Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mark 8:27-38 Commentary

Comments and Observations:

If you are busy, you must be faithful.  In the United States at least, being a kind of holy blur of activity in the church is seen as a key mark of Christian commitment.

Busy = Faithful.

Woe betide the congregation whose list of support groups, youth opportunities, small groups, and service-oriented ministries is small or paltry looking.  In fact, years ago I attended a church leadership conference at which a good many of the guest speakers were pastors who wore their churches’ incredible buffet of ministry activities as clear badges of honor.

So maybe it’s fitting that this Lectionary text, appointed for one of the first Sundays in September (which for some churches at least is the start of the “busy” new church season) calls us up short a bit and aims to re-set our thinking and maybe even our priorities.  Because sometimes in our busy efforts to make the church seem active and alive and vibrant and “with it” as it bristles with programs for all ages, maybe we are tempted to forget that what the entire church is about is a kind of living death.  The church is called to—and is commissioned to call others to—a way of being, a way of life, that is rather countercultural.

The world says “Look out for good old #1!”  The gospel says, “Take care of others first, even if it means losing yourself.”  The world says, “You only go around once—grab the gusto!”  The gospel says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow the crucified one.”  The world says, “Feather your own nest!”  The gospel says, “If you gain the whole world but lose your soul, what in the world could you use to buy your soul back?”

In the church, it’s not wrong to provide pastoral care and advice.  Of course not!  It’s not wrong to offer people assistance and counseling through church programs designed to help people cope with real life.  But sometimes in an effort to look relevant and “with it” and up to speed on the latest trends of society, do we in the church now and then forget that the gospel is not finally about self-betterment or self-improvement or providing tips for how to get along better in life?  Based on some church signs I’ve seen, some sermon titles I’ve spied in the newspaper, and some popular religious TV shows and websites, one has cause to wonder.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that if all you aim for is this earthly life, hoping maybe to somehow get heaven thrown in, you may in the end discover that you’ve neither saved your life on earth nor managed to take account of heaven.  But if you aim at heaven first and foremost–at what God wants and at how God designed life to be lived–then you may discover that by taking account of heaven’s perspective first of all, you get a better life on earth thrown in, too.  But are we tempted now and then to tell people that our first priority is to help them get along better in life and use this as the lure to then tell them about the gospel?  Do we start with earth and try to back people into heaven?

At the end of Mark 8 Jesus issues a bit of a warning.  If anyone is ashamed of him or his words today, then Jesus just might be ashamed of that person at the end of days, too.  We’re well aware of that verse but do we always ponder what it means?  What happens when we are ashamed of someone?  What goes into that feeling and to what behaviors does it lead a person?

We put daylight between ourselves and the other person in the hopes of saving our own skin, our own reputation, our own standing in the eyes of others.  When we are ashamed of someone, it’s because our attention is focused 100% on ourselves and so we will do anything, say anything, deny anything to prop ourselves up, even if that means someone else needs to be injured, diminished, put down.

Being ashamed of Jesus and his words means that when he tells people that the secret to life is giving that life away, we take a few steps away from Jesus.  We find ways to explain away what he said.  We find ways to tell people what Jesus REALLY meant, and it was not that you actually have to live sacrificially he meant . . . be nice.  Be kind.  Work hard.  Seize God’s better dream for your future!

In a day when people look to the church to help them grow their business, raise successful children, secure their financial future, and even have a more fulfilling sex life in marriage, do we have the courage to stand up and admit that following Jesus will not guarantee any of those things?  As we try to attract people through our sparkling lineup of programs, can we admit that following Jesus involves suffering, setbacks, and a focus on our neighbors first of all that may well prove to be the death of the “Me and Mine First” attitude so pervasive in society today?

Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:

Was Peter worried about his master and friend, Jesus, or more worried about himself when he took it upon himself to rebuke Jesus for predicting upcoming suffering and death?  That is, did Peter worry that if such-and-such happened to Jesus, it could happen to also him?  Or was he being sheerly altruistic here in wanting to protect someone he loved from harm?  If your best friend says, “Well, mom and dad died horrible deaths from cancer and so I’m sure that I’m next,” you may respond by chiding him out of sheer love.  “Charlie, don’t talk that way!  God forbid you should get cancer, too!”  In that case, you’re thinking mostly about your friend.  True, you’re thinking about yourself a bit, too, and your desire to not lose your friend to disease and death but mainly you are zeroed in on Charlie.

It’s possible to read Peter’s rebuke of Jesus that way.  Peter loved his friend and as such didn’t want to see him get hurt.  He meant well.  But as it happened, his words could be exploited by Satan himself to tempt Jesus to go another way.

Whether that is the whole of it, probably that is at least part of it, and we sometimes miss this angle on Peter’s rebuke due to our focus on larger issues having to do with the meaning of being the Messiah, the Christ of God.  But to be fair to Peter, we need to acknowledge that good old fashioned love is at least part of what motivated Peter to say what he did.

But in this case, Peter did have something more in mind, too, and in the long run, that “something more” did have a lot to do with what Peter was hoping for in his own life.  After all, the disciples were sensing—and had been for a while now—that Jesus was up to something pretty big.  If Peter was a reflection of the other disciples, then they had collectively concluded—or started to conclude at least—that Jesus was no less than the long-promised Messiah of God, the Anointed One, the Chosen One, the Christ who would make all things new.  That’s no small thing to suspect of someone!  And it carries with it some expectations that are a little on the galactic side.

So when Peter rebuked Jesus for his grim talk about suffering and death, he was no doubt keeping his friend’s best interests in mind—no one wants to hear a loved one say dark and brooding things.  But he was thinking of himself, too.  As the master’s fortunes went, so would go the fortunes of his followers.  If Jesus went down the tubes, their dreams would go with him (and in the worst case scenario, they’d go down the tubes with him, too!).

Of course, Jesus knows that going down the tubes is the Gospel’s “downward way up” in the long run and if only Peter and company could stick with him long enough, they’d come to learn that blessed, albeit counterintuitive, truth.  And it is the same for us in the church today, too.  We stick with Jesus.  We go where he leads and do not forever try to beckon him down the path we’d prefer.  This may not be an easy thing to call people to today in such an upwardly mobile society of strivers and achievers, but it is the Gospel.

And that’s what we preach.

Textual Points:

There is a curious feature to the Greek language of verses 33 and 34 that a reader is all-but certain to miss in most any translation of the text.  Because in both verses—in nearly back-to-back sentences, in fact—Jesus uses the prepositional phrase opiso mou which means “behind me.”  In verse 33 he tells Peter that he has unwittingly become a spokesperson for Satan and so had to get opiso mou so as not to hinder Jesus’ forward movement.  But then in the next verse Jesus says that if anyone wants to get opiso mou, he had to take up his cross, etc.  The second instance of the preposition opiso may be a bit gratuitous: the verb “to follow” implies being behind the person you’re following without your having to note it specifically.  But perhaps Mark includes the phrase also the second time to make a point: in the long run, everyone gets in line behind Jesus.  He is the Cosmic Christ, the Creator, the firstborn from among the dead.  No one will ever get out in front of Jesus.  As King of kings and Lord of lords, he is the preminent one.  The only question is if you will be behind Jesus as a willing follower or if you will be back there because you got consigned there as a mini-Satan intent on tripping Jesus up.  One way of being back there paradoxically leads to life.  The other way of being back there may just mean that not only are you behind Jesus for now, but that you may eventually be left behind, too.

Illustration Idea:

Some while back I watched an episode of the classic TV show “The Waltons” in which the oldest son, John Boy, attends his first day of classes as a university student.  John Boy was raised in a poor family that lived in a very rural area of Virginia.  Across the years of the TV show, we viewers came to love and cherish the whole Walton clan, thereby forgetting that were we to encounter people who dressed like them, spoke like them, and lived like them in most any venue of our ordinary lives, we would probably view them as hillbilly types, as hicks and rubes.  But in the episode where John Boy starts his university education, we are reminded of this as we see the ways by which John Boy seeks to fit in with his more sophisticated classmates.  First of all, he drops the “Boy” part of his name—he’s just “John Walton, Jr.” now, not “John Boy Walton” as everyone at home calls him.  He also tries to drop phrases like “I reckon” and “pert near” from his speech even as he has traded in his usual country attire for a new suit with a bow tie.

But as fate would have, John had left behind a piece of paper he needed to get properly registered for his Fall classes and so his father has to bring it to him.  As Pa Walton pulls up to the university campus, we see him driving his ramshackle old clunker of a pickup truck that sputters and pops as it runs.  Pa is wearing a straw hat, a dingy plaid shirt, and a pair of jeans (held up with suspenders) that had seen better days.  Just to help set the scene, the music soundtrack plays some twangy banjo music.  So as Pa Walton pulls up, we see him through the eyes of John’s sophisticated classmates who roll their eyes and turn up their noses at the old hillbilly coming down the street in his sad old pickup truck.

Since John Boy / John Jr. has spent his day trying to fit in with his more urbane new classmates, there is a moment when you wonder whether he will acknowledge that this is his daddy coming down the street or if he will make up some story, tell some lie, or engage in some behavior by which to deny any connection with this man whom the others were already chalking up as some loser of a backward hick.  As it turns out, John freely acknowledges his father and takes whatever lumps to his status his classmates may wish to dole out.  (You didn’t expect less of John Boy now, did you?)

But it’s not difficult to imagine what might have happened had John Boy been a less loving and loyal son of his simple father.  Had he been ashamed of his father, he would have denied knowing him.  Or maybe he would admit to knowing him but then might have treated his father badly, acting superior to him even as he tells his father to get lost, to get out of sight as quickly as possible before he causes him any further embarrassment.  He could have pretended not to see him.  He could have ducked away before eye contact was made.

The point is that when we are ashamed of someone, we may deny really knowing him.  Or we treat him shabbily.  Or we take an eye-rolling posture over against him.  In and through it all, our being ashamed means that we worry that our status in life, what other people will think of us, will get diminished on account of the other person.  And that, Jesus tells us in Mark 8, just can never be so of us vis-à-vis the Father, the Son, or the holy Gospel.


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