Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2024

Mark 8:31-38 Commentary

Though it is not included in the lectionary selection, it is worth looking at the verses prior to our text. Seeing Peter go from acknowledging the truth about Jesus, the Christ, to doing what he does here, well, it’s quite the lenten journey.

Clearly, Peter does and doesn’t get it. His mental model of what the Messiah will do is in stark contrast to what Jesus is describing for the Son of Man. If Peter—and any other Christian—is going to follow Jesus to the cross, this is one of the things that will need to be addressed.

Of course, we can be understanding of Peter’s mix-up because his mental model was likely the same one that every other Jewish person had after generations of waiting for the Messiah. It just goes to show us how easy it is to get things wrong along the way: it may lead us to be so overconfident in our expectations that we rebuke God.

For that is what Peter does here, the “rebuke” is the same thing Jesus does to unclean spirits in Mark 1.25 and 9.25, and to the storm in Mark 4.39. But it’s also how Jesus tells people to not say anything about the miracles they’ve experienced in Mark 3.12 and 8.30. At the very least, it’s a word that indicates its speaker means business.

But in Peter’s case, the “business” model is all wrong. In Jesus’s eyes, it becomes a teachable moment. First, he looks around at all the disciples then says directly to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Essentially, Jesus tells Peter to get back in line because he has no idea what he’s talking about. He needs to listen because, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’s words, Peter “has no idea how God works.”

That’s exactly the lenten journey: realizing that we have no idea how God works and turning to Jesus on his journey to the cross in order to learn. Expanding his audience from the disciples to all of the crowd that has been following him on the road, Jesus continues the teachable moment: being a follower of Jesus means letting go of our own ideas and doing the life of faith Jesus’s way; lose in order to gain and realizing that gaining doesn’t always mean winning.

Jesus uses the image of the cross, something everyone listening could immediately imagine. Anyone in the Roman Empire would know its meaning: someone carrying a cross is on their way to die, condemned by the powers of this world as a threat too dangerous, too disruptive, too much of a nuisance, to keep around. People condemned to death by the Empire are condemned because they won’t or can’t conform.

The cross of Christ continues to carry this upside-down meaning, and it ought to shape our understanding of what it means to suffer and how we define what our “crosses” are as Christians. At its core, it is to be maladjusted to the ways that keep the world humming as the “sinful generation.” It is to be like Jesus Christ was, and therefore to live differently. It is a clash with the powers that be, but one waged with dangerous meekness and lived according to its own standards.

When Jesus says that the suffering Son of Man will be ashamed of those who were ashamed of him when he comes again, do you think he’s talking about those of us who continuously respond like Peter did? If we keep looking to measures that Christ rejects, we’ve fallen out of line with the Messiah. Where does our definition of power come from? What do we think the Messiah will do for us? Do we have any idea how God actually works?

Lent is a time to take such an inventory. Why are we following Jesus? How are we following him? Who approves (or benefits) from the ways we are living our lives? What does modern condemnation of the way we live our lives actually look like? Answering these sorts of questions will help us consider whether or not we’re losing our lives or whether we’re trying to gain the whole world.

And thus we return to our buddy Peter, our harbinger. Peter thought God would match might-for-might in kind, one upping political power and military force with his own heavenly army that would establish supremacy in the mold and method of the way the world appears to work.

Jesus does match might-for-might, but upside-down. From the beginning, being born unknown and in the dinginess of the stable, to the end when he appears to lose by dying on the cross, Jesus shows that he is living by a different standard. The only people who have a chance to really understand are the people who try his way of losing on for themselves. To be maladjusted to the patterns of this world, sometimes even the patterns of the modern church, and to seek Jesus Christ and his good news is the only way we can take up our cross and follow him.

Still need to get the sermon juices flowing? You may find it helpful to revisit this sermon commentary from ordinary time a few years ago.

Textual Point

The lectionary helps us keep focused by not including Mark 9.1 even though it is in the same setting and to the same audience as Jesus’s cross speech. It is an interesting one to consider, though, since part of that speech is Jesus’s promise that some there who choose to lose their life will find it. Does this lend the concept of “death” in 9.1 a non-physical meaning?

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Illustration Idea

Christopher Nolan is famous for his film style, bending timelines and storytelling norms without providing many (if any) clues to his audience of where they are in the narrative. The experience often leads the viewer to want to watch the film again just to see if they made the correct meaning. Whereas other filmmakers give the audience “Easter eggs” (implanted clues that we often don’t see until we watch something again), Nolan takes “show, don’t tell” to the extreme. I find Jesus’s way of keeping his Messiahship a secret, but openly talking about his suffering, a similar method: he keeps giving experiences and teachings about something that won’t make sense until after the end. Otherwise, like Peter, we’ll keep setting the scene with the wrong impression of what being the Messiah means. The mental model needs to change.


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