Seeing the Messiah – 9/16/12 – Mark 8:27-38

There’s a saying attributed to the philosopher Immanuel Kant which goes: “We see things not as they are.  We see things as we are.”  (for a fascinating exploration of where this saying – often attributed to the Talmud – comes from, see HERE).  Well before Freud and the psychologists who followed him taught us about our tendency to project our anxieties and desires onto other people, the philosopher had this insight into this same basic human condition.  We see things not as they are.  We see things as we are.

Since we are in the middle, or, thankfully, toward the end, of this rather extended campaigning season, we are blessed with an abundance of examples all around us of people, and maybe even ourselves! seeing things are we are.  It never ceases to amaze me how people can be looking at the exact same thing – the national debt, the war in Afghanistan, health care, and see such very different pictures.  It’s frustrating how so many people can be so wrong for not seeing things the way I do!  Said everyone at the same time.

During the month of September we’re trying to see things the way Mark sees them in his Gospel, and last week’s sermon involved a rather large chunk of Mark, from midway through chapter 6 to midway through chapter 8, starting with the multiplication of the bread for the 5000, continuing through the failed passage to the other side through the stormy Sea of Galilee, the dispute with the Pharisees about bread politics, the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who persuades Jesus into sharing his bread of healing for her daughter, the multiplication of the bread part two, this time with the 4000 Gentiles, the next attempt of crossing over to the other side, and ending with the disciples in the boat with Jesus talking about bread.  Along with bread, a consistent theme throughout that stretch of the gospel is the disciples’ lack of understanding about the bread; the good news of inclusive, abundant physical and spiritual nourishment that Jesus is making available to all people on this side, and the other side.  Even when there’s not enough, there’s more than enough.  It multiplies.  But the disciples don’t get it, and their lack of getting it is presented specifically as a problem of perception.  “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?  D you have ears and fail to hear?”  This makes the healing of blind and deaf people, placed rather strategically at different points in Mark’s gospel, all the more significant.  Jesus is about the work of opening eyes and ears to the good news.  But will the disciples, will we, the present discipleship community, ever learn to see and hear?

So today’s reading picks up where that leaves off.  The bread trail has ended, and the gospel narrative is entering into a new phase.  If we see things not as they are, but as we are, this can be a problem.  How will we learn to see?

It starts in 8:27 with a question from Jesus to the disciples about what other people are seeing.  He asks them: “Who do people say that I am?”  The word on the street, as far as the disciples have heard, is overwhelmingly positive.  Approval rating is high.  Polls are favorable.  Some people are calling Jesus the next John the Baptist, who had just been killed by Herod, leaving a vacancy for the role of the people’s prophet.  Others are calling Jesus Elijah, a prophet associated with the renewal of Israel.  The prophet Malachi, the last of the prophetic books had said: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”  They were looking, hoping, for Elijah.  And still others were calling Jesus one of the prophets.  The next Isaiah, or Micah.

Jesus neither affirms nor denies any of these identities.  Time for a straw poll among his inner circle.  Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, who seems to be the self-appointed spokesperson for the group answers.  “You are the Messiah, the Christ.”  Interestingly, this was not one of the ways the people were identifying Jesus.  But Peter has been observing all that’s been happening recently, the healings, the bread, the teachings, the power, and lets it fly that he thinks Jesus is the one they’ve all been waiting for, to deliver them from oppression and to bring salvation to the people.  The Messiah.

According to Mark, Peter is right.  Mark had begun his gospel by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ or Messiah.”  The title is already given up front, but hasn’t reappeared until now.  And, after having said this, Jesus does what any good teacher would do when their student gives the correct answer.  He gets in Peter’s face and tells him to shut his mouth.  The word translated that he “sternly ordered” them not to tell anyone is the same as rebuke, which occurs two more times in the passage.  Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus rebukes him.  “I don’t want you to call me that.”  And, in Mark, none of the disciples, including Peter, ever do again.

There’s a common saying in Buddhism which goes: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  Of course, this is not something that a Mennonite Buddhist would ever say or do.  Except that, in the way it is intended it is not referring to a literal Buddha, road, or killing.  This line was first uttered by the 9th century Buddhist master Lin Chi.  As far as I can understand it, the saying means something like this: the road is the path to Enlightenment, which is traveled through meditation, prayer, study, good deeds, or other spiritual practices.  The Buddha is anyone one meets in life who one recognizes as being further down that path than oneself: a parent, a friend, a mentor, a wise teacher.  One admires and follows this Buddha, and perhaps attributes all sorts of wisdom and perfections to this person that one hopes for in oneself.  You project the Buddha onto this person, which can be very helpful in revealing one’s own desires, but this eventually becomes an obstacle on the path.  This is not the Buddha.  Kill it.  It’s the only way to let that limited image of the Buddha give up its grip on your imagination.  Let it die, and keep practicing, keep studying and meditating.  Keep going down the road.  It’s a similar kind of insight as the philosopher.  We see things not as they are, but as we are.  And this can be a problem.

The Buddha and the Christ are embedded in different traditions and can’t be conflated into the same thing.  But there are striking parallels that show up.

In this passage from Mark, this exchange between Jesus and the disciples happens “on the way,” v. 27 of chapter 8, a phrase that occurs throughout the second half of Mark.  It refers to literal travel that is happening, but can also be understood as the symbolic path of discipleship.  In Mark chapter 10, Jesus is heading out “on the way,” when a man runs up to him and kneels before him, asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Later in the chapter, Jesus and the disciples are “on the way” to Jerusalem.  In chapter 12, right outside of Jerusalem, Jesus tells the blind Bartimaeus that his faith has healed him.  The text says, “And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus on the way.”  He becomes a disciple.  The phrase could be translated “on the way,” “on the path,” “on the road.”  If you see the Buddha on the road…

Peter thinks he sees the Christ on the road.  And after rebuking him, Jesus starts talking about getting killed.

“Then he began to teach them that the Human One 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.”

Mark could have said, that Jesus began to teach them that the Messiah must undergo great suffering.  But, even though it’s just been offered out there, Jesus opts for another title.  The Son of Man, the Human One.  The one living humanity to its fullest will be killed.

Well, this is disappointing.  This is not the idea of a Messiah we have in mind.  Premature death is pretty much the definition of a failed Messiah.  Even for those of us who have heard this our whole lives, who know the path that Jesus walks, and are fully aware that it ends up at the cross, this still barely registers.

Maybe this is why Mark comments that Jesus “said all this quite openly.”  Or, another translation, “He said this plainly.”  For once, Jesus isn’t talking in parables.  Isn’t asking for a whole lot of interpretative imagination on the part of his listeners.  This isn’t even the metaphorical Buddha on the metaphorical road.  Jesus is talking about actually dying.

Peter is not pleased.  Now it’s his turn to do the rebuking.  “And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”

With the rebuke score now tied at 1-1, Jesus puts it right back on him.  “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”  Well.  This is most likely not what Peter expected when he gave his initial response to Jesus.  Tell your leader that he’s the Messiah, and he ends up telling you that you’re Satan.  The last time Jesus had met up with Satan it was after Jesus’ baptism.  After he heard those holy words from heaven that he was the Beloved Child of God, he went out in the wilderness where he was with the wild beasts and the angels, being tempted by Satan about all the glorious options in front of him for bringing about the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Now Satan slides back onto the scene, through the mouth of Peter, and is rebuked.

Then the conversation shifts.  Jesus says, That’s enough about me.  Let’s talk about you.  “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news will save it.”

What starts as a question about Jesus’ identity moves to becoming a question about the identity of all those who would call themselves Jesus’ followers.

It’s significant in Mark that Jesus never asks anyone to worship him.  He doesn’t say “If any want to become my worshipers, let them do this and this.”  He doesn’t tell the tax collector by the side of the road to “Come, worship me.”  What he says is “Come, follow me.”  I’ll lead the way, you follow me.  Now Jesus lets people know in plain language where he’s headed, and where they’re all headed if they want to follow him.  By refusing to be the Messiah of our wishes, Jesus accepts the path of the un-Messiah, and so saves us from ourselves.

And this call seems to be straddling the line between the physical, and the spiritual world.  Jesus speaks of a physical death and a physical cross, but also a spiritual death of losing one’s life in order to find it.  We could also say, losing one’s vision in order to be able to see.  Which is exactly what happens to the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

One of the noteworthy things about the Anabaptist tradition is that people have taken Jesus at his word here.  We have understood that the life of discipleship can be costly, that following Jesus will actually change your life in profound, joyous, and difficult ways, and that it may very well put you in bodily danger.  Either because you’re considered a heretic, like the 16th century Anabaptists, or because you intentionally choose to get “in the way,” in the language of Christian Peacemaker Teams.  You choose to get in the middle of conflicted situations as a witness and a peacemaker.  And so we honor people like Tom Fox, a member of the nonviolent delegation to Iraq, who was killed in 2006 after being kidnapped in that country.

We celebrate this kind of witness in the Mennonite Church because we see it as a carrying out of the work of Jesus, following the master even to the cross.

There is always the danger of treating these kinds of people and situations just the way Jesus taught us not to – to somehow elevate them to Messianic greatness, make a hero out of them, and disassociate ourselves from a similar kind of calling.  But the calling, Jesus is making pretty clear here, is not just one of physical martyrdom.  Death and resurrection, losing your life in order to save it, is also a pattern of the soul.  It is the path that everyone must walk, and it is the way that we learn to see in a new way.  The apostle Paul and the great teachers of the Christian faith speak continually about the death of an old self, the self that sees the world according to itself, and the rebirth of a new self, which is really our only true self, the self that bears the divine life, the Christ, which is seeking to become realized in all of us.

And it’s in the following that all of this happens, that we learn to see.  The world looks different when one is following Jesus, especially when one accepts that the path leads to the cross and that there is a rising again that happens after the cross.  One notices different things.  One learns to see in new ways.  One even learns to look for Christ not only outside oneself, on the road, but also inside oneself, in the deepest recesses of one’s being.  And once we discover that, we are on the way, and Christ is rising again, resurrection is overcoming death.  This is good news.