Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 24, Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index | Questions and Comments |
Peter took him aside
[See also Thinking human and divine things on the Year A Matthew version of the same event.]
We were at a family picnic in a nature reserve where there were koalas in the trees and emus trying to take our food off the barbecue. The boys enjoyed chasing the emus away - enjoying themselves perhaps because the birds were much bigger than the boys themselves. We were having a good time. It was an interesting place in a sunny hollow that was once the crater of a ancient volcano, on a winter day just warm enough to enjoy some outdoor activities. All was going well, but at one point my granddaughter did something her mother had just told her not to do. Then I saw her mother take her aside. She sat her on a park bench, and at a distance I could see my daughter talking earnestly with her daughter. I don't know what was said, but I can guess the kind of thing it would be, and I suppose you could too. Anyway the effect was that the somewhat chastened little girl returned to the group and continued playing without further trouble.
When we take someone aside what do we have in mind? We might take a friend aside to speak in confidence when we know something they don't. It might be simply to share a secret, or when we have something to say that we believe is for their good but does not need to be said in public. It is common enough between parents and children. Sometimes friends or colleagues feel they need take one of their number aside. Normally, we can expect that what we have to say will be well received between friends because it is in a good cause, even if sometimes it might be a little hurtful or embarrassing. It is to avoid embarrassment perhaps that we might have taken the person aside from the group. Of course it can be somewhat presumptuous for an adult to correct another adult, and it might risk placing some strain on the relationship, but as we see it, it is for the good of the person we take aside and perhaps for the good of the group also.
What was happening then when Peter took Jesus aside? He must have thought that he knew something that Jesus did not, or which he was ignoring, and would be for his good and the good of the group, if he would take notice of it.
This took place at an important time in the ministry of Jesus. Peter had for the first time confessed belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed holy one of God who had come to lead the people of God and whom they had longed to see, but exactly what it would be like when the Messiah came no one was quite sure. Peter had simply said, "You are the Messiah." Jesus had asked the disciples who people were saying that he was:
There had been much talk about him as a prophet. Obviously, they recognized that he had come with a message from God - that he had come from God in some sense, but just how, or who he was, they were unsure. Peter took the bold step of faith that all who believe in him must take sooner or later, one way or another. His affirmation of faith was a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. A few others had previously recognized him, but this was different. The way it developed that Jesus was recognized as the Messiah is different in each of the gospels. Luke has several people saying who is to be when he is born; John reports that some of the disciples told others that he was the Messiah from when they first met him (John 1:40-42,45), although perhaps that might be seen there as hopeful speculation, and we have to wait until near the end of John's gospel before the great confession is made by Thomas of Jesus as "My Lord and my God"; and even in Mark which we are reading now we have in Chapter 1 the encounter of Jesus with the man possessed of an evil Spirit who calls out that he knows who Jesus is and Jesus tells him to be silent, as we have had cause to remember:
But Peter's confession was different. It was not mere recognition of a fact in the cognitive sense of knowing something about what is out there in the world. Nor was he recognizing the power of someone with authority and agreeing to submit, although there was an element of that in it. When he said, "You are the Messiah", Peter was making a commitment to follow him, and he was doing so gladly and willingly. It was an act of faith. He was putting his trust in Jesus. It was trust in the hope that God would fulfil in him the promises the people of God had received about the Messiah. He was prepared to follow him in the establishment of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which Jesus had already proclaimed. Obviously, he did not fully understand what it would be like, in the Kingdom, under the rule of the Messiah. After all, Jesus was spending a great part of his teaching time telling them what it would be like, and they did not know it all yet, if they ever would. It was not as if when Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah they already knew what it meant, as if when the Messiah came everything would work out as expected. That was the point of difficulty and misunderstanding. He was still teaching them what it meant, but Peter was ready now to make a commitment to go with him wherever he might lead; or so he thought, until Jesus began to tell them something quite shocking about what it would mean for himself and for them. It was that further revelation of what it would mean that caused Peter to take him aside:
Peter clearly had misunderstood what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. There were guides to it in the Hebrew Scriptures, which the disciples would have known, although just what they were thinking at the time we do not know. It is not clear whether, when he told them this, Jesus used the title "Son of Man" for himself in the way that it was used of the figure of authority and glory in the vision of Daniel:
It does fit the idea of the Messiah: To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,... all peoples, ... should serve him. The modern translation from which we usually read [NRSV] uses the term "a human being" rather than the older translation "son of man", and it is a nice thought that Jesus called himself simply, "a human being" -- "a human being must suffer" -- but if that is the reference it is scarcely an identification with the common man or humanity as we normally see ourselves. He did so identify himself with common humanity at his baptism, but here, if it refers to the prophecy in Daniel 7, it is about a king who would rule over all, hardly an ordinary human being. The Son of Man or "human being" in the vision of Daniel was a gloriously successful figure. Peter must have had some such expectation when he named Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus intended to pick up this idea when he used the title Son of Man for himself, he certainly wanted to give it some new content. He might be destined for glory, but he was also going to be the suffering servant (perhaps on the model of Isaiah 53 as well as Daniel 7): the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ... and be killed.
It did not fit with Peter's conception of a glorious kingdom. That was hard enough. What he could have made of any idea of resurrection after the suffering is impossible to imagine, except to see that Jesus would have glory in the end. Peter could not get to that point. He was stuck at the point of trying to assimilate suffering and death to his idea of the Messiah. It was a great difficulty, not only for Peter there and then, but for all to whom the gospel was proclaimed. It came to the disciples first at what would otherwise have been remembered by them as a high point in the ministry of Jesus. At that very point their relationship with him changed. Now that they knew him as the Messiah, their journey together would be changed, but the whole concept of a Messiah who must suffer and be killed was quite beyond them at that point. It was central later to what the apostles proclaimed and the early followers of Jesus believed about him, but first they would have to go through the experience of the cross and the resurrection. Then they would then remember the way that Jesus himself had prepared them for it, and it must have been recalled with peculiarly mixed emotions. Hence the central importance of the this event in Mark's gospel.
So what do we make of Peter taking Jesus aside. What is its message for us? It has an important part in the whole story, for otherwise the weight of what Jesus had just told them about the Messiah having to suffer would not have been felt as it was. There was more to it than Peter simply misunderstanding, not knowing what it would mean to welcome the Messiah. It is more than not knowing his place, although it would appear somewhat presumptuous for a follower to take his leader aside and rebuke him. It was not unknown for his followers to question Jesus in a way which suggested some doubt about what he was doing. We saw lately in the previous chapter of Mark how the Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin, who asked help for her daughter, managed to persuade Jesus to change his mind (Mark 7:26-30). He was not above listening to his followers. Just the same what Peter did was inappropriate. He was being rebellious. But that was Peter in his enthusiastic discipleship! Yet it was wrong not so much because he dared to question his master's plans as because of the false idea of his Messiahship which was revealed by Peter's mistake. It was a very serious error, sufficient for Jesus call him Satan.
"Satan!" That is strong language! Why call him Satan? But who else? Who else had said to Jesus that if he was the Messiah God would not allow him to suffer? It was Satan, when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Mark only tells us that he was tempted "by Satan" for forty days; Matthews gives more detail and says that he was reminded of a verse in the Psalms about being saved from falling if he should "dash his foot against a stone" (Matthew 4:6), so that no harm could come to the Messiah. It was a temptation to Jesus to think so, just after he had been assured at his baptism, at the very point where he made himself one with sinful humanity, that he was the Son of God. See the subtle combination, worthy of the old tempter himself. Now here is Satan in the guise of his friend Peter with the same temptation: take the glory road now! Forget those silly ideas about the Messiah being a suffering servant.
When Peter took Jesus aside he thought he knew. The Messiah must not suffer. The Kingdom depends on it, he thought. And it was a real temptation to Jesus: "Get behind me, Satan". Get out of my way, "For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
The message for us ought to be clear. We are in danger of taking Jesus aside. We all have our own human idea of what we want Jesus to be like. Sometimes pride deceives us, sometimes shame, sometimes false hopes express our limited vision of social justice or liberty or love. The culture in which we live shapes our thinking. Most of us spend a good deal of time looking over our shoulders to see what others make of what we are doing and how they evaluate things. Much of the time we allow the dominant culture to shape our lives, and we tend to try, if we believe in him, to fit Jesus into the picture of life that we have. Peter had inherited a certain idea of what the Messiah would be like, and so do we. Some like the zealots of his time would have Jesus as leader in radical politics; others would call upon him as an authority to defend traditional beliefs and social structures. Some would place their emphasis on his significance for action in the here and now, binding up the broken, bringing hope and reconciliation to a divided human family; others would put their trust in him as one who promised to prepare a place for them in our Father's house. Much of this diversity is derived from different aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus and it is better informed than Peter was when he played the part of Satan, but the basic error is the same: it demands that Jesus be the kind of Messiah we would like him to be and it rebukes him for challenging our preconceived ideas about him. Above all it misses the call of Jesus to meet him at the foot of the cross.
His call is to follow him to Jerusalem; to see him die; to know his suffering triumph in and victory over death; to take up our cross and follow him, so Mark adds to the story:
To share in the new life of the Messiah in the Kingdom of God is first of all to share in his death. It requires us to be prepared to die to all our preconceived ideas of him and about the kind of life that we hope to live. We must be prepared to sacrifice all of that, if we are to be his followers -- our view of the world; our ideologies, our preferences in politics or personal relationships or self defining identities; even our appreciation of human things like art and music; all those things which can become idols must be brought under the shadow of the cross before they can be transformed to reflect the glorious image of the Son of Man.
Let us not then take Jesus aside to correct him, but rather let him correct us. True discipleship is a willingness to be led to see the truth which may be very different from what we expect, and especially to be able to accept his gift of suffering and sacrificial love, so that we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice and hope to live with him for ever. To him be all the glory and the praise. Amen.
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