Just the other day I came across a spoof news report from two years ago which claimed that the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wanted people to use their loyalty cards more, and for stores which didn’t have them to introduce them. This was to combat terrorism, in the light of the Glasgow bombers having bought their supplies from B & Q, which didn’t at the time have a loyalty card. According to the article, she wanted loyalty cards to replace the unpopular idea of identity cards, and for the data collected by loyalty cards to be used in intelligence gathering operations. In the article, these words are put into Jacqui Smith’s mouth:
Identity. It’s a big theme today. Identity cards and identity theft are but two major areas of concern and controversy about the identity of individuals in our society.
And identity is a central theme of our Gospel reading. It’s about the identity of Jesus, and the consequent identity of his disciples. I see this revelation of identity coming in three phases.
Firstly, we have a confession.
If you like reading stories, I wonder what kinds you prefer. Thrillers, romance, epics? If you enjoy whodunits or mysteries, you will be somewhat disappointed by Mark’s Gospel. In the very first verse, he tells us it is the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God. At the Cross, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and here, Peter says ‘You are the Messiah’ (verse 29), when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, as opposed to the opinions of people they know.
This, then, is one of the high water marks of Mark’s Gospel. Here, after all the build-up, with Jesus’ popularity among ordinary people and the opposition starting to rise from those who feel threatened by him, is a decisive confession by Peter. ‘You are the Messiah.’ Lesser options, like the ones proposed by others, will not do. Jesus is more than ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’ (verse 28).
And it’s similar today. Lesser confessions will not do. Around the time I first became seriously interested in faith for myself, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar had been popular. Both contain elements that are worthy of appreciation by Christians, and it’s interesting to see how people without a clear Christian faith perceive Jesus, but both fall short. Godspell is ambivalent about the Resurrection. Jesus is dead at the end, and you simply have the ambiguous song ‘Long live God.’ And Jesus Christ is more than a superstar. Indeed, his whole approach to life would critique attitudes to stardom and popularity.
Do we run the danger of making a lesser confession in the Church sometimes? Possibly. Might liberal Christians be so enamoured by the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings that they forget the importance of salvation from our own sins? Might catholic Christians be so entranced by the power of the sacraments in remembering Jesus that they overlook the personal responsibility we have in embracing faith? Might evangelical Christians be so caught up with the personal blessings of salvation that they pass over the social implications of his message and ministry?
These are all over-simplifications, I know, but I hope I make this simple point. Encounter with Jesus leads to a full-blooded confession of him as Messiah. It involves the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation for us. It starts with God’s initiative towards us, and we need to respond. And it isn’t merely for our own benefit, but for sake of God’s love for the world. All these things are implied in confessing Jesus as Messiah.
So let’s make sure our confession of Jesus is not a truncated one, not restricted by the vision of the world or by our church tradition. Let’s accept that confessing Jesus as Messiah leads us to a big, inspiring vision of who he is, what he does, who he blesses and what he calls us to do.
Secondly, there is confusion. Early in my ministry, I asked a congregation how they might have imagined their new minister before I arrived. Perhaps I was married with children, with brown eyes and right-handed. At the time, I was single (without children!). My eyes are blue (please don’t say ‘red’ after the service!) and I’ve always been part of that elite minority of people who are left-handed.
Similarly, when I moved from that appointment, I obtained a profile from one circuit I was interested in, only to find buried in it a description of their ideal minister as being married with children. At the time, I was still single (and still without children!). I found it sobering to talk the other morning with our Chair of District about our move from this circuit when she said I would be a more attractive option to some circuits because I was married with kids.
People can imagine all they like what someone is like, only for reality to deal a shock to them. that’s certainly what happened to Peter when Jesus explained that as Messiah he would have to suffer and die (verse 31). You’ll remember that Peter was shocked and began to rebuke Jesus (verse 32), only to earn the response
‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Verse 33)
Peter’s fantasies about the Messiah have to be exploded. No warmongering conqueror of the Roman occupying forces, but the suffering conqueror of occupying sin. We think of other Gospel stories, like James and John getting mad when a village doesn’t respond to the message of Jesus. They ask him whether calling down fire from heaven would be a good response, and Jesus declines their suggestion. No wonder they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.
All this is obvious to us with hindsight. We know that Jesus came as a suffering Messiah, not a military general or a freedom fighter. We know the way of the Messiah is the journey to the Cross. So you might think it would be easy for us to live without the confusion of Peter and the first disciples.
I am not so sure. We may know in our heads that the path of Jesus would take him to Calvary, but there are times when we want to call on a warlike Messiah, just like his first followers. Think about how we pray sometimes about evil. We may want God to sort it with a quick fix. We may ask God to zap evildoers, whether they are tyrants inflicting injustice on their people or folk we know who have treated us unfairly or even cruelly.
I wonder whether those are the kinds of prayers to which God answers, ‘No.’ I wonder whether heaven even says, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to us when we pray like that. I wonder whether the way we need guiding out of our confusion about Jesus is to focus our thoughts and devotions much more solidly on the Cross. Having seen some churches ripped apart by bitterness and lack of forgiveness, I do suspect we have our fair share of Peters and Sons of Thunder in today’s church. But here, especially, and as always, the Cross is what unscrambles our confusion about Jesus.
Thirdly and finally, this passage presents us with a challenge. Many of us may find the world of the prosperity gospel preachers baffling and bizarre. If you’ve caught sight of any on satellite TV, you’ll know what I mean.
But it’s easy to understand their appeal. ‘God wants you rich’ is an attractive message in a materialistic society. ‘Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to’ plays well in a culture that spends all its time trying to avoid suffering. And while we might see through the ‘God wants you rich’ approach, I think a lot of us don’t so much think about suffering as attempt to avoid it.
But think about it we must, because the challenge of Jesus here is that just as he was to go to the Cross, so too his followers would have to face suffering because they are his disciples. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ he says (verse 34).
It’s not that Jesus thinks we should go looking for suffering, but he calls us all to such an abandonment to his ways that it will bring us in the firing line of evil, just as happened to him. If that happens, then self-preservation is not an option. If I want to save my life, I will lose it, but if I surrender it for Jesus and the Gospel I will save it (verse 35).
Now that thought is one we need to apply not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to churches. How often I hear churches in these days of aging and declining congregations talk about how they are going to survive and keep open. ‘How are we going to keep our church going?’ people ask. I suggest that it is a question based on self-preservation rather than a concern for the Gospel. It’s about how we are going to save our lives, rather than a passion for other people to know the love of God in Christ. Maybe churches that talk like that are the very ones that will lose their lives.
Few people like the idea of embracing suffering head on – I certainly don’t! However, we need to remember that Jesus offers us hope with these challenging words: if we are willing to lose our lives for his sake, we will save our lives. That might be in this life, it might be in the life of the world to come. But Jesus keeps his promises. I recently read this story:
Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was a preacher who was taken into custody for preaching the gospel during the time when Queen Mary Tudor was persecuting Protestants. He was being taken to London to certain death, but to the amusement of the guards accompanying him he kept saying, ‘Everything is for the best.’ On the way he fell off his horse and was hurt, so they could not travel for a few days. He told the amused guards, ‘I have no doubt that even this painful accident will prove to be a blessing.’ Finally he was able to resume his journey. As they were nearing London, later than expected, they heard the church bells ringing. They asked someone why this was so. They were told, ‘Queen Mary is dead, and there will be no more burning of Protestants.’ Gilpin looked at the guards and said, ‘Ah, you see, it is all for the best.’
So let us embrace the challenge, knowing Jesus will give us life everlasting, whatever we lay down now.
 Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, p36, citing Tom Carter (editor), Spurgeon at his Best, pp323ff.