September 12, 2021 I am in St Louis this weekend. This homily will not be delivered.
Isaiah 50, 5-9 + Psalm 116 + James 2, 14-18 + Mark 8, 27-35
We are at the exact center point of Mark’s Gospel. Until now, Jesus and his disciples have been traveling to the villages of the countryside and up into Galilee. They have stopped for a moment at the ultimate seat of Roman power. The place where this episode takes place is important. We are at Caesarea Philippi. It is a place with great imperial history. The Caesars who built and lavished riches upon this place see themselves as gods who rule and bless their subjects through their imperial structured world. There was a gleaming Temple there built by a people who created their god in their own image. At this place, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Peter’s confession competes with Imperial claims as he identifies Jesus as the Messiah. With that, a conflict begins. At first, it is a conflict of ideas and expectations. Later it becomes a conflict that is violent and deadly. The traveling around the countryside is over. They now turn toward Jerusalem where the conflict will erupt into the open and finally be resolved……… but not quite.
This resolution can never be complete until everyone of us answers the question the Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” As long as our answer is tainted by Caesarea Philippi images and ideas of that god, there will be no resolution. In spite of his declaration, Peter and his companions were still caught up in the conflict. His refusal to hear and accept what Jesus says next reveals what’s going on inside of them.
What Jesus wanted from his disciples he still wants from us; an openness to what he is about to tell them. Peter had the right answer, but the wrong idea or expectation of what a Messiah, God’s anointed one, was to be. Not until the Resurrection would they understand the central mystery of salvation through self-sacrificing love.
Even today, like Peter did then, we all resist what Jesus says and does. It simply does not match our expectation of power and our created idea of how God should work among us. Too often we want a “Caesar-God”. What is consistently revealed to us is a loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing God who instead of destroying enemies waits, watches, and forgives with an amnesty that is hard for us to understand, and Jesus asks for openness to what he has to say and do.
We resist suffering. For some it’s the end of their relationship with God. Yet, when something happens that’s good, we are quick to say: “Thank you, God.” The Messiah that Peter had yet to understand was a Messiah connected not just with power and joy, but with suffering and death. It was not that Jesus was to suffer because of some mistakes he made: That’s retribution. Nor did he seek suffering as if it was a virtue: That’s sadism. Like many who suffer, he had led a morally good life, and on that score, he did not deserve to suffer.
It seems to me that Peter’s shortcoming was his failure to listen to the Prophet we just heard referring to the Messiah as a suffering servant. This “servant” is all of us, the People of God, who can overcome evil by good, violence by love, war by peace-making. We see today a Jesus who is still be tempted to take the crown without the cross. We see him speak to Peter and call him “Satan” reminding us as he was reminded that Satan and temptations are never gone for good, and sometimes they speak to us in the voice of a friend.
Being tempted to look for someone with power and shaping our concept of God. We find it easier to believe in a distant God of power than in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who cries out in pain on the crosses of the world and suffers in humanity. Opening ourselves to the mystery of the God Jesus reveals reminds and comforts us with the simple truth that a well-lived life has both joy and sorrow.
None of this makes any sense at all until the Resurrection when it is made known to us how God thinks and how God acts. By human reasoning, the cross makes no sense – what good could come out of defeat, humiliation, and death we ask? But God’s thinking is different, and so, like Peter and his companions, we are called to conversion of mind and to take up a completely divine way of thinking with the conviction that love always will triumph and God can and will make all things new.