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We’ve been following his story… that guy who, to quote an old TV theme song, is “Movin’ On Up.” And, if we’ve been paying attention, we know that today is the day he’s hit it big.
I’m talking about Simon Peter.
As the gospel opens, we are told exactly what we are encountering: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). But then a funny thing happens. For a long time, no one in the gospel calls Jesus by that title—Christ, a Greek word that means the same as the Hebrew word Messiah. In English, the word would be “Anointed.” Meaning, Chosen. Meaning, Set Aside for A Very Special Work. Meaning, The One We’ve Been Waiting For.
As the gospel opens, in that simple sentence, we are told all that.
But then we never hear about it again. That is, until today, out of the mouth of Peter.
Again, at the beginning of the gospel, Peter is just one of twelve whom Jesus invites along for what promises to be a life-changing adventure. Jesus preaches the Good News of God’s love. Jesus enacts God’s love through a ministry of healing, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry people. As the story unfolds, Jesus singles out three, and Peter is one of them, along with the brothers John and James, and they come along for the special moments—remember when Jesus they were present when Jesus raised a little girl from the dead? Jesus has become incredibly well-known—rock-star Jesus—and now, with his name on the tongue of people in power, dangerous people who very reasonably and correctly see Jesus as a threat to their power, Jesus turns to his people, and asks a pointed question:
“Who do people say that I am?”
Some names were floated last week; now we hear them again.
John the Baptist.
One of the prophets.
I imagine Jesus nodding, and pacing before he asks the next, even more incisive question:
“But who do you say that I am?”
This is Peter’s big moment. He answers:
“You are the Messiah.”
The Anointed One.
The Chosen One.
The One Set Aside for A Very Special Work.
You, Peter has said to Jesus, are the One We’ve Been Waiting For.
Peter has reached the peak of discipleship. Peter has gotten it right. Peter, it seems, is the only human being who, at this point, “gets it.” He has been paying attention. He understands.
And we might think Peter would get a chance to enjoy his newfound status as The Man Who Got It Right. Of course, we would be wrong.
Jesus reminds them that, actually, all of this needs to be kept quiet. It’s still a secret—even if it is one that is getting harder and harder to keep. And then Jesus tells them exactly what being the Messiah is going to mean.
It’s going to mean suffering and death.
And Peter is not having it. Peter doesn’t want it. Peter wants… well, it seems like he wants more of the same. Being on the Healing Express. Getting to participate in The Casting Out Demons Road Show. Even the Handing Out Food You Didn’t Even Know You Had Café gig, which has happened twice already (though we’ve skipped over those stories).
Peter is holding on. And Jesus is giving lessons in letting go.
I’ll be honest with you. I’m with Peter. Jesus, here, outlines a plan for Messiahship (and, by extension, discipleship) that is not too attractive, what with all the suffering and dying. Who wants that? Not me. I’m with Peter. The healing, the freeing people from what has been possessing them, the great big impromptu picnics, plus lots of travel… these sound infinitely preferable to the cross.
Full disclosure. I am made just as uncomfortable as Peter by all that depressing talk. I don’t want the cross. The dying on it, I mean. I don’t want that. I sincerely doubt I’m the only one.
Less than a week later…
Well, I’m going to interrupt myself here, because… wow, what kind of week has this been, I wonder? What with the, “Get behind me Satan,” and all that? Tense, do you think? Lots of terse, uncomfortable conversations? Lots of wondering about motives and what-is-it-we’re-doing-here-after-all? Maybe just… lots of silence?
And then, six days later… Up they go. Nothing like a nice hike at a 45 degree incline to get the circulation going and break the tension. Of course, there’s more to it than that. And…when they get to the top of the mountain, the view is more than they ever dreamed possible. God shows Peter, and John, and James, the other side of what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, Christ, Anointed One. God answers another question:
“Who does God say that I am?”
And the answer is:
And, of course, Peter’s response is… NOW you’re talking. Let’s stay HERE. It is so good to be here. So reassuring, that we’re on the right track. So amazing, to be immersed in, instead of the sick and sad and hungry, this foretaste of heaven, this shot of glory!
And Jesus, predictably enough, insists on continuing Peter’s education as to the delicate but necessary art of letting go.
This is a sublimely human and understandable response from Peter. This is a response we can connect to: the beauty of the glory, the rootedness in the tradition… Moses, Elijah… the time apart. The mountaintop retreat, where you can simply be. The air is fresh.
Who wouldn’t want to stay there?
And yet, the call is to go from that place, because… who are you going to heal on a mountaintop? What demons can be cast out of the crag of a cliff? What about all those people, hungering?
This is an ancient conversation in the church. Back in the fourth century, when it was all the rage to practice your faith by going out to the desert to live alone in a cave, Basil the Great asked those desert hermits some questions:
The Lord also did not think that the teaching of his word alone was enough, but he wanted to give us an example of humility when, girded with a towel, he washed the feet of his disciples. Whose feet do you wash? Whom do you care for? [i]
We have to ask the question. We can’t wriggle out of it.
Who do we say that he is, this Jesus of Nazareth?
Each of us has our own answers, but we probably have some in common, too.
Bread of Life.
How we answer this question determines, of course, how we hear his words… and also, how (or whether) we trust his promised healing, and releasing us from those things that bind us. It also determines whether we are willing to find out what it means, exactly, to pick up a cross and follow him.
And how is it that the cross and all that healing the sick and feeding the hungry are so intimately tied together? And why is it that our desire for one leads inevitably to the other? And what does it mean that we want to hold on, and Jesus is giving lessons in letting go?
It’s as if a cloud has overshadowed us. But in the cloud, there is a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when the cloud lifts… there is only Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Basil the Great (330-379 CE), Little Asceticon, Question 3.9, Concerning Community.