Mark 8, our focus text for today, is the center of Mark’s gospel, literally. Mark began the gospel telling the hearers, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” If you had any doubt what this gospel, this good news, was about—you should have been satisfied right there. This was about Jesus, Christ (the Messiah), and in case you didn’t know what that meant, “the Son of God.”
Then for 8 chapters Mark tells us about Jesus’ healing, about his travelling to synagogues, about his preaching and teaching. We get to see Jesus in action. And then, after that galloping pace of parables and healings and travel, we slow down. We zero in on Jesus and the disciples, walking towards Caesarea Philippi. And Jesus decides this is the time to check in on what the disciples have heard, and deeper, what the disciples are feeling.
The first question is easy. “Who do people say that I am?” It’s almost like checking your comments section on your Facebook feed. Or for others, like calling your friends after an event you all attended. Just gauging the chatter. Just trying to see what the PR looks like. What are people saying about me? What is making news?
I find it interesting that they don’t respond with “you really killed at that synagogue talk,” or “people were really impressed when you healed that deaf and mute man.” No, they heard it as a question of identity—“Who am I?” And so it should not come as a shock that they named people—famous people.
Some said “John the Baptist”—which was interesting since John had been imprisoned and then beheaded two chapters before. Was Jesus supposed to have been a reincarnation of John? Was it that Jesus was walking “in the footsteps” of John, picking up where he had left off? Some thought so.
Some said “Elijah”—which was also interesting. Elijah was the great prophet—the one who had experienced God not as the EARTHQUAKE or the FIRE but as the still, small, voice. Elijah was taken up into the heavens by a chariot of fire and horses, accompanied by a whirlwind. Many thought that Elijah would reappear as the last days approached. Elijah would usher in the mightiest one of God, the Messiah, the rescuer, the Savior, the One who would restore Israel to power and prestige, who would make all things as they should be. Was that who Jesus was? Some thought so.
Still others hedged their bets, saying “one of the prophets.” In other words, we think this Jesus is of God, speaking a word of God to us, like the prophets did in the olden days. But maybe he isn’t “the” prophet, Elijah come back. Maybe he isn’t as important as John the Baptist. He is someone to listen to, but we’re not sure exactly how much. Is that who Jesus is? Some thought so.
He let them talk a bit, and then he asked (I wonder if it was quietly, or matter of factly, or was it seriously, couched in a tone that you knew this was the ultimate quiz question), he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” I notice that he started with “but.” The question could have just been “Who do you say that I am?” as if we were just continuing this PR question.
“But” implies that maybe all those other answers are wrong. “But” suggests that we have stopped the general discussion and NOW is the time. This is why commentators call this the center of Mark’s gospel. “But” (forget all that others say)—“But” (disregard all you have been told or taught)—“But” (now is the time to put your cards on the table, now I’m going to look you in the eye and ask you to be totally honest)—“But who do YOU say that I am?”
We don’t know if the question was answered at first with an awkward pregnant silence. Did someone jostle Peter, as if to say, hey, you tell him? Or was the response from Peter immediate (as many things in Mark are). However it came to be, Peter said, famously, “You are the Messiah.” He went further than any of the other reported answers. He didn’t equate Jesus with John (who had quite a reputation), or with Elijah (the most important prophet ever), or a modern day manifestation of God’s word to God’s people. No, Peter, went all the way. You are the Messiah. You are the Christ. You are the Son of God. You are the One we have been waiting for.
And Jesus must have smiled. And then he started to tell them what the Messiah was going to do. And this created an Identity Crisis. Because this Messiah wasn’t going to lead the charge to roust the Romans from their land. This Messiah wasn’t going to usher in the new golden age. This Messiah, instead, was going to suffer (who wanted that?), and be rejected by the religious authorities (this isn’t how it’s supposed to go), and worst of all, be killed (be killed, how does that get us what God has promised?), and unbelievably, after three days, rise again (was does that even mean?).
No wonder Peter “took him aside.” No wonder Peter was trying to gently explain what Messiah meant. Because if Messiah was as Jesus described, then what would that mean for the followers of this Messiah? What would it mean to be a disciple? Another Identity crisis!
And Jesus probably didn’t even let him finish his thought—but said aloud (not as an aside the way Peter was trying to have this conversation)—Stop talking that way. It is not following me, it’s the way of Satan, the One pushing against God. And to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about what he was saying, he addressed the second identity crisis the way he addressed the first—by describing what it meant to be a disciple.
“If” any want to become my followers, “If” you want to be my disciple, “If” you want to claim that I am Messiah, that I speak God’s word to you for today, “If” you want to walk with me—this is what you will get. Not riches or power, not honor and glory. But a cross, a burden. You must be willing to lose your life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, only then will you be saved, only then will you save your life. As Joshua said to the children of Israel poised on the brink of the Jordan River, just about to go into the Promised Land, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose this day, life or death. Choose life.”
I don’t think this central question of Jesus’ ministry is any different today. We have heard, maybe for a lifetime, about Jesus’ words, his actions, his death and resurrection. How would we respond to his question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” And are we really willing to hear what that might mean for us?
I wonder if we easily recite the words like Peter, “You are the Messiah, You are the Christ, You are the One of God” and yet still shudder when we see the actual reality of it. I wonder if we take our brave stance sure of the power of the resurrection, banking on the Jesus who will come back, guns blazing, sitting on a cloud, and take care of all the wrong that happens in our world.
That Jesus “who is to come” feels a lot like the Messiah that Peter was expecting. Able to leap over all obstacles. Draped in a cape of inevitability. Always there to rescue us, if only we call his name. And that is where we run into the cross, into the identity that Jesus has redefined for us. Yes, we are following the One of God. Yes, we are promised life. “But,” “If,” we want to follow, if we want to save our lives, if we want to be a part of this good news, this gospel, it is going to extract a cost, maybe a high cost.
We are going to have to give up: our idea of what power means! We are going to have to give up: our idea of what “being those of God” mean! We are going to have to be willing to give up our very selves, be willing to put it all on the line.
No wonder this is called the center of Mark’s gospel, of any gospel. And it is true for us today as well. Our identity rests on Who we think Jesus is, and Who that means we are to be and do!
May God grant us wisdom and courage
May God grant us ears to hear and eyes to see
May God grant us companions on the journey
May God grant us assurance of God’s love written on our very hearts—that we too might proclaim “You are the Messiah, and we follow you.” Alleluia, Amen.