September lectionary preview: Stages toward discipleship
August 26, 2021 by Kevin Park
Sunday, September 12, 2021 lectionary preview on Mark 8:27-38
This familiar story of Peter’s confession of Christ can be read as a journey toward discipleship in four stages: repetition, confession, correction, discipleship.
On their way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples two different but related questions in order,
“Who do people say that I am?”
“But who do you say that I am?”
The disciples found the first question easy and they blurted out many answers, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets…” All they had to do was repeat what other people said about Jesus.
Repetition is easy because it only requires reiteration of information. Repetition is important and necessary for faith.
After all, much of what we do in worship is repetition of liturgy, hymns, rotation of scripture readings, creeds, confessions, and prayers. Even sermons are reiterations of interpretations of scripture.
But repetition alone is not sufficient for faith. If our Christian life remains only repetition of information and data, it is not a life of faith. Even scripture, if it remains as mere information that remains outside of us, it will have no influence on our lives. John Calvin wrote, “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart.” (Institutes, 3.2.36)
In what ways are we satisfied with faith that remains as repetition?
If the disciples found the first question easy to answer, they found Jesus’ second question more difficult. We know this because the disciples do not give an avalanche of answers as they do for the first question.
The question, “Who do you say that I am,” is more difficult to answer because it requires a personal answer, not a mere repetition of information. Only Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Here, Peter was not repeating information he heard from others, but he was making a confession of faith. This was Peter’s answer, not anyone else’s. It took risk and ownership for Peter to answer as he did. When we confess that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord, although myriads of such confessions have been made by countless Christians in the past two millennia, we are not merely repeating old information.
Rather, we are standing with the cloud of witnesses of the Christian faith and making a personal and public declaration of who God is. Without confession, faith will remain a second-hand information. At some point believers need to confess their faith that is shaped by God’s word and rooted in one’s context. However, as we will see with Peter, confession, even when passionately declared, is not the end of the story.
How are we, through our ministries, equipping and encouraging the members of our faith communities to move from repetition to making confessions of the faith?
After Peter’s confession, Jesus teaches the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, rejected by the authorities, and be killed, and rise again after three days. And Mark emphasizes that Jesus “said all this quite openly.” (v. 32)
Jesus is teaching the disciples the content of Peter’s confession. He teaches them what kind of Messiah he is. At this Peter takes Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. This is very striking and unexpected. Peter disagrees with Jesus so vehemently that he rebukes the very Messiah whom he just identified and confessed! Why did Peter so strongly disagree with Jesus that he felt compelled to rebuke him? This is my imaginative reconstruction of Peter’s rebuke:
What the heck are you talking about, Jesus?!?! You are the Messiah!!! I just told you so, didn’t I? Messiah does not suffer and die! Messiah conquers! Don’t you know that, Jesus? Your christology is all wrong! Just stick with my understanding of who you are and follow my lead, Jesus, and everything will be okay. But no more of this suffering and dying stuff. That’s crazy talk! You have a lot of conquering to do when we arrive in Jerusalem, Jesus. You’re going to let those Romans have it and establish God’s kingdom on earth and let us rule with you!
Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was one that was shared by much of the Jewish community at the time. Peter believed that the Messiah would come as a mighty military and political conqueror who will liberate the Jews from the Roman empire. In Peter’s understanding of the Messiah there was no room for suffering and death. He was so sure about this that he rebuked the very Jesus who was teaching him the way of the Messiah. Although Peter’s answer to Jesus’ second question was correct, “You are the Messiah,” he did not understand the content of his answer even though Jesus just provided it. Peter was in effect trying to fit Jesus into his preunderstanding of the Messiah.
At this, Jesus rebukes Peter right back. But notice that although Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him, Jesus deliberately turns and looks at his disciples and makes this a public rebuke (v.33): “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This is Jesus’ harshest rebuke in the Gospels. We are taken aback that Jesus calls Peter, one of his closest disciples, “Satan.” The word Satan can mean adversary, one who opposes another purposefully. Peter is opposing Jesus’ purpose and mission.
But Jesus would not let Peter define the person and work of the Messiah. Jesus would not be confined to Peter’s theology. In short, Peter’s strong preunderstanding of the Messiah was Peter’s idol, so much so that he could not displace his idolatrous theology even with the real Messiah’s teaching. This is what happens when we trust our theologies more than the One whom our theologies point to. To confess our faith in Christ and the triune God is to witness and point to the One who is beyond and greater than our confessions. Confessions point to God. Confessions can never contain God.
We usually understand grace as warm, comforting, and affirming gift of God. But sometimes God’s grace is disruptive. Jesus disrupts Peter’s erroneous understanding of the Messiah because it was getting in the way of Peter’s discipleship. To follow someone, the follower must follow behind the leader. We cannot follow Jesus if we are in front of him. Peter was trying to be ahead and lead Jesus by attempting to mold him into his preconceived notion of the Messiah. So Jesus had to rein him in and say, “Get behind me…” This process of disruption and correction is painful and humbling, but it is an essential work of God’s grace and a necessary part of discipleship. Jesus rebukes Peter because he loves Peter. Sometimes the Holy Spirit tears down in order to build up. Jesus would not let anything separate his love-relationship with Peter.
How have we experienced grace as disruption? Are there areas in our lives and in our ministries that the Holy Spirit correcting and tearing down in order to build up something new?
Jesus then addresses not only the disciples but the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (v.34) Sometimes this saying has been used by those in power in the church for status quo, against those people who are oppressed and marginalized. But in the context of this story, Jesus is pointing out that we, like Peter, have certainties that we take for granted and that get in the way of discipleship that must be named and denied.
As disciples of Christ, sometimes we need to hear the Living Word against our own words. Like Peter, we need to go through the process of disruptive grace and come to admit, with God’s help, that sometimes our most cherished and passionate ways are wrong, idolatrous, and self-centered. This process of self-denial and cross-bearing entails suffering and is indeed painful. But we follow Christ, who demonstrated God’s radial self-giving love through the cross and resurrection. As Christ’s followers we also need to seek ways of cross-bearing, that is Christ’s way of self-giving love in our contexts.
How is God leading you and your ministry toward God’s self-giving love in Christ through the Holy Spirit?
Rev. Dr. Kevin Park serves as English Ministry Pastor of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He is interested in emerging Asian North American theologies and various expressions of theologies of the cross. His current research includes critiquing what he calls “Ornamental Multiculturalism,” and articulating a theology of divine beauty as a key theological resource for multicultural theology and ministry for the North American context. He holds a Ph.D. and Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and Master of Divinity from Knox College. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from University of Toronto.