Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 12, 2021
Mark 8:27-38 Commentary
This is a story of being on the way but not there yet. The lectionary skipped over the story of the blind man in Bethsaida having his sight restored in stages, but we have a symbolic outworking of it here in our personal stand-in, Peter.
As Jesus and his disciples head to Caesarea, Jesus strikes up an anything-but-casual conversation: “Who do people say I am?” followed closely by, “and what about you? Who do you say I am?” Multiple disciples are said to answer the first question, but only Peter chimes in on the second. “You are the Messiah,” (or “Christ” depending on your translation). Remember that “Messiah” is a loaded term; it indicates the anticipated deliverer of Israel, the one they’ve been waiting a very long time for. In other words, it’s an idea that’s had time to harden into a distinct mold in their psyches.
Of course, Peter’s right in his declaration about the Christ, but he doesn’t yet fully understand its implications. He can partly see, but not yet fully. He is trying to keep the mold of the Messiah and Jesus. In fact, Peter won’t fully see that Christ broke the mold until after Jesus’ resurrection… I wonder if Jesus told them not to talk about what they “know” because of how difficult it will be for them to understand it without the Holy Spirit’s help (which plays out in Acts). Nonetheless, Jesus takes the opportunity to begin to upend their expectations of what it means for him to be the Messiah by giving them a sense of the troubles to come.
And good ol’ Peter, at it again, thinks he’s doing Jesus a favour by pulling him aside and telling him to quit this negative talk—it will do no one any good and it doesn’t fit the expected pattern. Peter does not approve, he likes the old image much better because his whole mind has been set on it for as long as he can remember. While Peter listens to Jesus, it’s like in the movies when the record scratch noise plays in his head: hold up there Jesus!
It turns out that the saying “Tell God your plans and see him laugh” might be too soft. “Tell God what he must be and see him turn his back on you and call you the devil” is more like it. Disapprove of God’s way and God will make it clear that he disapproves of your implicit devotion to the evil one. Peter’s view (very likely the view of everyone else on that walk with Jesus) was deeply ensconced in one made here on earth as human minds spent centuries mixing the Scriptures with their hopes, dreams, and understanding of God into the mold that produced their image of the coming Messiah.
But God’s divine mold produced a product incompatible with the human idea. And like Jesus did back in chapter seven regarding the “tradition of the elders,” Jesus calls the crowd’s attention to himself so that he can help the whole group understand the consequences of the choice they have collectively made and now live by.
Walking along with Jesus does not make you his follower. Denying all of your held convictions, rising up to a way of “defeat” (symbolized by the cross), and going after Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he does, that’s what does it. Talking about the grand ideas and having the right answer doesn’t fulfill it, obeying his commands does. Christ has a mold of his own, designed for anyone who is called by his name.
We’ve heard the words in verses 35-38 so much that they might have lost some of their depth. The word for life, for instance, isn’t the generic version of the word, but the one that is about our life-force, what animates us—the power of living itself. And the word for “lose” isn’t just a matter of misplacing something, but of being permanently separated from something. Plus, when Jesus tells us it’s possible to have our lives “saved,” he doesn’t mean a preservation of life for this earth but also an eternal salvation. In other words: we have things that drive us to live, that guide our actions, our purpose in life; if that thing is not God, then we need to disconnect from it in order to reconnect with God and thereby have our life preserved for eternity.
I especially appreciate the word “lose” here. Along with this idea of being separated from something, it means “to ruin” something. For Peter, Jesus “ruined” the role of the Messiah with his talk of suffering and death. Now, Jesus invites him (and everyone else) to ruin their own lives, according to their family and friends and patterns of this world, and to do it for his sake. He invites them to choose the divine mold of what ought to be and it goes against the grain of this world.
The mold the world forms, or the way of God. A choice for one means rejecting the other. In their own ways, each will be difficult, but one is lost in the here and now, and the other is aiming at something much bigger. What Jesus wants the crowd to understand is that discipleship is about ruining your life in order to disconnect from every life-force that is not from above, about changing one’s mindset about what matters, and not just having new views about things like who God is, but actually putting teeth to them through obedient living.
Jesus turns his back on Peter. Just sit with that for a second. Jesus will have nothing to do with continuing a picture of success and salvation that’s tied and rooted to anything in this world. On this, there is no compromise or middle ground. Peter would have never imagined himself as being in opposition to Christ, yet, here it’s proven true: the unrealized consequence of a deeply held worldview leads Peter to be ashamed of what Jesus is saying is true. In turn, Jesus is ashamed of him. Fortunately, we know that this is only a moment in their story together, and that Jesus draws Peter back to himself on multiple occasions, reorienting his views, motivations, and connection to the power of his life-force, the Holy Spirit. And if Peter is our stand-in in this story, he’s also our exemplar in these other texts. May it be so for us as it was for him.
The gospel writer makes effective use of verb voice (passive or active) in this passage, particularly in verses 31 and 36.
In verse 31, Jesus is describing what is to come. Illustrated by the passive voice (he will have these things done to him), Jesus will be rejected and be killed. But then, in the active voice, meaning Jesus will be actively engaged in the act of rising from the dead.
Verse 36’s use of verb voice isn’t as clear in the English as it is in verse 31, but there is an active infinitive and a passive infinitive in the rhetorical question that Jesus asks:
What does it profit (main verb)
to gain (active infinitive) the whole world and
forfeit (passive infinitive) one’s life?
I think that the message here is that when we actively choose what we seek to gain, there will be things that we passively, maybe even unknowingly, “give up” because of that choice. In other words, we may not have realized the particular consequence of our active choice, but it happens all the same. Jesus’ rhetorical question is actually a profound warning: choosing “glory” from the world means you implicitly reject true glory—the glory of God. In the second century, Irenaeus described it this way: “the glory of God is living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” We ought to “want it all,” not the whole world, but the life found in Christ. Hard as we try to compromise or hold onto both, we can only have one aim.
One of the biggest stories to come out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer (2021) was Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the artistic gymnastics team competition for mental health reasons. Of course, there were some who, like Peter with Jesus, were ashamed of her for her choice; they did not like that she was bucking the mold and image of American success. They thought it weak and selfish, and against the ethos of American grit and determination that overcomes all weakness. (Not to mention that we think we have a right to demand things from others in order to keep our own ideals and comforts—especially from women of colour…)
Simone’s decision, though, was to choose a different way. The implicit, passive consequence of her choice meant that her team would not have her scores (they did have her morale and cheerleading from the sidelines), but explicitly, Simone chose her life. Professional gymnasts have explained how, for an elite athlete of Simone’s caliber, she could easily have been paralyzed by trying to do what she does while suffering from “the twisties.” We saw that by choosing her own safety in that moment, she was choosing to trust that her life is more important than a gold medal. After all, what would it profit her to have a team medal, any medal for that matter, but lose her ability to walk?
Then she tweeted this:
It turns out, this choice to view her life as bigger than Olympic performance enabled her to experience an even deeper truth. To use the image that Jesus uses, Simone realized that her life-force has nothing to do with her accomplishments at all. Like Simone, we can think that’s true, but until we have to make some decisions based on it, becoming wholly dependent on the grace of God, let ourselves melt into the mold of discipleship and its practices, we won’t know it as true.
A quick contrast. A number of years ago, I remember hearing a story about a man who died 40 hours into a marathon video game tournament. The police said when they went to the scene, all of the other participants had simply continued playing (and were still playing as they attended to the body). A cursory google search reveals that this was not an isolated occurrence. Apparently, the drive to play blinds some of these players to the danger they are exposing themselves to, and in turn, they become numb to everything and everyone else. In the process, they lose a part of their humanity. What are they living for, what are they hoping to gain, as they risk it all?
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