Mark 8: 27-38
When strangers meet, there is a pretty standard ritual that goes on, as the two get acquainted. Just think about the last person you got to know. First you probably learned a name and perhaps a story about that name. For whom were you named? Then, over time, and gently, you probably asked each other some basic biographical questions. Where do you live? Are you married, and do you have a family? Where did you grow up? What is your vocation? Where did you go to school? What are your hobbies? We become acquaintances, rather than strangers with just these simple questions.
But, if relationships are to develop, then deeper insights are necessary, and our deepest beliefs must somehow be known to the other - like the values that shape us, how we make decisions; our vision of success (which often provides for us a sense of direction;) whether we, as individuals treat others with dignity, respect, and compassion. When our values, from this much deeper level match with our new acquaintance’s own values, then that former stranger can turn into a friend. And, with further experience together, a friend can turn into a lifelong companion.
I believe that there are limits, though as to how much we can know about another person. Each of us holds back a few secrets of the heart that just cannot be revealed to anyone – not even a life partner. Even two people who have lived in the blessings of marriage for years can find out that there are surprises in the other – new insights to be gained. Those, “I didn’t ever know that about you,” moments.
And, we can surprise ourselves about our own identity at times….those “I didn’t know that about myself moments…” In an article in Sports Illustrated, such a story was told. Former North Carolina State basketball coach, Jim Valvano, who was, at the time, suffering from terminal spinal cancer at the age of 47, spoke with a reporter in 1993. He looked back on his life and told a story about himself as a 23-year-old coach of a small college team. "Why is winning so important to you?" his players asked Valvano one time. “I mean, you’re irrational about it.”
"Because the final score defines you," he said, "You lose, ergo, you're a loser. You win, ergo, you're a winner."
"No," the players insisted. "Participation is what matters. Trying your best, regardless of whether you win or lose; that's what defines you."
It took 24 more years of living, and a coach bolting up from the mattress three or four times a night with his T-shirt soaked with sweat and his teeth rattling from the fever chill of chemotherapy and the nightly dream terror of his impending death for Valvano to say it: "Those kids were right. It's effort, not result. It's trying. God, what a great human being I could have been if I'd had this awareness back then."
Relationships, it seems, bring insights both outwardly and inwardly. In today’s gospel from Mark, the gospel writer pictures a scene that takes place some time after Jesus and the disciples have begun their relationship. They are way past the time of finding out biographical information. Jesus has heard that people are talking about him, because the disciples have reported what they’ve heard. But, the critical question that Jesus moves to, and the one he asks them – and us – is, “But who do you say that I am?” And boldly, Peter
answers. He’s seen Jesus in action, he’s seen Jesus healing and revealing God’s nature to the world, and so Peter’s answer is “You are the Messiah.”
You and I, in our relationship with Jesus, in how we know him in the world, in our lives, in our Christian community here at St. Stephen’s, we have our own idea of who Jesus is, and we often use a name in addressing him in our prayer, often made by own experiences of Jesus. We may assign any number of names to Jesus, but, like Peter, we may not understand them.
There is always more to learn, to understand, even in the way we address or think about Jesus. I remember a conversation with the Rev. Josefina Beecher, whose heart resides in the lives of the Hispanic peoples, both in Central America and here. That made a deep impression on me. We spoke one day after a time of prayer with many from the Hispanic congregation in Mount Vernon. I had begun a prayer using the name many folks use when addressing Jesus. “Lord,” I began, and then I continued my prayer. Later, after our service was over, Jo took me aside and told me that the term “Lord” has a real negative connotation for many Hispanic people. Lord denotes a hierarchy, a harkening back, in a way to Feudal times…the Lord was the holder of the power, and sometimes the oppressor of his vassals. That makes the term Lord difficult to use for many Hispanic people, many of whom identify with being a lowly worker, and often oppressed. I have grown up in a non-Hispanic culture, and used the term “Lord” to show reverence as I address Jesus, but since then, I have tried to be careful of using it in a multi-cultural setting.
Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” and following that, Jesus says that odd thing that we often hear him say. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” And, p
robably like you, I always wonder about that. Why not tell others? Isn’t that what we are called to do? Perhaps it was that there were reasons neither Peter nor the other disciples nor we understand, but, in the conversation which followed, there could be a clue.
Peter, in calling Jesus the Messiah, may have the right title (he was, after all) but the wrong understanding. For when Jesus declares that he is going to suffer and be rejected and be killed, Peter refuses to listen. Did he hear the part about him rising after three days? We don’t know. We do know that Peter just didn’t want to hear anything about Jesus suffering. . . because, it seems, Peter had his own idea of Messiahship. The expectations of not just Peter, but many during those days was that the Messiah would establish God’s rule with power and authority, and bring his followers glory and reward. Suffering was not a part of being the Messiah as far as Peter was concerned.
And so, when you answer Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” what is your response…because everyone has an opinion – commentators, theologians, authors, clergy, the bishop in the cathedral, your sister-in-law, the lady who cuts your hair…everyone has an opinion – because Jesus has had more impact on human life on this planet than just about anyone you can think of. Everyone has another name for Jesus. But more important, what is your understanding of the identity/name you attribute to Jesus? Is it possible to have the title right and the understanding wrong? For instance, what does it mean to call Jesus “Savior?” What does it mean to call Jesus the “Son of God?” What does it mean to call him the “Messiah?” If you asked five of your friends, any of these questions, would you get five different answers? I expect so. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, but what’s important is that we have experience that informs what we call Jesus.
Jesus tells Peter that he is getting things wrong because of his orientation – that he is focused not on divine things, but on human things.” And, of course, we say. Peter was a human, as are we. What other mind set can he and we have? We bring our humanity into our relationship with Jesus. We see Jesus sustaining and upholding the values we want to enhance. We see him as one who will enable us to become whatever we want to become. In other words, we want Jesus to be whom we want Jesus to be. But relationships take more than this. Relationships take listening and understanding.
Jesus’ words to Peter suggests that there is another perspective, an important one for us. In this relationship with Jesus, there is the promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who Jesus is, and who we are we are, breaks through. In Jesus, God enables you and me to find a way that is different from the way of the world, a way that enables us to discern how life is fulfilled as God would have it, enables us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.
So, perhaps, after all, Peter is right. Jesus is the Messiah, and the work then is on Peter to know what it is to be the Messiah….to learn that it is not about who will fight and win for us, but about one who will suffer and die for us. It’s about one who will teach us what it is to serve rather than to conquer, to give rather than take, to love, rather than hold anything back. This is the Messiah who Jesus is. Peter didn’t like that, and Jesus set him straight. Take up your cross, Peter, and follow me. Learn from me. This is what it is to be in relationship.
To Peter, Jesus seemed to say “Don’t be ashamed of the Messiah I am. It’s not a victory story, it’s a servant story. Come on, and I’ll show you.” May we, in our relationship with Jesus, the…..fill in the blank, may we learn from God more, day by day, just what that means. Who do you say that Jesus is?