Today's gospel story really begins a few verses earlier, when Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying he is. The twelve had been on a preaching and healing tour recently, so it stands to reason that they'd heard any number of things about this One in whose name they'd been moving about. Some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; others a great prophet. And then we get the question at the heart of the gospel, the question that echoes from that moment right into this one: But who do you say that I am? Here, we're clearly not just observers: Jesus' question grabs us, compels an answer from us.
But, for the moment, Peter, who's always a touch excitable, answers before anyone else: You are the Messiah! In other words, you are the king after God's own heart, the One anointed to usher in God's reign, the One whose will and way reveals God's will and way for all things. It's a massive thing for Peter to say; it's an astonishing thing for him to have recognized. In spite of how often Peter's wrong--which seems to be more often than not--he manages to get this thing right. Peter has managed, at least for the moment, to see Jesus as he is: the One who comes in the name of the LORD, whose beautiful feet bring good news; the One who will lead God's people in God's way, on earth as in heaven.
It is an astonishing thing for Peter to say, but I think it's not just what he says, but where he says it, that really helps us understand what comes next. This affirmation and confession of Jesus' mission, happens in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Mark gives us this bit of geographical information, which suggests that it might be important, and I think it is. Caesarea Philippi was an important place for a number of reasons (the Greeks had believed it was where the god Pan lived,because of its lushness [they called it Paneas]; some folks believed that a natural spring there was the beginning of the Jordan River, which made it important in Hebrew imaginations), but when Jesus and his disciples were walking there, it was known mostly as the place where Herod the Great had built an extravagant temple, in honor of Caesar Augustus. When Herod died, the area had been handed over to his son, Philip, who undertook a major expansion project; took the place as his capital city; and named it after himself, so that it wouldn't get confused with a Caesarea up the road.
So, it's this place in which puppet kings (the Herodian dynasty) have asserted their authority, and gone over the top to honor and align themselves with the Roman Emperor, the one thought to be king of kings, the rightful ruler of the world. It's a place imbued with pomp and posturing, a place that symbolizes the way of the world and the extravagant self-indulgence of its supposed rulers, and their brand of power; it's a place designed to remind God's people of just whose thumb they're under. Which makes it quite a place to proclaim a rival king.
Let's pray: God of life and love, open us up to your word this morning; ready us to hear your call, strengthen us to heed it. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds that they might be acceptable in your sight. We pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord: Amen!
It's always worth reminding ourselves again that the gospel is about formation, not information. St. Mark is not telling this story because it happens to be a good tale. He's showing us this, telling us these things, drawing us in, because this is good news that changes the world, this is good news that changes us. This is the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God! This has to do with the conditions in which we live and move and have our being. Caesarea Philippi isn't just an interesting historical detail to add context; it's a symbol, a reminder of the spectacle and bluster that has always been a hallmark of worldly rule, the supposed conditions in which we live. To have Jesus declared Messiah there is not just good story telling. It opens up a deeper truth that demands our attention, demands a response. There's a conflict brewing. Which kingdom are we aligned with? Which rule and way? Are we content to allow the Herods and Caesars of the world to define us and the way things are? Is that what we're created for? How do we answer the question that reaches across millennia: Who do you say that I am?
What follows, what we heard today, is a startling reminder to us that if we find ourselves alongside Peter, if we are, in fact, ready for a new kind of king and a new kind of kingdom--a way that pulls us out of apathy, out of the sludge of the way things are and into the hope and wonder of the way God will have them--then we're going to need to be shaped and reshaped in that way. Our answer to Jesus' question, if it's anything like Peter's, can't be just a rote response, memorized and recited at the appropriate times; it has to find form and movement in our lives; it has to get into our bones and muscles; it has to become our everyday habit and pattern.
What follows is about discipleship, about allegiance and alignment with the Master, about learning to live and move and have our being in his way. Disciples learn to do what the Master does. The gospel insists that citizens of God's kingdom are shaped like its king--which, in and of itself, is a wild sort of thing, radically different than what we're used to in the shadows of Herodian temples, meant to remind us how not-royal we are.
Still, having proclaimed Jesus Messiah, the leader of a world-changing revolution, it's not altogether surprising that Peter is not terribly keen on Jesus' kingdom strategy. Peter, like many of us, is ready for a revolution--just not what Jesus has in mind. Peter knows, like we do, that things are not what they ought to be, he knows that the ways of the world are broken, that all creation groans in the hope of renewal and redemption, and he's quite pleased for Jesus to do something about it. Just not this way. We've run the numbers, Jesus, and according to our calculations, submission and death is a terrible plan. Great suffering is not a thing to build a movement on. No one's going to want to be part of that kingdom, Jesus.
It's amazing how quickly Peter's ears seem to shut, when it turns out that the thing that Jesus is about really isn't like anything else, that it truly is a new thing. All Peter hears Jesus say is death. That's something he knows about; that, we're familiar with. In the scope of the way things are, death is not a good place to start; stuff tends to fall off pretty quickly, after that. Peter's been around long enough to know how it is in the current order.
Perhaps it's a bit of grace, at this pivotal moment in the gospel, to see Rock-of-the-Church Peter stumble like this: Peter who recognizes Jesus as clearly as anyone, who just got it so right, now gets it so wrong. I think it's fascinating and revealing that what we don't get is a full-blown theological explanation about why Jesus has to die--only that he does, and that it's got something to do with what God is doing in the world. What do we get is the truth that when we are in cahoots with Jesus, we're mixed up with the God whose ways and thoughts aren't ours. When we make the choice to align ourselves with Jesus, we are caught up in the will and way of the One who can--and will--do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, more than we are perfectly able to understand or explain. God's goal is not modest improvement. In the end Jesus won't say: Look, I made things a bit better! He'll sing: Behold! I make all things new! Shaped in the way things are, Peter gets stuck on the familiarity of suffering and death, as though that's the most significant part of what Jesus says.
At least, that's what I've always assumed--that he's stuck on the death stuff. It's possible that what Peter's upset about, what he's rebuking Jesus about, is this ridiculous resurrection business. Mark isn't clear about which part of the plan Peter thinks is a bad idea. Perhaps he pulls Jesus aside to explain to him that if he's going to capture the hearts and minds of the people, he's going to have to be realistic. If he wants to die for the cause, well, lots of great leaders have done that. But everyone knows dead people stay dead, and suggesting otherwise is going to make people think you're weird.
Whatever the case, Peter becomes that voice that Jesus faced down in the desert: that voice that insists that the way things are is just the way things are; that another way, a new and holy way, a resurrection way, a God way, isn't possible. It's too much to hope for, too risky, it'll cost too much. It was fine, Jesus, when you were talking about an alternative way, an unexpected kingdom growing in the shell of the old--that was good preaching, don't get us wrong. But, let's get real, (we need to be prudent and pragmatic and serious, Jesus--we can't just run around challenging the status quo, heaven help us); like you said: that's going to get you dead.
And then we get to the heart of the matter, as Jesus turns to his friend and says: You're setting your mind not on the things of God, but on human things. We, who will be followers of Jesus, crucified, risen, and reigning, need to hear that, and hear it well. To follow Jesus is to be called into a way that is wildly different than we've known; it's to be in cahoots with the God whose ways and thoughts are not ours. Mark doesn't give us the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but that's always a good place to go to remind us of what a Jesus-shaped kingdom, a Jesus-shaped life is going to look like. It's full of ridiculous instructions and absurd blessings: love your enemies and pray for your persecutors and blessed are the poor. It's full of radical grace and illogical mercy and reckless love and an extravagance that would make any financial advisor shudder. It's a word that undermines our most basic assumptions about who we are and how the world is.
And the trouble is not that that stuff isn't interesting ideas, even beautiful thoughts; the trouble is that Jesus actually expects us to do these things; he expects his words to find form in our lives, as they do in his. The trouble is that Jesus actually expects his followers to join him in not just imagining another way, but bringing it to life, even at the expense of our own. He calls us, as St. Paul puts it, to be not conformed to the pattern of this world, established by Herods and Caesars, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds; to allow our vision, our understanding, our will and way, to be shaped by nothing less than God--the God whom not even death can hold up.
When Jesus turns to us and tells us that if we want to follow him we're going to have to pick up our own crosses, that's a wild thing. That's Jesus calling us into the "choreography of divine action," (Lauren Winner) calling us to be signs and symbols of what God is doing in the world, quite indifferent to official approval. The crowds knew that crosses are for dissidents and rebels. That's who ends up on crosses: people who won't obey the powers that be, who dare to imagine that another way, another kingdom, another authority is the true thing that commands and compels. To take up our crosses is to heed Jesus' invitation into a whole new way, come what may.
When Jesus calls us he leads us into direct confrontation with the way things are, a confrontation that may well cost us the things we thought were essential to who we are. Our death is not the same as his (even if martyrdom is on the table), but it's patterned after his, and it is faced entirely in the hope of his resurrection. The death he calls us into is the death of stunted imaginations, the death of shoulder-shrugging complicity, the death of hopeless complacency. Jesus' call to pick up our crosses is an image that jolts us, that compels us, that propels us from life in the shadow of the Herods and Caesars of the world, and into life that is truly life, life lit up by heaven's light. It's an image that begins to shape us in a holy citizenship, our ways and means marked by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and generosity and faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). To pick up our crosses and follow Jesus is to walk in direct opposition to the manic, anxiety riddled, self-consumed and consuming, "happiness" obsessed, safety idolizing, power hungry, division creating, pompous and posturing chaos that makes so many headlines.
More and more, I'm convinced that the Church's relevance, our relevance as Christians is only in our irrelevance to the way things are. We've seen that in the saints of every generation. And there is no one-size-fits-all pattern for it. We each get a cross; we're each called to follow, not as a homogeneous blob, but as beloved children called together into the choreography of divine action, each necessary to the dance, called together to move in response to the One whose Spirit moves over chaos and creates life; called wherever we are and whatever we're doing, every word and deed done in the name and way of our cross-shaped King, come what may; called to dance the dance of Jesus even if they kill us for it, because we know we're going to rise and dance again! (Shane Claiborne)
So, here's the challenge: let's take this season of Lent to consider where Jesus is calling us--individually, as a community--into "divine irrelevance," to take up our crosses; to stand in the way of the way things are, for the sake of the way that they will be; to be ambassadors and spies and mischief makers for his kingdom in the shadow of Herod's, his light in places of darkness. Ask it in prayer. Seek it in Scripture. Pay attention to the people and places and situations that are brought to mind and laid on your heart. Then, dare to follow Jesus where he wants to go--which might not be much further than the kitchen, or your neighbor's front door, or a colleague's desk. And wherever he leads, whatever the dangers, toils, and snares along the road, remember that the One who calls us and claims us, who catches us up in his wild love, is the One who made the heavens and the earth, the One through whom all things will be made new, and to whom not even death is an obstacle. If God is for us, who can stand against us? Nothing in heaven, earth, or hell, I'd say.
So, to the One who can do abundantly far more in us and through us than we would dare ask or imagine, by the Spirit at work in us and in this world, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead: to God be all glory, in Christ Jesus and in the Church, now and forever. Amen!