It is a characteristic of the way St Mark presents his narrative that Jesus and the twelve disciples were always on the move. Today’s passage is no exception with its beginning:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
The one-time Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay commented:
If you read Mark’s Gospel the way in which it was intended, you soon find yourself out of breath!
Always on the move. As always there was much conversation and discussion along the road. Jesus has asked some rather broad questions about public opinion, and then he asked a very direct question of his disciples:
But who do you say that I am?
It was Peter who answered.
You are the Messiah.
Peter answered, but did he really understand what he was saying? And was it Peter alone speaking, or was he acting as spokesperson for the group? For “messiah” was a word loaded with cultural and religious expectations – which clearly didn’t fit in with what Jesus had to say next, thereby earning Peter the strongest of rebukes.
“Get behind me, Satan!”
Why was Peter rebuked? Because Jesus had started to teach his closest followers that the path they were going to follow would be a very dangerous one with devastating consequences.
All this would have proved too much for Peter and those other disciples.
Let’s look at them objectively. Here were a group of young, strong men. They were people of character, and a developing faith. They were very much in the public view, and enjoying a high degree of acclaim and popularity as the disciples of this Jesus of Nazareth.
All seemed to be going well, so why destroy it all – throw it all away? Surely that’s what Jesus was saying to them. We have to go to Jerusalem and give it all up. And Peter started to tell Jesus that this course of action would brand them as outcasts and failures.
In the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Christianity was indeed a religion for failures and misfits. Nietzsche was an extraordinarily embittered man who had rebelled against his religious upbringing, and throughout his life battled with illness and drug addiction.
He began his case:
The word "Christianity" is already a misunderstanding - in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.
He argued that any religion that exalted the humble and meek saps the strength of a civilization, because it runs counter to the process of natural selection. Nietzsche and nature insist that the strongest only will succeed, but Christianity preserves the weak and even rewards the humble. Hence his similar resentment of democracy.
Jesus reproach to Simon Peter was not simply an act of correction, but a clear warning that his vision of faith was human-centred, not God-focused.
“You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
That reprimand echoes strongly down the ages, both inside and outside the Church.
It is a worry that many of the values implicit in our culture owe more to human things than they do to Christ. The way so much emphasis is placed upon success, or power. Even the way the Church occasionally behaves. A critique of the social politics of the Church drew this recent comment from the Scottish writer and theologian, Moyna McGlynn:
If the identity of the Messiah could only be revealed though so much suffering, why is it we imagine that the identity of the Church will be shown without a mark?
Those first, rebuked, disciples hadn’t really got a clue, so we shouldn’t judge them harshly. It was hard to see God’s will in such a deliberate act, a journey to Jerusalem, which appeared pure folly and would certainly end up in disaster?
But then God’s way is different. The world and its values and certainties are turned upside down. This was a different Messiah, and the previous expectations of such had been changed
When Jesus rebuked Peter he wasn’t just calling him wrong – he was using the same language he used when he first called him to follow him. What he was saying to him, and to us, is simple, yet so hard:
“Where I go, you must follow.”