Sermon; Lent 2B; Mark 8:31-38
How is Lent going for you? Are you maintaining your discipline? Maybe you've slipped and need to start again. Either way, whether we've maintained our discipline or whether we've been unable to do so, we need to remember that Lent is a journey. These 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days of rain and the journey of Noah and his family. They remind us of the 40 years that the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. They remind us of the 40 days of repentance the Ninevites embarked on after Jonah's warning. And they remind us of the 40 days Jesus was in the wilderness. These 40 days of Lent are our journey as we move toward Easter.
But before we get to Easter we must go through Good Friday. Today's gospel reminds us of that.
The gospel of Mark is 16 chapters long, and today's passage comes from Chapter 8 – almost the exact middle of the story. From here on out, the focus will be on Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and his Passion. It is here in this middle chapter where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The answers range from Elijah to John the Baptist. He then asks them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” And here we get Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah.
This is important. Because although Peter makes this confession, he still doesn't understand what is entailed in following Christ. There is still a sense that Jesus will triumphantly, and gloriously, overthrow Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel.
Rather than confirming their idea of what the Messiah is, they instead get Jesus' first Passion prediction. Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again. This prediction by Jesus doesn't sit well with Peter who takes Jesus aside and has words with him.
As one of my commentaries points out, the issue here is about authority and who has the right to define the meaning of “Messiah.”
When Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah, he gave up his right to define what type of Messiah Jesus would be. When Peter laid that title on Jesus, it was then only Jesus who would be allowed to define and live into the the type of Messiah God was calling him to be.
The temptation that Peter fell victim to, and the temptation that both Jesus and we face, is the temptation to move immediately to Easter without the suffering of Holy Week and Good Friday. That suffering, though, isn't suffering for the sake of suffering. It isn't a fulfillment of a masochistic fetish or of an abusive father. That suffering is the result of being obedient to God over and above any and all human powers and institutions.
When we are faithful to God, there will be suffering at the hands of people who are threatened by that faithfulness. This is a message Peter does not want to hear. And not just Peter, but plenty of other people would much rather avoid Good Friday and go directly to Easter.
I was at a meeting on Shrove Tuesday and the pre-program conversation in my corner of the room revolved around Ash Wednesday and what various churches were doing on that day. As it happened, I overheard Rabbi Ari asking someone about Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. This person was struggling a bit, so I interjected and gave some helpful information. A member of another congregation was there and Ari asked him if they celebrated Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.
“No,” he replied, “because our focus is Easter.”
Without starting another religious war over lunch, I thought to myself, “This is modern-day Peter.” They want to avoid suffering so they can only focus on the fun stuff; or so they can build a Jesus in their own image. But an Easter-only Jesus is power without responsibility. It is glory without humility. Easter without Good Friday, or the recognition of our mortality as found in Ash Wednesday, is, in a word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap.
We must, like Peter, get behind Jesus. We must overcome our own anti-Christ thoughts, behaviors, and desires, and get behind Jesus. As disciples we are not called to lead Jesus anywhere; but we are called to follow Jesus everywhere. And very often that following will lead us to the same place Jesus goes – the cross.
Lent is the season of disciplines – whether by abstinence or by acquisition. In addition to those disciplines we might also take the time to reflect on our own pain and suffering. Can they serve as a place where we can see God? Can we be reminded that God is with us in our pain? Do we have the foresight, or hindsight for that matter, to see a way through our own personal Good Friday and into Easter?
As we move through our Lenten journey, let us not be so quick to define the kind of Messiah we want Jesus to be. Instead, let us get behind Jesus, following where he leads, even if we stumble along the way.
Easter is coming. But first we must go through Good Friday.