Who is Jesus? (Peter’s Story)
September 16, 2018
Today’s story from Mark is a major turning point, as Jesus first starts to reveal to the disciples who he is and his ultimate mission. But to understand that, we need to go back in time a little bit, to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. The very first line in Mark’s Gospel is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Sounds straightforward to our ears, knowing what we do now. But this statement would have read like a contradiction. That word we associate with Jesus, “Christ,” is a powerful title. Another word meaning the same thing is, “messiah”; both words mean, “Anointed one.” Christ, or Messiah, was a word that referred to a powerful ruler or leader, one who would be a savior, who would overcome and deliver people from their enemies. This is the word Peter will use to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” But Mark tells us Jesus is both “Christ,” Messiah, and the Son of God. And Son of God has a very different connotation. The Son of God is one who suffers, like the so-called “suffering servant” we will hear about in our first reading, from Isaiah, and one even who dies.
Let’s try something. [Have one side say Messiah, the other say Son of God, back and forth.] And so while Peter is more than willing to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Savior, strong, winner… he is less willing, as we will see, to even entertain that Jesus is also Son of God, the one who suffers.
Now, of course, we have a bird’s eye view of this Messiah/Son of God dichotomy, in which Jesus is both the suffering servant who dies for us, and the triumphant Savior who overcomes the enemy. But Peter and his buddies did not have that bird’s eye view. So as you listen to the readings today, and especially the Gospel, keep in mind that they don’t know the end of the story, and think about how you would have answered Jesus question if you were there.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It had been a pretty crazy few months for a bunch of fisherman… Really, it had been a pretty crazy few months for anybody. Just think of Peter – to go so immediately from spending his days fishing on the Sea of Galilee – a pretty mundane job, when you get down to it – to following Jesus around. It was a risky choice, to follow Jesus, but Peter didn’t regret it. Leaving his boat behind led to adventures he could never have imagined. Jesus was a teacher unlike any the disciples had ever seen. He taught with such authority, and had a new spin on every teaching anyone had ever held dear. And the healings! All he had to do was say the word and blind people were seeing, lame people walking, demons were scattering – it was incredible. He kept telling the disciples not to tell anyone what they’d seen – they weren’t sure why. It was like he wanted to keep the whole thing a secret, but anything he did was far from a secret! Everyone knew about him – even when they went to new villages, people were bringing their sick friends and family to Jesus to be healed. The word was out.
Watching all this stuff, Peter really knew Jesus was something pretty special – and so he kept following! He didn’t want to miss a thing! And let me tell you, there was lots to see – they saw Jesus walk on water, and still a storm, they saw him feed 5,000 people, no joke, with only a few loaves of bread and some fish… Each day with Jesus was another marvelous surprise.
Peter found himself wanting to be the best of his disciples, Jesus’ favorite, the one who understood him. Peter watched so carefully everything Jesus did and said. He knew that when it came down to it, Jesus was going to change the world.
Now, Peter grew up Jewish, and so he and his people were always hoping and waiting for God to send a Messiah. Since David’s son Solomon, Israel as a whole hadn’t had another king, someone to defeat the enemy, unite Israel and bring peace on earth. So they believed that God would send a messiah, an anointed one, to rule once again over Israel. And Peter – Peter really wanted to believe that Jesus was that messiah.
One day they were all walking toward Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus suddenly asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Ah, Peter thought, so he DOES know that people are talking. Even though Jesus was always telling people not to tell about what happened, they all knew how the gossip had spread. The disciples were eager to share what they’d heard: “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist!” the guys said. “Others think you’re Elijah. Oh, and still others think you’re one of the prophets.” I mean, they were all good guesses, as far as Peter could see. But he knew none of them was correct. Then Jesus stopped them all in their tracks. “Who do you say that I am?” Suddenly the disciples weren’t so eager to answer! That always happens – it’s so easy to talk about what everyone else thinks and says, but when you have to divulge your own secret thoughts, suddenly it is risky, and no one is quite so eager. The group fell silent. Peter took a breath. “This is my chance!” he thought. “I can try out my theory, and if I’m right, Jesus will know I’m the most devoted, most faithful disciple!”
“You’re the Messiah,” Peter ventured. The other disciples looked at him, stunned. “Did I really just say that?” Peter thought. “Could I have been so hopeful as to say this man was the messiah?” They all held their breath and looked at Jesus, waiting. To Peter’s surprise and delight, Jesus seemed satisfied with his answer! So it was true! But then Jesus told them not to tell anyone of this fact. He was so stern, so serious. He really meant it this time! They walked the rest of the way in silence, but Peter was filled with hope. Jesus was it, the Anointed one! He was the one who would finally save them from their enemies! He was the Davidic Messiah they had hoped he would be! They were saved!
As always happened, Jesus and the disciples were met by a crowd. Of course, Jesus took this opportunity to start preaching. Usually he would preach using stories (which were often pretty confusing, but he always explained them to the disciples later). This time, though, he was saying some other stuff – weird stuff. He was talking about how the Son of Man would have to undergo great suffering, and how everyone would reject him, and he would die and then rise again in three days… The way he was talking, it was pretty clear he was talking about himself. It made Peter very uncomfortable. To be honest, he was embarrassed for Jesus. This was no way for the all-powerful Messiah to be talking! All the people who had run out to hear him teach were now looking at each other with that look in their eyes that says, “Is this guy for real?” Even some of his own disciples were looking pretty uncomfortable about even being there.
Peter felt just terrible for Jesus. And to be honest, he also felt scared – he had put his confidence in a strong Messiah, a winner – not someone who would ever think of suffering! How could someone who would talk so openly about suffering and dying be their savior? No, no, this would never do.
Perhaps feeling extra sure of himself for having known Jesus was the Messiah, and thinking that now, he and Jesus must have this special bond, Peter pulled him aside. Jesus looked at Peter, surprised. In a hushed voice, Peter explained, “Listen, Jesus, I’m not sure people are ready to hear these things. All this talk about rejection and suffering and dying – that’s no way to convince people you are the Messiah! They’re going to think you’re crazy! Why don’t you just cool it for a while on this suffering and rejection stuff, and focus instead on the healings, maybe another miraculous feeding. That stuff always goes over pretty well with the crowd.”
Peter would never forget what happened next. Jesus shrugged Peter’s hand from his arm, looking at him with fire in his eyes. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. Peter was shocked. What? He was trying to help! Jesus went on, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It took Peter a moment to really hear what Jesus had just said. Human things? Jesus was embarrassing himself, people were starting to laugh at him. Peter had simply stopped it from going on. Peter was the good guy here!
In that moment, something Peter remembered hearing growing up, from the prophet Isaiah, flashed in his mind: “The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Adversaries. That’s what “satan” meant – adversary. One who stands between a person and God. Peter was that one, that one trying to stand between these people listening and Jesus, the one whom he had himself only just identified as the Messiah.
Years later, James (who was one of the other disciples there) would write a letter. Peter couldn’t help but wonder if it was about him in that moment, so eager to say the right things, and yet, so ready to rebuke the very Son of God, the Messiah. James wrote, “No one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” So Peter had blessed his Lord Jesus Christ, eagerly wanting to follow him, to show him his loyalty and faith, to be a good disciple… but when it came to a situation where he was embarrassed for Jesus – and yes, embarrassed for himself for being with him – he was so quick to deny all that he thought he stood for, for the sake of maintaining an acceptable front. He had set his mind not on divine things, but on human things. No one can tame the tongue – with it, Peter blessed the Lord, and then, in the next moment, rebuked him.
As Peter tried to process these things, he could hear Jesus continue to preach. He was talking about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, about losing our life for his sake and the sake of the gospel. One line in particular stuck with Peter: “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…." Ashamed. Shame. That is what had gotten Peter to this point. He had been ashamed of Jesus, unwilling to stand up for what he knew to be true, as Isaiah so boldly did. He had let his tongue – always speaking before he really thought about what he was saying – get the best of him, and lead him down human paths, rather than toward God.
Peter held all these things in his heart as they continued down the road that Jesus walked. He held them as they watched him undergo the suffering he had predicted. He remembered them even as he heard himself deny Jesus again – three times – for fear of his own life. He held them as they watched Jesus being taken down from the cross. Shame. Jesus, he thought, I did not stand by you.
But then… That day, that phenomenal day when the women came running from the empty tomb to tell them Jesus had risen… Peter felt a weight lifted from his heart. He felt deep down that the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not ashamed of him, that he was, in fact, forgiven. Peter remembered how on that night, the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas, he had taken bread and wine, and given it to them to eat. Peter had felt so close to Jesus in that moment. He felt so close to him now, knowing that despite his very human nature, so eager to please but so slow to profess, he was still loved by God. And that love, that continual forgiveness of all his humanness – it gave meaning and purpose to all those years he had followed Jesus. It transformed his shame into hope, and it empowered him to spend the rest of his days openly and courageously professing the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.
Let us pray… Jesus, Messiah, you are our strong savior, and you are the one who gave everything for us. Make us grateful for you, and confident in you, that we would feel courageous enough to profess who and what you are without embarrassment or shame. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.