Rewriting the Job Description
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to grow up. In my mind, grown ups had it made:
- they got to stay up as late
- eat as much junk food as they wanted
- watch anything on TV
- go anywhere, do anything
And for all you kids who are here today I’m going to tell you something: it’s true. We grown ups can stay up as late as we want eating ice cream and watching movies and the next morning if we want to we can decide to not go to work. We can wear our pajamas all day and play video games.
But (usually) we don’t. (Usually….)
And that’s probably because we understand that while we could do these things, we’d also have to deal with the consequences of our decisions. And that’s a lesson Jesus’ disciples were struggling with today’s gospel text.
You see, both the disciples in the story and the original community that Mark wrote for had been living in difficult circumstances for a long time. The disciples had been waiting for generations for a Savior to come and see to it that the bad guys were punished and the good guys got to be in charge.
Mark’s community had been living in the midst of a war with the Romans and the Romans were winning. Watching loved ones around them die, vulnerable people suffer, they just didn’t understand why God — almighty and all powerful God — was allowing this to happen. If Jesus was King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why was there so much evil in the world?
In this story Jesus asks them:
“What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am? Who do you think I am?”
And the disciples give all sorts of answers, but when Peter says: “You are the Messiah!” something about his response makes Jesus angry.
Peter’s not wrong. Jesus is the Messiah.
But when Peter uses that word he’s thinking of all the things a Messiah could do. Up until that moment, all “Messiah” meant to Peter was a powerful political leader who would burst onto the scene with unlimited power and free the people of Israel and make the bad guys pay.
When Peter says, “You are the Messiah” he has all sorts of ideas about how Jesus is going to use his power.
But it quickly becomes clear that while Peter has the right title, he’s misunderstood of the kind of Messiah Jesus intends to be.
From here Jesus stops them so he can clarify a few things.
Yes, it’s true. He is the Messiah.
Yes, if he wants to he can stay up as late as he wants to and eat pizza for every meal and never go to work or school. He could make the bad guys suffer horrible painful punishment and give all their food and money to the poor and vulnerable. He could make them beg on their knees for the disciples’ forgiveness.
But that’s not what this Messiah is going to do.
Instead, he says:
“I’m going to suffer terrible pain and rejection. And, in fact, I’ll end up being killed. Eventually I’ll rise again, but not until I’ve experienced the most awful things this world has to offer.”
And Peter doesn’t like this answer.
“Why would you do that?!” Peter says. “You’re the Messiah! You could do anything, and you could do anything for us!!!! Why would you WILLINGLY go to bed early and eat the veggies and do your homework when being the Messiah means you can do what-ev-er you want?!”
Peter had hoped Jesus’ plan was to wipe out all their problems. But it doesn’t look like that’s the way this Messiah is going to operate.
It’s one of the greatest mysteries of faith — why does an almighty, all-powerful, loving God allow suffering to happen? Lots of people claim to have answers to this question but I’m not sure any of us really know.
What we do know - without a doubt - is that we worship a Messiah who was and is willing to experience the depth of human pain.
That because of Jesus Christ, there is nothing we go through: sickness, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, that our Messiah hasn’t experienced too. And while that may not give us special privileges or powers in this world, it does offer us comfort. The knowledge that Jesus truly is Emmanuel: “God with us.”
Earlier this week, actor Michael K. Williams died at the age of fifty-four. In his memory, NPR replayed an interview from 2016 where Williams talked very openly with Terry Gross about the his struggle with drug addiction.
I think it’s helpful to know that Williams grew up in circumstances that included poverty, violence, and drug abuse. He managed to find his way to a successful career both as a dancer and an actor. But eventually his demons caught up with him.
He was gainfully employed as an actor on a popular television series when we fell back into drug usage, risking everything he had worked for. And, in a moment of desperation he found himself at a church. The pastor wasn’t there, but someone called for him and said a man was there who needed him, and the pastor dropped everything and came to Williams.
“When I came around, I was broken.” said Michael K. Williams of this moment. “I came through those doors, and I was broken.”
This pastor had a lot of options in that moment. He held a lot of power and influence in the community, he had been through this scenario hundreds of times before with other sick and suffering people. He could have proceeded in any number of ways in an effort to fix Williams’ problem. But was he did was the most Christ-like thing he could have done in that moment. He simply sat with him in his pain.
Reflecting back on that relationship, Williams says:
“One of his biggest sayings was, Imma (ph) love you till you learn to love yourself. And he never judged…. he just nudged.” he said, “if you want to stop this pain, I can help you with this, but until you're ready, I'm your brother… I’m not saying he accepted me in my dysfunctionalism, but he loved me in it. And it worked.”
Leanne Van Dyk, president of Columbia Seminary, has a great quote about this gospel passage. She says: “We would much rather write Jesus’ job description for him than follow when he calls.”
Peter really wanted to rewrite Jesus' job description. And in that description, he wanted a Messiah who would start kicking butt and taking names. That was the kind of Savior he had been praying for. But that’s not what he got.
Instead he got a Savior who was intent on sitting with others in their pain — without judging. Simply sitting with them as they grieved or worried about the things they couldn’t control.
This same Messiah was willing to sacrifice and called his followers to do the same. To make the decisions we don’t really want to make but we know are better for us and our fellow human beings.
This Savior, Messiah was also not afraid to knowledge his own pain. And even now he calls upon his followers to do the same, even when we want to numb it or bury it deep or pretend like it doesn’t exist.
Jesus loved Peter.
And while Peter hoped that love would look like swooping in and giving him money and power and all the things Peter thought would make his life better, in the end, what Jesus gave him and all of us, was a new definition of Messiah: one who walks beside us in the darkest moments. One who sounds a lot like the Savior in our first reading this morning, of whom the Psalmist says:
“I love the Lord, because he heard me… he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live… You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling… I kept my faith even when I said ‘I am greatly afflicted.” (Psalm 116)
Yesterday our nation observed the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 — and more than one person shared with me this week how much they were struggling with revisiting that pain right now. Twenty years ago we were shocked and stunned as we stood by helpless watching as thousands of people lost their lives in an attack that changed the world forever.
And now here we stand, twenty years later, raw and vulnerable as we live in the midst of a much different tragedy but still: weighed down by the heaviness of a pandemic that has taken more than two hundred times the number of people who died on September 11th, 2001.
It’s easy for us to understand how Peter longed for a Savior who would just swoop in and make it all go away. Out with the bad, lift up the good. If we could we’d gladly rewrite Jesus’ job description for him and include tasks like ridding the world of disease, terrorism, violence, injustice, and greed.
But what Jesus tells his followers in this story is that being all powerful doesn’t always mean getting everything you want — for Jesus and his followers it means using that power in the name of sacrificial love. It means Jesus meets humankind in the darkest moments of our pain and loves us through it. As Karl Barth once put it: Jesus is the Lord who became servant of all and the servant who became Lord of all.
And because that is the Lord we place our faith in, as disciples we are called to meet our brothers and sisters in this world in their greatest times of pain and suffering with the same love and compassion we know in Jesus Christ: Who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords and who is the Prince of Peace, Messiah, Redeemer of us all.
May it be so.