A sermon preached on September 12, 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily on Mark 8:27-38…
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They respond, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, never one to fade into the background, says, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about him.
It’s not the first time Jesus does this in the gospel of Mark – orders silence about who he is. It’s called “the messianic secret,” and it’s unique to Mark. We don’t see this in Matthew, Luke, or John. In Mark, when Jesus casts out demons or unclean spirits, he tells them not to speak because they know who he is. When he cures a man of leprosy, he tells the man to say nothing to anyone but to go show himself to the priest. When Jesus brings the daughter of the synagogue leader Jairus back to life, he says to those present that no one should know about it. Jesus will say the same thing to James, John, and Peter in the next chapter of Mark when he is transfigured before their very eyes on the mountaintop. Perhaps the evangelist Mark believes that it is not possible for anyone to truly understand what “being the Messiah” means until after Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. The term “Messiah” cannot have true meaning apart from the full story of Jesus – apart from what salvation looks like in a human life. Anyone who, in Jesus’ time, hoped for a traditional Messiah would end up sorely disappointed in Jesus’ ministry.
The gospel of Mark was written around the time of the Jewish uprising against Rome (66-70 CE), so the Christians who were hearing this gospel knew what using the title “Messiah” for Jesus did not imply – it didn’t imply a forceful leader who would overthrow the Roman government by force and set up another earthly kingdom in its place. These Christians for whom the evangelist Mark wrote had the advantage of hindsight. Not so for Peter and the other disciples.
In today’s reading they are still holding onto the hope that Jesus will be successful according to traditional expectations for the Messiah. They still hope that Jesus will lead a revolt to drive the Romans from what was once Israel. So when Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for what will come, telling them that he would experience great suffering and be rejected by the religious authorities, it’s more than Peter can bear. He pulls Jesus aside and begins to chastise him. Jesus will hear none of it, though, and shuts Peter down, exclaiming “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on earthly things.”
It is so easy to allow ourselves to be defined by the expectations of the world, and I suspect it was even easier to do so in Jesus’ day. Children often learned the trade of their parents, and from an early age Jesus was probably expected to become a carpenter. But Jesus was listening to something deeper within himself. Sure, all of us are shaped by the time and place and culture in which we find ourselves, and Jesus was no different. But he didn’t take on all of those expectations on blindly. Throughout the gospel of Mark Jesus has been figuring out his mission bit by bit. After his baptism by John, Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days, presumably preparing for his ministry. As we saw last week, when confronted with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’s understanding of the breadth of his ministry widens. And somewhere along the way, Jesus understands the fate that awaits him, even though it’s different from the fate of what was expected for the Messiah. It’s not that he necessarily planned his death or that God did, but Jesus knew what happened when people went against the established government and spoke of establishing a kingdom of any kind (even the kingdom of heaven). Jesus knew where his obedience to God would lead him. And probably deep down inside Peter did, too, and it scared him.
After Jesus was arrested, this fear that would come front and center when Peter denied even knowing him. This fear was most likely also underlying Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in today’s passage. I think Peter knew that the way we see Jesus changes dramatically the way we see ourselves as his followers. Peter knew that to be a disciple of Jesus means that he must pick up his own cross and follow Jesus – not the cultural idols of the day, not the religious authorities who were cooperating with the Roman government, not the fears that drove the behavior then just like fears drive our own behavior today.
(A side note… Picking up our crosses does not mean submitting to the many kinds of oppression that run free in the world today, just like they did two thousand years ago. The cross we are talking about here is the cross of obedience to God, of choosing a different way, of internalizing the justice, mercy, and love that characterizes the kingdom of heaven.)
Being obedient to our call as Christians sometimes means going against the many expectations of our culture – prestige, outward success, being part of the “in” crowd – that we ourselves have internalized and to which we ourselves have subscribed.
It is easy for us to follow the world around us without even questioning it. This “bandwagon effect” applies also to people’s political choices, which products they buy, what decisions physicians make, and what norms and values we embrace. And this influence takes place deep in our subconscious.
ABC News brought together a group of people to do a test of “visual perception.” Basically, they were to “mentally rotate some 3D shapes and compare them to see if they were the same of different.” The people in the group were to write down their answers privately for the first set of questions, but then share their answers out loud for the second set. Everyone was in on what was going on but one person. The experiment was to see if that one person would jump on the bandwagon and follow the answers of the rest of the group, even if they were wrong. Sure enough, more often than you would think, that person changed his or her right answer to go along with the group.
When experimenters have looked at this kind of conformist behavior in the past, they find something incredibly interesting. When subjects conform to a group in experiments like this, two areas of the brain light up. One is the area where we interpret vision, meaning that enough people telling us that they see something different can actually affect how we interpret what we ourselves see. The other area that lit up was the amygdala, or “the fear center of the brain.” We sometimes follow the crowd because we are afraid to be different.
This is one of the reasons church is crucial to our faith. We come to hear the story of Jesus and God’s people, we come to take part in the story of our own salvation in the Eucharist, and we come to be with a group of people formed by that same story of grace and love.
Peter eventually overcame his fear, he learned to see differently, and he became the rock upon which the church was built. His identity as a follower of Jesus took him to places he never dreamed he would go – literally and metaphorically.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” – are we willing to let the answer change us, to shape the way we see? Are we willing to let who Jesus is form our primary identity – more than all the other stories and expectations placed on us, more than all the fears we internalize from the world around us? Will we allow our vision to be transformed by the truth of the altar rail, by the truth that our identity as the blessed and broken body of Christ is where we will find our greatest life?
 I am indebted to Karoline Lewis for the reminder that how we see Jesus affects how we see ourselves, and that we should ask ourselves the same question Jesus asked Peter. “Who Do You Say that I Am?” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/who-do-you-say-that-i-am.
 “Why Do People Follow the Crowd?” ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Health/story?id=1495038.
 “Why Do People Follow the Crowd?”