Keeping Jesus secret

Pentecost 16 – 2015

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

May God’s word, written and spoken, speak to our hearts and minds so that we might know God’s Son Jesus the Christ and in so knowing allow ourselves to deny ourselves such that Jesus is our all-in-all. Amen.

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus strongest words of rebuke are directed towards Peter at the very point at which Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ. What is going on here? Why does Jesus react so strongly? Why is it that when Peter demonstrates both his insight and his concern that Jesus not only goes on the offensive but also identifies the spokesperson for the disciples as the devil? To grasp the answers to these questions we have to understand the strategy that lies behind Mark’s gospel and Mark’s understanding of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.

As I have said on other occasions, the gospels are not simply random collections of memories nor are they an orderly and exact account of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are in fact carefully crafted writings designed to gain the listeners’ attention and so to bring them to faith in Jesus. Like any good story, the gospels build suspense and come to a climax before finally coming to resolution and they make good use of literary techniques to achieve their end. In this the author of Mark is no different from the other gospel writers. He develops his plot in such a way that Jesus’ identity and destiny are only gradually revealed. In fact one of the characteristics of Mark’s gospel is that of secrecy. A reader could be excused for thinking that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel does not want to be recognised, that he does not want anyone to know who he is.

Secrecy is essential for the author of Mark. Central to his gospel is the cross. In his account of Jesus, Jesus is primarily depicted as the suffering Son of God. Mark knows that this is a contradiction in terms. It does not make sense that God would be vulnerable, that God would appear on earth, not as a leader but as a servant, a servant who would have to suffer and die. It is because a suffering Messiah is difficult to understand that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel reveals his true identity only gradually. Jesus fears that if he exposes his hand too soon those who follow him will form the wrong impression. If he reveals that he is the Messiah, they will cast him in a mould that fits their expectations and will be disappointed when he fails to conform.

The wisdom of Jesus’ caution becomes obvious in today’s reading, which represents a watershed moment in Mark’s gospel. Up until now, Jesus’ true nature has been recognised only by the demons whom he has exorcised. Today Jesus takes a risk and asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Christ.” Peter is of course correct, but only partly so. He understands that Jesus is the one promised by God, but he fails to understand what this means in Jesus’ case. This is evidenced when Jesus announces that he must suffer and die. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. In Peter’s world the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah comes to lead and to save.

It is this misapprehension that elicits Jesus’ strong rebuke. Peter has it all wrong. Despite knowing and working with Jesus for some time, he still thinks in human terms and categories. Peter is only able to identify Jesus according to known criteria. He simply cannot cope with the idea of a Messiah who does not conform to his expectations.

Over the next two weeks we will see that the disciples generally cannot come to terms with a Messiah who is not a triumphant leader, but a suffering servant. Each time Jesus announces his death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrate by their words and actions that they really have no idea – either what this means for Jesus or for their discipleship. It is no wonder that Jesus doesn’t want them to tell anyone about him. Until they fully understand his identity and destiny there is no point their sharing their knowledge with anyone. Unless they really comprehend who and what Jesus is, the crucifixion will make no sense at all.

Jesus’ question to Peter could well be Jesus’ question to us. How well do we understand Jesus? Do we make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ vulnerability and frailty? Do we too soon elevate Jesus to Son of God without fully understanding his crucifixion and death? Do we really comprehend that Jesus life and ministry are a model for our own? That is, do we really understand that serving God means serving others? Have we grasped that following Jesus requires complete surrender – putting our own needs and wants aside in order to give to him our whole selves – heart, mind and body? Would we, should the occasion require, give even our whole lives?

Do we really comprehend the identity and destiny of Jesus? Or do we like Peter and the disciples still think in human terms? Does the real nature of Jesus remain a mystery for us or have we fully grasped the contradiction of a suffering Son of God?

“Who do you think that I am?” is a question that echoes through the ages, forcing each succeeding generation to examine their hearts and ask if they really do understand. It is a question that challenges every age to embrace a Saviour who must suffer and die before he rises in glory.

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