Who is the Jesus we are following? Sermon for Adel Parish church, Lent 2, 2021.
Mark 8: 31 – end
I’m very fond of St Peter…he’s such a real, three-dimensional character. I particularly love him as portrayed in this film…’The Miracle Maker’…which I used in school.
In the film we first meet Peter as St Luke introduces him…the weary fisherman returning from a night’s fishing with empty nets, only to be told by a carpenter of all people to go back out to sea…in broad daylight. I love the way he rolls his eyes, but grumpily goes along with Jesus; his astonishment as the nets fill so full they can barely haul them in; his fear and fascination as he says to Jesus, “go away, Lord, for I’m a sinner.”
And throughout the film he’s there in the thick of the action…leaping impetuously in, foot in mouth…always struggling to understand but drawn magnetically by the person of Jesus.
And so we see him in today’s gospel. Just a few verses earlier, it’s Peter who acknowledges, ‘You are the Messiah’. And yet here he is rebuking the man he’s just announced as divine! Here’s Peter telling Jesus, he’s got it all wrong…a Messiah can’t be rejected and killed.
Foolish maybe…but Jesus’ response seems a little harsh, ‘Get behind me Satan’.
I wonder, did that well-meant intervention take Jesus back into the wilderness, to those temptations? Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness working out what it meant to be Jesus the Messiah, wrestling the temptation to be the Messiah the world expects.
Surely no one would follow a weak, starving leader…so he was tempted to provide food for himself, to gratify his own desires. Surely a credible leader needs to move in the ‘right’ circles, have power over others…so he was tempted to take everything, to have everyone kneel before him. Surely a Messiah needs to appear divine…so he was tempted to stand high above everyone…and just to make it obvious, have angels catch him as he leapt.
If you’ve given something up for Lent…you’ll know 40 days is a long time. That time in the wilderness was a tough battle for a man genuinely tempted to turn from the cross and be a different sort of Messiah. So perhaps Peter’s well-meaning intervention, just as the danger builds up and the cross looms, is a temptation Jesus doesn’t want. ‘Get behind me Satan’
In Lent we try to work out what it means to be followers of Jesus, but perhaps like Peter, we first have to work out who Jesus really is.
One reason I love Peter so much is that in his mistakes he just voices what others are probably thinking – but too scared to say.
For the disciples, realising Jesus is the Messiah, then being told he must suffer, be rejected and killed, was a massive adjustment to their expectations. We come to it after 2000 years of knowing the end of the story…yet we still rebuke Jesus…try to make him into the sort of God we expect.
If he can feed 5000 with one small picnic, why are so many hungry? If he can save Jairus’ daughter, why not our children, why not all those we’ve lost this year? If he can calm the storm, what about the storms of natural disaster, war and violence which rage today?
I’ve asked those questions…and been asked them…and struggled with them. Peter is just voicing our misunderstandings. We too struggle to understand how Jesus’ suffering, rejection and death, can somehow be what saves us.
Jesus refused to put himself in the centre. He chose to give not take; to heal not injure; to show mercy not vengeance; to forgive not condemn; to love not hate. He chose it because this path allowed God to work in him and through him…overcoming even death, and giving us a way back to God.
This week Jesus invites us to, ‘deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.’ To do this faithfully, we must put aside our ideas of what a saviour should be like, and look properly at the one who calls us to follow.
I suspect we won’t understand…I don’t think Peter ever really did…but like Peter we might step out in faith…because we find in these choices, so counter cultural and difficult to grasp…fulness of life we find nowhere else.
Looking at what Satan offered Jesus, we recognise things that promise so much…but lead to death rather than life. The temptation to attend to our own creature comforts before we consider the needs of others, leads to the inequality we see all around us…and research tells us that in unequal societies, everyone is less content.
The temptation to be important…powerful, causes us to see others as expendable…only important as they feed our importance. Just look at the oligarchs and dictators of the world to see this writ large. And the person so desperate to be at the centre ends up isolated, paranoid, driven by fear and hate.
The temptation for our religion to be an outward show of holiness…rather than a relationship with the living God.
What Jesus offers instead, is the promise that if we’re ready to take ourselves from the centre…to deny ourselves…lose our lives as we plan them…then we will gain life in all its abundance.
Probably not wealth, or even better health…but the discovery Peter eventually made that in following Jesus we can give everything up only to find it given back in a new and more beautiful form. A faith community willing to do that can surely be a blessing to the whole parish.
In a moment we’ll sing that wonderful hymn ‘Will you come and follow me?’, which asks…
‘Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
‘Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?
‘Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around?’
A pretty good prayer for today as we seek to recognise Jesus as the Messiah he really is – and still deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.