Sunday, March 08, 2009

Little Satans: Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

Poor Peter. Is there anyone in the gospels so maligned as he? Well, ok. Yes, Pontius Pilate doesn’t come off too well. Nor does Herod. And the scribes and Pharisees get kicked around, it’s true. But Peter! I think the reason the gospel harshness around Peter is so striking is, we know the rest of the story… even as we read this passage, we know Peter as a rock on whom the early church will be built… we read of his fearless preaching and healing in the book of Acts. We know that he is, in a very real sense, Jesus’ right-hand man. That’s why passages like this one just make us cringe. Poor Peter. He is the Rodney Dangerfield of the gospels: the man gets no respect.

Listen to a couple of the wrongheaded things Peter says and does. When he is on a mountaintop with Jesus, and sees Jesus and Moses and Elijah together, Peter’s reaction isn’t to fall to his knees in wonder, but to wonder if pitching tents there might freeze-frame the moment in time. That’s Peter. When Jesus looks at the disciples, clear-eyed, and knows the terror of his arrest will be too much for them, Peter says, “Not me Lord. I’ll stick by you no matter what.” And we all know how well that turns out. That’s Peter. When Jesus is in anguish knowing his death is at hand, Peter is one of the guys who falls asleep, leaving Jesus alone and weeping. That’s Peter. There are stories of the disciples having fights as to which of them is the greatest. Even though he’s is not singled out, we have a hunch: that’s Peter! Everywhere there are misunderstandings, or bumbling, where two or three disciples getting it just plain wrong… there is Peter, in the midst of them. All of which is pretty much the perfect set-up for today. Someone is going to get called “Satan” by Jesus… we can almost predict: that’s Peter.

The passage I’ve just read has been called the “hinge” of the gospel of Mark. It’s the moment at which the action of the gospel pivots and turns. From now on everything in this gospel points towards Jerusalem, towards Jesus’ suffering and death. From now on, the path Jesus walks is the path to the cross.

Up until now, Jesus has been preaching the Good News: the reign of God is at hand! And the power and truth of his preaching has been confirmed by miracles, healings and exorcisms. So, Jesus has been speaking and doing, and all his speaking and doing is infused with the unmistakable power of God.

The reaction to all this has been swift and unsettling: everywhere he goes, and almost everything he does, Jesus has attracted the criticism of the powers that be. The religious authorities are scandalized by him. He forgives sins—showing that the people can be free from the system of offering sacrifices in the temple. He heals on the Sabbath—teaching that God made the seventh day for rest and refreshment, not for domination and subjugation. He heals people considered untouchable, uprooting ideas about who’s “in” and who’s “out.” The authorities take note.

At the same time, Jesus keeps urging the people he encounters, including his followers, to help him keep a secret about himself, the secret of who he really is. Why does he do that? Today’s hinge story tells us pretty clearly why: Jesus is a wanted man. All his turning upside down of power and authority, all his bending and breaking rules about who is welcome at the table in the reign of God, all this has created a climate in which Jesus’ life is in jeopardy.

All of this is the background for today’s passage. And as you’ve just heard, Jesus starts off by doing a funny thing. He turns to his followers, including Peter, who really must have been his friends… the ones who live intimately with him day in and day out, the ones who see first hand all that he is doing, and he asks them, “Well, what are people saying about me? Who are they saying that I am?” And bearing in mind that Jesus is preaching the Good News, some say, “John the Baptist.” And bearing in mind Jesus’ miraculous deeds of power, some others say, “Elijah.” And because Jesus is kind of hard to pigeonhole, others say, “One of the prophets.”

Jesus responds with the million denarius question, “OK, but what about you. Who do YOU say that I am?” And God bless him… Peter answers. The Christ. The Messiah. Final answer. And Peter gets it right. The erstwhile fisherman from Capernaum, the bumbler, the king of misunderstanding… gets it right. Nice job.

Immediately, Jesus is back to urging his followers to keep this secret. Finally, the hinge is turned, and here is what happens next: “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. He said all this quite openly…” This is what sends Peter over the edge.

To be fair, let’s try put ourselves in the shoes of the fisherman. It’s so hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for these followers of Jesus. They have been plucked out of jobs which were low-or-no-prestige labor, among the least respected members of their society. They have been invited to follow in the footsteps of this incredible man. Even without the overlay of traditional Christian understanding of Jesus, he must have been an astonishing presence, charismatic, compelling. Peter goes from being a fisherman-nobody to being the first lieutenant of a miracle-working, brilliant public speaker who is attracting crowds, and press, and followers. Add to this the fact that Jesus’ concerns are really ultimate things—God! God’s reign!—and you have an inkling of the excitement, the thrill, the wonder of it all for these men and women who are literally walking around covered in the dust of Jesus. (1)

And then Jesus begins to talk about torture, and suffering and death, not just as hypothetical possibilities, but as requirements for the job he has set out to do. No wonder Peter balks. No wonder he pulls Jesus aside and begins to hiss something in his ear along the lines of NO. NO. NO!

Now, let’s see if we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the man from Nazareth. Jesus. How does he see all this? Well, it would be potentially risky and fairly arrogant to try to really get inside his head. I don’t think we can do that. But I do think we can know with some degree of certainty that he experienced himself called to be a certain person in the world, to give a certain kind of witness. And I think we can say with confidence that he believed that call came directly from God. So… from the point of view of Jesus, Peter’s words, Peter’s NO, is not only a NO to Jesus, it’s a NO to God. And Jesus is having none of it. “Satan,” he calls Peter.

Remember from last week… the word or name “Satan” has multiple possibilities of meaning. Sometimes, the New Testament writers are clearly referring to a supernatural being or beings. At other times, they are using it as a more generic noun as in its original Hebrew meaning: “satan” as a tempter or tester, an adversary. It seems clear that, here, Jesus is employing the second usage. Peter is a kind of satan… perhaps just a little one… for the role he is playing in trying to tempt Jesus away from being what and who Jesus knows God has called him to be.

Every day of our lives, each of us runs a gauntlet of little satans… temptations major and minor to deviate from what we know is our best path, the road we know God wants us to walk, hard though it may be at times. What are those little satans for us? The things that tempt us away from God’s path? Or perhaps more insidiously, what are those things and situations that convince us we are not able to be the people we want to be, that compromise and damage our best hopes for ourselves? Those little moments that infect our minds with doubt, that tell us, “You can’t do that. You could never do that.” What are our little satans?

Honestly, every single time I have been in the presence of someone using this actual phrase, “Get behind me, satan,” it has been accompanied by crossed fingers aimed at some fattening goodie. And my relationship with food has been a lifelong struggle, I will freely admit. But worse than a lapse in willpower, let’s say, could be the underlying cause behind the lapse. Perhaps, it’s the belief that I’m not worth taking care of, the idea that, who cares, really, anyway? That’s the real satan in the situation… the idea or suggestion that I am worthless. That there’s no point in caring for myself. That I am anything less than a beloved child of God, and so… you fill in the blank. Maybe for some you these feelings are conjured by the issues of diet and exercise, my personal hobgoblins. But maybe something else sends you into a tailspin of doubt. A dear friend described this week how filling out her son’s financial aid forms somehow pulled her into a terrible state of anxiety about her life choices to date, the things she has spent money on, the things for which she has saved… all circling back to doubts about God’s call in her life. Little satans.

I swear. I do think it all keeps returning to the same theme. I may start to sound like a broken record these Sundays in Lent, because I believe it returns again and again to the same starting place, the place of baptism, the place of our belovedness in God’s sight. Do we, can we carry that belovedness with us in every situation? Can that sense of God’s love somehow saturate us, soak us through, help us to stare down the little satans that plague us, that dance around us and in our heads, those little demons trying to get us to a place where all we can think and feel is that we are wrong, so wrong?

Few of us, if any, will be called in this life to truly pick up the cross in the same sense Jesus was called to it. Few of us, if any, will know what it is to be crucified, even figuratively. But every single one of us has been pronounced lovable and good in God’s sight. Every single one of us has been called to do some work for God and God’s beautiful and broken world. Every single one of us has a daily challenge on our hands, dealing with the little satans that try to divert us from being fully that child of love we are. Jesus and Peter, you and I: all God’s loved and chosen children. All equipped—fully equipped—to brush aside those little satans, and set our sights on the path, and walk. Thanks be to God. Amen.

(1) Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith: One of the earliest sages of the Mishnah, Yose ben Yoezer, said to his disciples, “Cover yourself with the dust of your rabbi’s feet.” This idea of being covered with the dust of your rabbi came from something everyone had seen. A rabbi would come to town, and right behind him would be his group of students, doing their best to keep up with the rabbi as he went about teaching his yoke from one place to another. By the end of a day of walking in the dirt directly behind their rabbi, the students would have the dust from his feet all over them.

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