THIS WAS MY FIRST SERMON AFTER COMING BACK FROM MY SELF-IMPOSED EXILE FROM PREACHING AND FROM THE DARKNESS OF DOUBT
What if the Big Bang was reset button for a previous universe that got messed up?
What if algebra teachers are really pirates and they’re using children to find X so they can find the treasure?
What if I told you Easter is more than one day?
What if the meteor that killed the dinosaurs was really a UFO and we are all aliens?
What if one day Google was deleted and we couldn’t Google what happened to Google?
These type of what if scenarios are all over the internet and range from deeply philosophical – What if everything I am going through is preparing me for what I want in life? – to the plainly silly – What if I have a child who is allergic to dogs and I have to get rid of the child?
Our Gospel reading this morning came from Mark and there is a big “What if?” question about the whole Gospel: “What if the disciples had been more perceptive and not such “slow studies?” We know that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ pet name for the disciples is “ye of little faith.” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) At least they have a little, and, by the end of the gospel they do make progress.
But in Mark, they contest Jesus each time he foretells his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, they quake in fear in two separate storms at sea, and they are unable to heal a boy possessed by a spirit because they forget to pray. Finally, after dramatic promises of undying loyalty, they abandon Jesus to those who abuse and kill him.
I guess the answer to the big “What if?” question − what if the disciples had “gotten it?”− is that they would be positive role models for us rather than cautionary tales. They wouldn’t have abdicated the function of “positive role model” to several people that appear in Mark’s gospel who, while not disciples, are better models of faith than the disciples, including a man possessed by demons and a blind man whose faith allowed them to be healed, the woman who anointed Jesus as if preparing him for burial and Joseph of Arimathea, who used his own tomb to lay Jesus in.
Of course, if the disciples in Mark had been better role models for us, we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of feeling superior to them and thinking smugly to ourselves, “If we had been there, we would have gotten it the first time.”
But what if we had been there? There is a question. Let’s delve into this text a bit deeper with a couple of “What ifs” of our own:
- What if Jesus had not asked the disciples who others thought he was and who they thought he was?
- What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
Lets start with the first of these:
What if Jesus had not taken his public and personal opinion poll of the disciples?
Well, they would not have had been challenged to express their thoughts and feelings or crystallize their convictions into words so that they could evaluate and hopefully improve them. It’s significant that the question comes as Jesus led his disciples into a region, Caesarea Philippi, where Pan was honoured and the cult of the emperor was practiced, at the northernmost reaches of Israel and a predominantly Gentile setting.
It is vital that we twenty-first century Christians take the pulse of our cultural context to understand who those outside the church think Christ is and who they perceive Christians to be. If, as some studies suggest, the view outside looking in, is that Christians are judgmental and unloving, then the Church needs to ask itself, what can we do about the aspersion that this casts on the identity of Jesus whom we allege that we follow? If Christ’s reputation suffers because of our stunted discipleship, then what are we going to do about it?
But Jesus doesn’t stop at asking the disciples for a public opinion poll. He asks them for a personal one. “Who do you say that I am?” Is that different from public opinion? While we are fortunate enough to live in a pluralistic society and have much to learn from the religious choices of others, still, we need to be able to give an account of our own. If we have chosen Christ, then why? Who is he to us? Who are we becoming as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus continually asks us that question. If we don’t hear it, then maybe we’re not listening. In the world of the text, it is those who are already “on the way” with Jesus who hear his question and who are then challenged continually to reflect on, articulate, and live out who he is to them. It stands to reason, then, that the mission of the Church is to invite others to embark on “the way” with us. Not so much so that we can give them all the answers, but so that we can invite them to hear Jesus’ question and think on it for themselves.
And so we come to the second question:
What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
That could have meant one of two things. It could have meant that he decided to hold his disagreement inside for the time being. Or, it could have meant that he was starting to get with the program and finally understand.
In the latter case, it would have meant that while he was repulsed by Jesus’ prediction of future persecution and death, he was neither going to stand in Jesus’ way nor abandon him.
Brainstorming about what it would have meant if Peter hadn’t rebuked Jesus clarifies for me the significance of the fact that he did. I think his rebuke of Jesus foreshadows his eventual falling away and denying all knowledge of Jesus when it mattered most.
We twenty-first century disciples have the glorious benefit of hindsight. That means that, while we can join in Peter’s rebuke, we don’t have to join in his eventual denial. They say it’s not healthy to bottle up emotions. So maybe it was best that Peter expressed his feelings, his anguish, his outrage, his opposition, directly to Jesus in this moment. Maybe we should follow suit. It would be better than smiling and offering lip service to discipleship, while inwardly not getting with the program at all. I have been having a very personal period of struggle with my faith in recent months and I have found it much more helpful to be honest with myself and others, and, also to allow myself to be angry at God without beating myself up about it.
Cognitive dissonance is when you believe one thing inwardly but live out another set of values outwardly. That is not Peter’s problem, according to this text. Nor do I think, it is mine. The problem is that many of us don’t really believe that the life of discipleship should have to involve sacrifice or suffering. Since life holds enough of that as it is, why voluntarily add to it?
In the narrative flow of Mark’s gospel, Peter’s rebuke allows Jesus’ to vocalise the very clear, pointed summary of the life of faith that comes at the end of this morning’s reading – (8:34-38)
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Each of the four gospels is a depiction of the identity of Jesus, shaped by the agenda of the writer in response to his context. It matters who we understand Jesus to be because his identity shapes our own. That’s what being a disciple means: embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing his identity gradually to shape our own. Those final verses state the shape of that life.
It would be nice if we could say, “OK, I get what Mark is saying in those final verses. I get who Jesus is and what he expects of me. I can tick that off the list.” But the life of discipleship is a journey, starting with baptism, it is not an instantaneous accomplishment. It’s one in which we express both our faith (“You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29) and our own anger and fears (“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” Mark 8:32). Discipleship is a process of our continually articulating our faith, but also of being able to talk about our difficulty with or objections to Jesus’ identity and mission, so that he can counter them. Having doubts and questions is part of the journey.
I’m glad, for Peter’s sake, however, that Mark isn’t the only gospel. Why? Because in the Gospel of John, Peter gets a chance he doesn’t get in Mark. He gets the chance to come face to face with the Risen Lord and receive from him forgiveness for his earlier abandonment and energy for future discipleship and sacrifice. And so do we, every day, as it says in the baptism service: you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit. So we must make sure that we take that chance and not be left with our own “what if…?”