Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jesus' pop quiz

Pentecost 16B, September 13, 2015
Jesus, Peter, painting, "Get Behind Me Satan"Mark 8:27-38 27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”

Remember hearing these words: “Pencils down. Turn your tests face down and pass them in.” Anyone who has ever sweated through a test and needed just one more minute to get the answer right will probably feel some jolt of anxiety just from remembering days when you had to take tests. I was one of those kids who mostly didn’t mind the taking of the test itself. What I hated was getting the answer wrong, especially if I was sure my answer was right and then it turned out I was mistaken. Thank goodness those days of testing are over for me.

Today in our gospel, it sounds like Jesus is testing his followers. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “John the Baptist! Elijah!” they shout out. “Close, but not quite.” Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter, at the head of the class, says, “You are the Messiah.” Gold star for Peter. That’s right. Messiah.

The site of the Grotto dedicated to the god Pan (Caesarea Philippi)
Of course, Jesus had been giving them hints. He had cured the blind, the deaf, the lame. He had healed the sick and he was a light for all nations. There was just one thing left to do to fit all the descriptions of a messiah- free the captives by kicking out the enemy. But they were standing in Caesarea Philippi- a city built as a physical reminder of the close ties between the Caesar in Rome and Philip of the Herod family. What better place to start the military campaign than by doing a little reconnaissance of the future battleground. And make no mistake, reconnaissance would have been necessary given the layout of the city, which was nearly impossible to attack but was historically strategic to conquering the region.

Peter is waiting for his gold star for his right answer, but he’s also waiting for Jesus to lay out how they’re going to wage war against Caesarea Philippi and all that it stands for.

Instead, Jesus starts talking about how the Son of Man must suffer, die, and then rise again. What? What curriculum is Jesus teaching from? What book has he been reading? Even a 5-year-old would have known that’s not how it goes. In the book of Daniel, the Son of Man leads the armies, kicks some behinds, and then reigns in peace. So Peter takes him aside to correct him, to get Jesus back on the right track.
A Satan would have been more like an undercover agent than devil with horns

But what Jesus says next tells us that this isn’t just Jesus quizzing the disciples to see if they’ll get the right answer, to see if Peter can catch his mistake. It turns out that Jesus is the one being tested here, and he’s being tested by the Tempter. A Satan was an undercover agent working for the king who would test someone’s loyalty to the king’s ways. Peter offers Jesus a path that would take him on the path to glory and power, but instead of being born of respect and honor for all of God’s creation, the way of the military messiah would have come with bloodshed and war. Peter and Jesus agreed that the situation had to change. They agreed that God saw the need for a messiah, but they disagreed about how a messiah should act.

Jesus Carries the Cross by artist Michael D. O'Brien
Jesus came to be a different kind of messiah. He came not to bring suffering and destruction but to suffer and be destroyed, and then, by his suffering and death, to kill off the powers of death and evil and oppression. Death and evil and destruction would not have the last word. Instead, resurrection and life and love triumph. And they triumph because they are born, not of domination and oppression, but of self-sacrifice and humbleness. This is called the way of the cross- to choose to suffer instead of conquer, to conquer through love, to win through what everyone else considers losing.

As Christians, the way of the cross is one of the hardest things to understand and one of the most difficult practices to follow. With Peter, we might be tempted to ask God to take us down a different path. It is human to want to fight back when we are hit, to want to get back at those who hurt us and our loved ones. We want to win. But following Jesus means that we try to imitate him, to take on his ways as our ways.
So it may be that tests lurk around every corner, in every decision we make, as we pick between following the human instincts of retaliation, violence, and power and the ways of Jesus and the cross. Trusting in God’s enduring love and grace for all people, let us be ready to learn to take new and surprising paths with Jesus.

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