So we come today to a turning point in Mark’s gospel. It’s quite common amongst those who study the gospel to divide it into two parts; everything that leads up to Mark 8:29, and Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ, and everything that come after it. And despite my very strong inclination to always try to find a different reading than the default – if only to provoke myself into looking with fresh eyes – for once I’m just going to have to agree. My apologies. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
Because there is no question about it – up to this point Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom, demonstrating the kingdom by his life, his example, his miracles; after this point the key has changed – Jesus is no longer wandering around the villages teaching; he is heading towards the finale, towards Jerusalem, towards Good Friday. In Luke’s telling of the same story the author describes Jesus as “setting his face towards Jerusalem” – love that phrase – resolutely determined to face the worst that can be thrown at him, determined to see it through.
But here, today, we stand at the turning point. A linked set of stories that, at their heart, are all about one question.
Who is Jesus?
It starts with one of those conversations – there must have been hundreds of them. Jesus and the disciples were walking from village to village – as they walked, they surely talked. And inevitably, they would have talked about what had happened, what was going to happen, what it all meant. Or maybe they speculated on who was going to win the cricket. I don’t know.
We only have a few brief glimpses into these times – this is one of them. And Jesus starts by asking them a question. “Who do people say that I am?”
Now this question turns out to be bizarrely controversial amongst theologians. Did Jesus need to ask? Did he not already know? Surely, with his incredibly profound understanding of people, not to mention his intimacy with God, Jesus already had the answer to his question at this fingertips? Perhaps he was just using the question for rhetorical effect, setting the disciples up for the question that came after.
Well, maybe. But on the other hand, if Jesus’ humanity truly meant that he had set aside the omniscience of God, doesn’t it make perfect sense to suggest that if he wanted to know what people thought, he would need to ask? The disciples were far more likely to hear the gossip about Jesus than he was himself – for the subject of gossip is, of course, always the last to hear it.
But I have to admit, I don’t really find that controversy very interesting. More interesting, to me, at least, is the reply. I’ve spoken before about the creative tension in Old Testament tradition between the Law – the rules, the regulations, in their broadest and most life giving sense; and the Prophets – the voices of those who spoke from outside, who challenged the powers that be, who called for justice even when justice didn’t fit with law.
And the people, it seemed, have placed Jesus very firmly amongst the prophets. John, or Elijah, or another of the prophets.
Now this doesn’t mean they thought the dead Elijah or John had returned (that would definitely have been frowned upon); the sense is more “one who had picked up the mantle of…, one who was speaking and working in the tradition of…”. Of John – who spoke out against corruption in high places and gave his life for it; of Elijah, who carried the faith in the one true God when everyone around him kow-towed to the rule of Ahab (a Jewish king, who had turned from God to worship the idols of the Canaanites – surely a reference that resonated with those who saw the Jewish temple leadership in bed with the Roman authorities).
The people saw in Jesus a rejection of what Judaism in their time had become (at least at the official level), a rejection of the real-politick of bowing the knee to the Ahab of their day: Rome.
But Jesus persists. It’s not enough for him to know what the crowds have understood. What about you, he asks? What have you seen in me?
And Peter – ah, Peter, the man who always seemed to speak or act before his brain got into gear – Peter speaks out: “You are the Messiah”. The Christ. The promised one. The one who is going to save us.
But look, we all know this story. We know where it goes from here, to Peter’s inability to grasp what his answer means, his rebuke by Jesus, the whole “take up your cross” thing – the Messiah who will suffer, whose followers will suffer; and then the transfiguration, as if to give God’s “yes” to what Jesus has been telling them.
We all know that story.
But the real question is one for us.
What would you say to Jesus’ question?
Dietrich Bonheoffer, from the prison cell in wartime Germany in which he spent the last 18 months of his life, before being executed in the dying days of world war 2, wrote a series of letters to his friend and fellow theologian Eberhard Bethge; letters smuggled out by sympathetic prison guards. In the very first of these letters he asks the question which haunts him, and which forms the central theme of his work in those final months.
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.
Facing the reality of the secular evil, Bonheoffer in his letters asks what Peter’s declaration, and the central faith statement of the Church – Jesus is Lord – might actually mean.
Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?
Because what the horrors of Nazi Germany had proved to Bonheoffer was that the personal piety of the Protestant Church of his day, which saw Jesus, in the words of Thomas, as “my Lord and my God”; Lord of those who accepted him, a Lordship that would not rock the boat, and allowed many – most – to go along with the rise of Nazism, holding, as they did, that the politics of the secular world were totally separate from the Lordship of Christ; that that sense of who Jesus was was entirely inadequate to face the reality of the broken world.
Could it be, he asked, that Jesus might truly be Lord, not just of the religious individuals, but of the secular world? “In that case,” her wrote, “Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?
What does that mean. I believe we face the same question as we look at a world torn by powers of violence and hatred, powers secular and powers of distorted religion. Does our faith have anything to say to the non-Christian world? Does our declaration “Jesus is Lord” have any meaning outside of the religious group who accept it as true for their lives?
Who is Jesus Christ for us today?
Is he Lord of us, of his Church?
Or truly Lord of the whole, secular world?
And if so, what does that mean about where we will find him, how we should look for him, how, most of all, we should live for him.
And that is the question that Jesus actually goes on to answer: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”. Jesus absolutely rejects Peter’s understanding of who he is – and tells his followers that if they want to understand him, to follow him, to find him, what they are going to need to look at most of all is the cross. That they must be the ones who will lose their lives to find them. That they will not find Jesus in power, in authority, in control, but in weakness. As Bonheoffer would write later, in partial answer to his own question:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. … Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
As we draw closer to Good Friday, as we reflect through this time of Lent, it is a very good time to remember that it was not by power that Jesus saved the world, but by weakness. Not by taking control, but by emptying himself of his divinity to take on the form of humanity. Not by demanding that his enemies recognise him for who he is, but by allowing them to decide who he would be. Not by pushing aside those who would oppose him, but by being himself pushed out of the world, on to the cross.
Who is Jesus Christ for us, today? I suspect that if our answer to that question does not at least start at the cross, we haven’t heard his words.
It doesn’t end at the cross, of course. But it must start there. Not in victory, but in defeat.