(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on the second Sunday in Lent, 2/25/18, at the 9:30AM service. The text is Mark 8:31-38. Below is the preaching manuscript of the sermon. The written sermon and the preached sermon differ. The manuscript is not carefully edited for grammar.)
Earlier this week, my wife, Jessica was teaching our son, Malachi to fold T-shirts. As you can imagine, at two years old it was very neat and orderly. The scene brought back a memory from early on in our marriage. Jessica and I were folding laundry together and when we put our piles together we realized that both of us folded T-shirts very differently. I had been taught that you fold a T-shirt so that it is square and compact. Jessica on the other hand folds her t-shirts so that they are more rectangular. It was an odd moment, because until then, I had never imagined that you could fold a T-shirt any other way.
That experience taught me something about the assumptions we have about our world. All of us know that our opinions and beliefs are debatable. If you take any hot button topic, you know that some people will agree with you and others will not. That is just a fact. However, it is those assumptions that we have about how the world works, those beliefs which sit deep within us, unquestioned and unchallenged that can be the most difficult to change. It is often these pieces of ourselves which ignite the fiercest debates and most impassioned arguments.
Our text this morning tells us the story of when Peter’s assumption about Jesus being challenged and rejected. As Jesus went throughout Nazareth healing the sick, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry, he developed a reputation. These signs and wonders led people to believe that perhaps Jesus was someone special. Although everyone had an opinion. Some thought he was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, returned from heaven, and others saw him as a prophet. It is Peter, however, who actually gets it right when he tells Jesus that he is the Messiah.
This is a big deal. The Messiah is the one that all the Jewish people had been waiting on for centuries. The messiah was their hope for freedom, liberation, and justice. Such good news deserves to be shared, however, Jesus quickly tells Peter that he is to tell no one. Such a request is unexpected. Jesus does not give Peter any rationale for keeping this secret. Instead he launches into a lesson about how the Messiah must suffer. That he will be rejected by the leaders of the community, the leaders of the church, the best academic scholars and that at the end this messiah will die and then be raised again in three days.
I get the sense from reading this passage that Jesus wanted to keep his identity a secret because he knew that the culture’s understanding of the messiah was one of those assumptions that Peter and so many others had was incorrect. When most first century Jewish people pictured the Messiah, the image that came to their mind was a military figure. A couple of centuries earlier, a man named Judas Maccabaeus was called the Messiah when he temporarily overthrew the empire and established an independent Jewish state. The Jewish people enjoyed about a hundred years of relative independence from Rome before they were conquered once again and brought back under the powerful, and now suspicious, authority of Rome.
This image of the Messiah still lingered in the imaginations of all those who hoped for a Messiah to come again. And so, when Peter hears Jesus description of a Messiah who suffers, is rejected, and dies this plan is unacceptable. Rome is too big an enemy to defeat if you are planning on losing all of your powerful friends and then dying in the end.
Not being one to keep his opinions to himself, Peter takes Jesus aside and lets him have it. The word that Mark uses here is the Greek word, “epitimao,” which the NRSV translates as “rebuke.” Epitimao is a word that Mark uses when something or someone is working against your goals and desires. Jesus uses it other places against the demonic spirits, it is used against the wind and the sea. It is also used against the disciples when they are trying to keep the children away from Jesus.
In Mark 8, however, both Peter and Jesus’ use the strongest form of the word. My Greek professor in college, preferred a translation in this instance that includes too many expletives to be repeated in a sermon. Such was the strength of Peter and Jesus’s frustration.
Whereas Peter challenged Jesus is private, Jesus knows that Peter’s views are not in isolation, so in front of all the disciples he tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” In the Gospels, Jesus does not get angry often. And so, when he does, it is important to pay attention to it and see what it is that caused such a strong reaction. What is so dangerous about Peter’s view of the Messiah that Jesus would associate it with Satan the one whose work is to work consistently against God’s will?
Jesus summarizes his problem by saying that Peter is focusing not on Godly things but instead on human ones. The problem lies not just in his belief about the messiah, but also in something deeper. It is Peter has allowed the categories of this world to so shape his thinking and his beliefs that when Jesus shows up to bring the Good News of the Gospel he responds with anger and frustration.
Peter’s understanding of the messiah is based on power and strength. He, like most of the other Jewish people at the time is tired of living in fear. Romans were experts in fear. Along the side of the road, they would crucify people who rebelled and spoke out against the empire and then they would leave their bodies hanging there as a reminder to everyone else. The Roman leaders would regularly parade their military around the streets of Jerusalem during holidays as a reminder of their strength and power. Every person lived in fear of what would happen if they got on Rome’s bad side. And so, it makes sense that Peter and others would want to feel safe-to hope that God was going to come down and defeat Rome with a greater display of strength and might.
However, this is not who God has shown himself to be. When God chose to enter into our world and bring salvation to all people, God curiously did not choose to use power like we understand it. God did not come with an army of angels bearing swords and shields. God did not choose plagues or fire and brimstone. Instead, God chose to become a vulnerable human, born in a rural village, forced to flee for his life. In his ministry, Jesus responded to opposition, not with aggression, but with love. When the guards came to arrest him, Jesus’ disciple’s pulled their weapons, but Jesus reused to fight back. Instead, he healed the servant of the high priest who had come to arrest him, and he submitted to the guards allowing himself to be beaten, whipped, and even crucified.
Jesus tells the crowds, “If any of you want to be my disciples, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life, will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” In the thinking of this world, these words seem contradictory. Our culture teaches us that if we want something we need to take it—to grab life by the horns. Discipleship, however, is not characterized by a clinched fist, but by an open palm. As followers of Jesus we don’t act first, we wait. God initiates, we respond. God gives, we receive. This way of life is hard, and yet when we deny ourselves, when we turn away from our instincts to control and manipulate, we discover that we receive so much more than we could have grasped on our own.
When we give up trying to control our lives and decide to follow Jesus it is a vulnerable thing. Instead of trusting in our own abilities and strength, we instead choose to trust in a God who we cannot see and whose actions we cannot predict. And yet it is this complete trust in God that we are called to as disciples of Jesus.
Trusting God with your work is one thing, but trusting God when your life feels threatened is another thing entirely. With each terrorist attack or school shooting, we become more aware of how vulnerable we are. It is one thing to hear about those things in countries you cannot pronounce, but, unfortunately, it hits home more when the reports are from your own state.
Our natural human response when we feel threatened is to try and protect ourselves by any means necessary. For some people this looks like sending weapons into schools to fight back against aggressors. For others this looks like controlling the proliferation and access to weapons. There are absolutely responses to shootings that can and should happen, and we need to be advocates for those changes, however, our focus this morning is not on laws, but on the deeper desire for security that drives both responses.
Jesus does not promise security for his disciples, and indeed he does not want that to be their goal. Security is the language of this world. Security means that I am going to keep myself safe even if that means that I need to keep some people out. It means that I am going to keep me, my family, and my community from harm, even if it means that I need to take another person’s life.
No, Jesus does not desire security. Jesus instead comes to bring Shalom—Peace. In fully realized Shalom, there is no violence, not because of mutually assured destruction, but because of mutually shared love and community. Shalom is a world not where some people are out and others are in, but instead one where all people are welcomed into the community and live together as one. The problem for us arises in that while , when achieved, security and Shalom coexist, we cannot get to Shalom by seeking our own security.
I want to introduce you to a man named Michael Sharp, his family called him M.J. M.J. was born in Kansas and then shortly after college he went to work as a peacemaker in the Congo. Over a three year period, M.J. and his team convinced 1,600 rebels to leave the jungle and the war.1 They accomplished this not through a show of force, but instead through building relationships with the rebels. He would sit in the shade of banana trees and hear their stories connecting with them on a personal level. M.J. and his Congolese coworkers entered into the jungles each time with no security at all. He never carried a weapon. And as a result, his work brought the beginnings of Shalom to 1,600 individuals and to the country as a whole.
Our society right now is so afraid. The tragedy at Parkland continues to linger and questions over how we keep ourselves and our children safe dominate the conversations around us. But I want to ask us a different question: What would it look like for us to strive not for security but for Shalom? What would it look like if we focused less on how we can protect ourselves and more on how we bring others into our community?
You may say that this Shalom is dangerous, it will never work, impossible to achieve. The rabbis, chief priests, and scribes felt the same way about Jesus. They thought he was so dangerous that they conspired with the Romans and had him killed,. However, the empty tomb at the end of that story goes a long way to demonstrating that the idea of God’s shalom is persistent and determined. Paul reminds us that “the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:19).
M.J. died in Congo in March of last year. He was on a new assignment with the United Nations and was kidnapped and killed, buried with his interpreter in a shallow grave. Doing the work of Shalom is dangerous. Jesus is clear about that. But the loss of M.J.’s life is not the end of that story either. I heard M.J.’s story last summer when his parents spoke in a worship service I attended with hundreds thousands I think of youth. You could feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit as they shared with all of the young people M.J.’s commitment to Jesus and to the work of peace in or world. Then they asked the question: Who will take their son’s place? Who will continue the work of bringing Shalom to our world?
All of us are not called to go to Congo. But all of us are called to do something. And that process begins by checking our assumptions. What thoughts, beliefs, and opinions have been formed and shaped more by the world than by the Gospel? Are we like Peter so formed and shaped by the world that we are grasping for security when God is drawing us to Shalom? It is only after we check these assumptions that we can truly surrender to God, deny ourselves and follow God wherever that may lead. Amen.