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Mark 8:27-38

     27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

     28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

     29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

     Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

     30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

     31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

     33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but the things of men.”

     34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

If you look at this reading in the New International Version of the Bible, which is the one we use, you’ll see that its editors have broken it up into separate readings. The first four verses have the heading, “Peter’s Confession of Christ,” and the last eight appear under the heading, “Jesus Predicts His Death.” But it seems to me that to get the full impact of this reading, you need to read the whole thing together.

I say that because it seems to me that Jesus’ prediction of his death needs to be understood as a response to Peter’s ‘confession’ that Jesus is the Christ. And by the way, in this case, the word ‘confession’ means a statement of faith, not an admission of sin. So let’s see how this whole story fits together.

The first thing that happens in this reading is that Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ – that is, the Messiah. (You might remember that ‘Christ’ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah.’ Both terms mean ‘the anointed one.’) As they are walking along the road, Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is. The disciples report that people have various ideas about who Jesus is, but those answers all have one thing in common – everybody seems to agree that Jesus is an important religious figure.

And then Jesus asks the disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”  And Peter becomes the first to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact the Messiah – the one who had been foretold by God through the prophets centuries before.

So that’s a moment of great importance – for the first time someone realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. But it seems to me that realization only left the disciples “halfway there,” so to speak. Because they didn’t really know what being the Messiah really meant. So Jesus reveals to them that, as the Messiah, he would be rejected and persecuted by the leaders of his own people, and that ultimately he would be killed, but then would rise again.

It’s hard for us to imagine what a shock this was to the disciples. Like most Jews of their day, they would have expected the Messiah to be a great general and king – like King David, who was understood to be the Messiah’s ancestor. (And since Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph was a descendant of David, Jesus actually was considered to have been born into “the House of David,” even though he wasn’t Joseph’s biological son.) The Jews expected a Messiah who would drive out the Romans and make their country great again. Nobody in ancient Israel expected the Messiah to die for the sins of the world.

In fact, what Jesus says to the disciples is such a shock to Peter that he even tries to talk Jesus out of this idea of allowing himself to be persecuted and killed.

That’s when Jesus utters the famous words, “Get behind me, Satan.” You might remember that when he was being tempted in the wilderness, Satan had told Jesus that he didn’t need to go through the horrible death that lay ahead of him. Satan had offered him shortcuts to avoid that. So when Peter started arguing with him, Jesus must have heard the echoes of that temptation in the wilderness he had once left ‘behind’ him.

Of course, as Jesus correctly points out, Peter is expressing human desires and aspirations, not going along with God’s plan. Peter is speaking out of Jewish patriotism, not out of devotion to God’s will. But Jesus clearly understood that his death on the cross would be in fulfillment of the divine plan for the salvation of humankind.

But if that wasn’t enough of a shock, Jesus has even more to say. He says that anyone who really wants to be his follower has to be ready to join him in his suffering and death. His true followers must be ready to deny their own agendas, even risk their lives, to take part in Jesus’ mission. Anyone who is more devoted to the things of the world than they are to serving Jesus can’t really claim to be one of his followers.

So how does this apply to our own lives of faith? Of course, hardly any of us really meets the standard sets here, of being willing to give up everything for him. If we really want to follow Jesus faithfully, to live more and more in imitation of him, we need to pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to stop clinging to the things of our worldly lives, to our self-absorption. And we need to be praying for that Spirit to come more and more into our lives to strengthen our devotion to knowing and serving Jesus. We need to open our hearts to let that Spirit transform us into people who really are willing to take up the cross and follow him.

In spite of what some people say, it almost never happens overnight. But if we’re diligent in opening ourselves to that Spirit, little by little the image of Jesus may be shown into the world through us. That’s a lifelong process that we call “sanctification.”

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the great love for us you showed by going to the cross. By your Spirit, turn our hearts to love you more and more, so that eventually we are willing to sacrifice for the building of your kingdom, and to serve others in your name. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 116 and 130; Isaiah 54:1-17; and Galatians 5:1-15.)