Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2021
Mark 8:31-38 Commentary
One reads of such terrible things now and then. Stories about the happy couple who had a magical wedding and then died in a plane crash on the way to their honeymoon. Or the man who just got the promotion he had been dreaming of but who gets hit by a bus on his way home to tell his wife. Or as memorialized in the searing choral piece “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by Joel Thompson, we learn of the last words of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo whose last words to his mother before being shot 19 times by 4 police officers were “Mom, I’m going to college!” (The officers mistook Diallo for a serial rapist they heard was in the area. Diallo was unarmed. The officers were eventually all acquitted of manslaughter.)
Or consider Peter the disciple. Jesus had recently praised him for an accurate and good testimony as to the identity of Jesus. Jesus blessed him to the heavens. But suddenly only a little while later this same Jesus excoriates this same disciple, even going so far as calling him “Satan”!
It is the kind of turnaround that takes one’s breath away. It is in that sense also quite tragic.
What went wrong? How did Peter go from blessed saint to accursed devil in the span of minutes? Most of us know the answer: the disciples had been pining for the moment when Jesus would “make his move” and start a more public assault on the powers that be. And if he really is the Christ of God, well then, it was only a matter of time. But how could Jesus make anyone’s life better by having his own life end? Jesus’ proposal for dealing with this life’s woes seemed counter-intuitive, the exact opposite of how most people operate. Yet Jesus goes on to tell everyone this very plainly and simply. “If you want to get behind me, then you’ve got to give up your clutching at this life, go under the sentence of death by having a cross-bar draped over your shoulders, and just die.”
But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said. Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word psyche. The NIV first translates this as “life” in verse 35 but then switches to “soul” in verses 36 and 37, but in the original it is the same word throughout, the word psyche. Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God. If Jesus is who we Christians say he is (namely, the very Son of God), then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls. After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place. Who would know better than Jesus how they work?
But what Jesus tells us is an apparent paradox. What we all want is to hang on to the life we’ve got. Diminishment, despair, and ultimately death is what we all rather dearly want to avoid. Unless depression or grave illness has eclipsed for us any sense of life’s goodness, most of us would have to admit that most days, most of the time, we like being alive.
We enjoy a good laugh. We relish good food. We get a kick out of creation’s beauties. We feel satisfied when we’ve done some task really well. We’d give almost anything to keep on watching our children and grandchildren grow. Just in general we’re intrigued by the idea of life’s having a “next,” a new horizon with new possibilities, new things to explore. The notion that there might not be another “next” for us is what can rather quickly induce a marrow-chilling fear and a clutching desire to head off whatever it is that threatens our being able to click along pretty much the way we always have.
We don’t want life to end, which is why when Jesus predicts his own end, Peter tries to shout Jesus down. “Don’t talk that way, Master Jesus! If you’re the Messiah, then you’ve got to save your own life first of all so that you can save and then improve the lot of our lives, too!”
But no, Jesus has to go another way. He has to die, and if we’re smart, we’ll let him drag us down with him. Because this same Jesus also had something to say about what would happen three days later . . .
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.
In the Greek there is a curious parallel between verses 33 and 34. In verse 33, following Peter’s wrong-headed criticism, Jesus calls Peter a “satan” and tells him to go opiso mou, which means “behind me.” Then in the very next verse Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow opiso mou, they need to deny themselves and take up the cross. The second use of that phrase opiso mou is not necessary in Greek since the Greek verb “to follow” automatically carries with it the sense of “behind me”–it is not necessary to spell it out and so it usually isn’t.
But Mark has Jesus repeat opiso mou as a way to create a parallel to Peter in the previous verse. Maybe what Mark is saying is that there are two ways to get behind Jesus: if you insist on holding onto this life, of seeking the solution to life’s difficulties by grabbing still more of that same life, then you can get behind Jesus as a satan.
But if you are willing to let go, to release your fierce grip on your own ego–and on the life you hope will boost and bolster that ego–if you can just die along with Jesus, then you can get behind Jesus as a disciple. Then you can be behind Jesus as a follower who is back there with a clear view of what Jesus does so that you can then imitate him. One way or the other everyone ends up behind Jesus. The question is whether you’ll be back there so you can go where Jesus goes or whether you’ll be back there to be left behind. If you are back there to follow, then even though you first die, you will end up with abundant resurrection life. If you end up back there because you decided to make the goodies of this life your be-all and end-all, then you also will die, but that will be the end of you, too.
Throughout much of her life actress Helen Hayes was regularly hailed as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” Clearly this was a lofty, flattering title. Ms. Hayes must have felt honored each time she heard it.
Or maybe not.
Because as it turns out, Ms. Hayes is the one who came up with that title for herself! She cooked it up, stuck it into a press release, and forever after journalists made use of this sobriquet or nickname whenever they wrote articles about Hayes. But really the same thing happens all the time. In our age of media hype it is not at all unusual for actors, athletes, and yes, even preachers to come up with their own sobriquets or designations.
Press releases from Christian publishing houses now regularly promote Rev. So-and-So by claiming he is “widely acclaimed as the most dramatic preacher of our times.” Or someone may be touted as “the most sought after speaker on today’s lecture circuit.” A few years ago Newsweek magazine ran an article on contemporary preaching which included a list of the top twenty current American preachers. Within weeks you could not read the names of most of those twenty folks without immediately reading also the line “Recently named by Newsweek one of the most influential preachers of the late-twentieth century!”
But of course the sign of really having made it is not just having such a distinction attached to your name. No, the truly stratospheric are themselves the point of comparison. So now we often hear the claim that a certain person is “The Michael Jordan of . . .” as in the Olympics some years ago when Hermann Maier was called “The Michael Jordan of downhill skiing” and George Hackl “The Michael Jordan of luge!” And the list goes on.
In Mark 8 Jesus had just admitted to indeed being “the Christ,” the Messiah who could save the world. Peter and the others were no doubt thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed. Talk about your sizzling designations! They were insiders to the Christ! Surely life would soon get very sweet very fast. Jesus had no place to go but up. The days of the Caesar were numbered. Israel would soon be back with Jesus sitting on a golden throne with inlaid mother of pearl even as the disciples would be co-rulers of this new empire. Gone would be the days of dusty feet, rumbling stomachs, and tattered fishing nets. Soon they’d eat red snapper that someone else had caught, steamed with capers and tarragon by the palace chef and served on silver platters by servants eager to please the Messiah and his buddies.
Except that to bear the name of “Christ” leads to a very different kind of path after all.
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