Sermon for St. Paul Lutheran Church – Michigan City, Indiana
February 24-25, David R. Weiss
Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV). 31 Then 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.” 34 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.”
Call me Peter if you like, but that day I was just Simon all over again. Hardly “the Rock” as Jesus had re-named me only the day before.
You remember, I’m sure. As we were walking, Jesus asked us—his disciples—“Who do the people say that I am?” We told him what we’d heard from the crowds. Some thought he was John the Baptist come back to life. Others saw the spirit of Elijah or one of the other prophets alive in him.
I don’t think he was surprised. I mean, he had to know he’d stirred up more than his share of curiosity and wonder. You don’t cast out demons, restore sight to the blind, or heal the lame without people beginning to speculate about where that type of power comes from. No, he wasn’t surprised, but in the silence that followed he seemed . . . disappointed. As though he’d hoped that the people had connected a few more dots than that.
We disciples—we’d also been speculating. Out of his earshot, of course, but we’d kept company with him over the past months of his public teaching. How could we not wonder for ourselves, who is this man?—this peasant carpenter turned miracle worker and sage? This man who’d called us right out of our lives and into his.
So, sure, we’d traded our own notions. And when we’d walked a bit further in silence, and Jesus asked us who WE said that he was, I spoke up. I said out loud for the first time, what we disciples had only been whispering to each other: “You are the Christ.”
Now, let me tell you what I meant.
“Christ” is a Greek word that matches the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” Both words are . . . oily. They echo an ancient Hebrew tradition: when God selects a person to do special work—to be a priest, or a prophet, or a king—that person is anointed, drizzled with oil. So Christ and Messiah both mean, more or less literally, “Oiled One.”
The pages of the Hebrew Scriptures practically drip with messiahs: priests, prophets, and kings chosen by God for special purposes. But we longed for one particular Messiah. Someone chosen by God who would not simply leave their mark on our history; but someone . . . on whose holy life history itself would turn.
We believed this Messiah, this Christ—perhaps by recruiting our best warriors or maybe by calling down legions of angels—would somehow overthrow Rome’s oppressive rule. And then establish a Jewish kingdom where we’d live in freedom, peace, and prosperity for all generations.
So when I said, “You are the Christ—the Oiled One of God,” that’s what I meant. Speaking for all the disciples, I named our hope, our growing conviction, that Jesus’ words and deeds were dripping with oil, that we believed him to be this Messiah, God’s final Chosen One.
That’s when he called me “Peter”—the Rock. So when he commanded us to tell no one, we felt confident we were right. Like we’d been invited into some grand conspiracy alongside him, and had simply been told to keep quiet until we heard him summon the angels.
For twenty-four hours it seems we both misunderstood each other. We thought we were on the common ground of Messiah, Christ, God’s Chosen One. But the very next day we found out how far apart we were in our understanding.
As we were walking again, Jesus began to explain what it meant for him to be Christ. He spoke of rejection, suffering, even death. True, he mentioned being raised again on the third day—but who could hear that? I mean, listen: Rejection . . . Suffering . . . Death—these were NOT part of being God’s Chosen One. How could he—how could we—possibly overthrow Rome this way?
We reeled at his words. As we walked we felt like men who’d been spun in circles until our dizziness made us stumble this way and that. All the weight of generations of expectation for the Messiah were being unsettled inside us. Did we really know anything at all about Jesus’ God?
For all of us, I rebuked him: “God forbid that this should happen to you.” I basically said, “Jesus, find some other way to be God’s Chosen.”
Then it was his turn to reel. He looked like he’d been sucker-punched . . . by a friend. Caught short by my words, stung by the depth of misunderstanding in them. He turned to me, with the other disciples nearby, and he said, “Get behind me, Satan! For in your words you become the very adversary of God.”
No more Rock in that moment, I was mere gravel. Dust to be shaken off his messianic feet as he turned toward Jerusalem.
He used it as a “teachable moment.” He called the crowds together and made clear that following him would mean shouldering risk . . . not seeking reward. That the only way to gain your life was to be ready to lose it—for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.
If you know the rest of the story, you know I didn’t “get it” right then and there. Weeks later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, I pulled out a sword, still hoping for armed angels to swarm from the skies. And the day after his arrest, I denied even knowing him—three times! Still more concerned to save my own skin than to bear witness to my friend, this oiled man of God.
I suppose if there’s merit to my story it’s that most of us—maybe most of you—meet this man, this Christ, with our own mixed up set of expectations about how God works in the world. And if God can manage to right a fool as great as me, then there’s hope for anyone, for any of you as well.
Here’s what I finally came to see. It was there before my eyes—yours, too—all along. Covered over by other ideas and expectations, but hardly hidden. What did it mean for Jesus to be God’s Christ? God’s oil-drizzled Messiah? God’s Chosen One?
It meant (it means, still today!) that Jesus announced compassion as God’s signature move in the world.
It meant that his parables were always challenging the world as it was (as it still is!), turning assumptions upside down and inside out. Mustard seeds take over entire fields. The last guests get the seats of honor. A despised Samaritan becomes a hero. The hungry poor become our opportunity to feed Jesus himself.
It meant his healing miracles weren’t aimed to amaze us. They aimed to bring those deemed untouchable by their infirmity back into the arms of the community for which God made them. Likewise, children were blessed; women were heard and empowered—because in God’s kingdom every head is blessed, every voice is valued, every person bears the whole image of God.
It meant eating with outcasts. This was revolutionary. Our whole world (just like yours!) was marked off by race, religion, ethnicity, or social status into in-groups and out-groups. And those boundaries—those borders—were nowhere as clear as at our table when we ate. Except that Jesus kept a table where everyone—everyone!—was welcome.
Now, when I rattle all that off, it’s no wonder that he knew rejection, suffering, and death awaited him. Jesus’ message was a direct threat to the values embraced by the powerful in both Rome and Jerusalem. If we’re honest—if you’re honest—Jesus’ message remains a direct threat to the values often embraced by the powerful still today.
A community truly grounded in God’s unconditional grace, focused on pursuing compassion for those in need, and committed to extending welcome to the very least—why, even in its rag-tag infancy in my day, that community posed a real threat to Rome and to the Temple leaders—not by way of military overthrow, but by way of inner renewal: a revolution of the heart. And that type of community still today will challenge any political order, any religious system, any worldview that tries to play one set of people off against another.
In Jesus’ gospel community no one is expendable. No one is deplorable. No one is deportable. At Jesus’ table no one is excluded, and no one is deemed “less than.”
What I came to see—though only after his death—is that this bumbling, but also daring and loving bunch of people that followed Jesus, we were already the first sprouting seeds of God’s kingdom: the birth of a new community here on earth.
Then, in the days after Easter, as we struggled to become the church, God took that brief moment of resurrection and made it real—not simply for Jesus, but for all us. We became the Body of Christ: grace, compassion, and welcome active in this world . . . right now.
That day—in today’s gospel reading? I was just gravelly Simon all over again. But when I connect all the dots, when I help someone else see what it meant for Jesus to be Christ . . . and what it means for the rest of us—that’s the rest of you—to be the Body of Christ today—well, when I do that, then I am Peter, the Rock, the one who first spoke the truth on which Jesus built the church.
And today, my friends, that church, the very Body of Christ, is you. Amen.
David R. Weiss, firstname.lastname@example.org