is a good starting point for thinking about power. How do we stop the process whereby Jesus ends up becoming the chaplain to such powers? What is real gain for our community, for us as individuals? What is real gain for God?
Epistle: Pentecost 17: 16 September James 3:1-12