Pentecost 17
Donna G. Joy

Mark 8:27-38

This morning’s Gospel reading wrestles with the question of Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is and how he is perceived is a question that has plagued both his followers as well as his more neutral (and at times hostile) observers for over 2,000 years.

In this reading Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” In other words, how does the surrounding culture define him? They respond by telling Him that some say John the Baptist or Elijah - a great prophet and teacher who spoke with Godly wisdom & lived a life for us to follow.

Then Jesus asks, "But who do YOU say that I am?" And Peter answers, “you are the Messiah." We, as people who know how the story unfolds, may want to congratulate Peter for responding as he did. But although Peter knew the right word in referring to Jesus as the Messiah, it would appear that he didn't really "get it". He hadn’t even begun to grasp the challenging road this Messiah was to travel, or the demands this journey will inevitably have on his followers.

The Jewish people had been eagerly waiting for the Messiah, and when Jesus did arrive their understanding was that he would deliver them triumphantly from the Roman military rule and oppression. In verse 31 we hear Jesus telling them openly how he will suffer and be rejected, how he will be killed and after 3 days rise again, but Peter takes Jesus aside and argues against what Jesus is suggesting. Peter is convinced this is not the way it's supposed to work. The Messiah is supposed to be powerful/victorious, not one to be inflicted with great suffering and be rejected and put to death.

Jesus telling the disciples that he must undergo suffering, and rejection, and death is analogous to the head coach for the Winnipeg Jets, or Blue Bombers, informing the team that he is intending to intentionally allow the opposing team to win the game. It just doesn’t make any sense. It is unthinkable, incomprehensible even, because if Jesus suffers such devastating defeat, he would automatically be seen as a false Messiah, one who utterly fails at what the Messiah was expected to accomplish. If he suffers such devastating defeat, who then is going to deal with the Romans? Who then will bring justice to those who are oppressed? Who then will put an end to the suffering? It seems that we can hear these unspoken questions and concerns in the simple statement, "Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him." In identifying Jesus as Messiah Peter gets the word or title right, but it seems that he gets the meaning completely wrong.

Jesus' response to Peter's challenge may seem pretty harsh -- "Get behind me, Satan!" - A reply that cuts pretty deep. He says, "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." In other words, Peter is seeing things from a human perspective - the current suffering they're experiencing under the Romans - compared to the eternal suffering all humanity will suffer if sin is not dealt with and reconciliation with God is not accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection. For the Messiah to defeat the Romans in a militaristic manner may solve things in the short term, but for him to suffer and die – for us – solves things long term, eternally. Indeed, there was a bigger picture to be considered than Peter's concern about liberation from the Romans. So Peter is thinking not as God thinks but as humans tend to think.

To a certain degree, this passage offers a fairly good summary of the entire gospel of Mark, where the author draws heavily upon the model of the suffering servant. This passage summarizes the way in which Jesus’ suffering lies at the very center of who he is, without which there could be no rising to new life. He tells those who are gathered with him that a person wanting to follow him cannot do so without the prospect of suffering and death.

“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.” Jesus is not offering a detailed agenda to show his disciples the way, he is telling them that He is the way. In the words of Karl Barth, “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the Way.”

Indeed, finding new life through suffering and death is the core of the good news found in Jesus Himself, and expected of those who choose to follow. Jesus has lived out that liberating way before us. Out of his suffering he has experienced new life and made that possible for each and every one of us. At the very center of Jesus’ message we discover his suffering, death, burial, and resurrection. So, to look suffering and death straight in the face and go through it oneself in the hope of a new God-given life is the gift of Jesus. And the cross is the sign of suffering and death, but also the profound hope for total renewal.

So, today Jesus asks each of us, “Who do others say I am?” How does society or western culture define who Jesus is? Following the teachings of Sigmund Freud, increasingly, the culture in which we live suggests that Jesus is an individual – certainly not in any way divinely linked - to be leaned on because we’re not mature enough to rely on ourselves. This teaching suggests that when we humans finally mature we will grow up, become independent, and eliminate the need for a God on which to lean. Trust me when I say this is a dominant understanding, with increasing momentum over the past century.

Jesus also asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” Some continue to say that Jesus is simply a great prophet and teacher; someone to imitate and revere. Some say that he was a kind of mystical guru who can provide all the answers to the complexities of life along with magical fixes for whatever dilemmas in which we may find ourselves. Some will say that belief in him has the power to avoid the hardships in life – broken relationships, illness, or financial stress. Some will say that his teaching offers concrete answers for complex issues. Some will say he is a great teacher who has all kinds of wisdom for us to get ahead in life if we study his life and teachings and apply them to our everyday lives. Some may focus on this understanding that faithfulness in Jesus will ensure success in life. In other words, at the very center of much popular understanding of who Jesus is, lies the conviction that belief in Him will ensure the absence of suffering.

As we identify these beliefs, my hope is that together we may become increasingly able to recognize and articulate an understanding that challenges these popular perceptions. And this morning’s Gospel captures the very essence of who Jesus is.

At the very center of our faith is Jesus, the Messiah; not the Messiah that Peter initially has in mind, but a Messiah whose strength is born out of suffering, weakness, brokenness, and vulnerability; a Messiah who has absorbed into Himself all the suffering and sin of the world and taken it to the cross so that for the rest of time all sin and suffering may be redeemed. It may not be absent, but it will be redeemed. Because of this very central belief in Jesus’ identity, new life and new possibilities may rise from all the suffering and sin that is so much a part of the human condition.

Suffering comes in all shapes and forms. Some suffering is imposed on us in ways over which we have no control. Marva Dawn, an important theologian for our time, suffers from diabetes and various kinds of cancer that continue to flow in and out of remission. Her diabetes has caused her to go blind, and has also destroyed one leg that should actually be amputated but since her body is not strong enough to withstand the surgery she lives instead with a complete leg brace which causes constant and extremely painful ulcers. She often integrates these ailments into her theological work, and suggests there is something redemptive in knowing that new life has risen out of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In her book, Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope in Spite of Infirmity, Marva Dawn answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” as she suggests that Jesus is the One whose suffering on the cross resonates with her own and redeems the physical suffering she knows only too well. Jesus is the one whose resurrection promises life and hope beyond the suffering of today.

Other suffering comes out of a decision to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 for choosing to pick up his cross and follow Jesus.

“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.”

As a devout Christian Bonhoeffer believed that he was called to work tirelessly in resisting the Nazi regime and as a result of his courageous involvement in a plot to stop this regime he was put to death. Through his life and witness he made it very clear that having been loved so perfectly, so completely by Jesus on the cross, having been reconciled with God through Jesus on the cross, he believed that nothing – not even death – could destroy eternal life. And clearly, as a disciple of Christ, Bonhoeffer firmly believed and trusted that he was called to pick up his cross and follow Jesus to his death.

After Bonhoeffer’s death an English officer went on to write of his faith and joy and hope even in the midst of horrific adversity. Apparently on Sunday, April 8th, 1945, Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship that spoke right to the very heart of those who were with him in prison. Almost immediately after the service he was removed from that place in the prison, and knowing that his time had come to be executed he said to that English Officer, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”

In Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Bonhoeffer answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” as he confirms that Jesus “…is the suffering Messiah who suffered a scandalous, public death of a sinner in our stead.” Repeatedly Bonhoeffer makes the point that Jesus’ followers are called to follow Him.

Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace tells the story of the death of his five year old brother, Daniel. Daniel, quietly escaped from his nanny who was looking after him in order to go down the street to a military base where he enjoyed playing with some of the soldiers in training. During this particular visit Daniel died as a result of an accident which happened because one particular soldier was not watching him carefully enough.

Miroslav Volf’s parents were extremely devout Christian people; and while their grief was evident even fifty years after the fact, they chose to pick up their cross and follow Jesus as they forgave both the nanny and the young soldier whose negligence led to their young son’s death. They refused to press charges against the nanny or that young soldier. In this book M.V. responds to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Very simply put he is saying that Jesus is the suffering Messiah who has been wronged on the cross, and has forgiven humanity for that horrific deed; and to follow Him, is at least in part, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

These people and their stories serve as inspirations for the rest of us. When you read the work of such faithful disciples as Marva Dawn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Miroslav Volf you discover that they respond to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” with both in depth scriptural/theological rootedness, and through the decisions they make and the ways they live their lives – and with Bonhoeffer also through the way in which he died.

We all know what it is to suffer. Whether that suffering is something over which we have no control, circumstances such as illness or whether it is the result of decisions we have made to pick up our cross and follow Jesus by confronting the evils and injustices in our communities, our families, our work places, or our church, we may find new life/new possibilities/new hope in and through the suffering Jesus. As we reflect on the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” we need to be clear that he is a suffering Messiah whose strength is born out of suffering, weakness, brokenness, and vulnerability; a Messiah who has absorbed into Himself all the suffering and sin of the world and taken it to the cross so that, for the rest of time, all sin may be forgiven and all suffering may be redeemed.

And, I pray that our response to this question, empowered through the gift of Grace, will be found in both our words and the decisions we make.

Among the resources used for this sermon: N.T. Wright; Karl Barth; Marva Dawn; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Miroslav Volf