Jesus didn’t and doesn’t need a spin doctor

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading this morning uses, as a number of other gospel references do, the interaction of Jesus with Peter in order to make some important point. But the important point from today’s gospel reading is no ordinary point, it is the ‘To be or not to be’ moment of Mark’s gospel; a moment which, if missed, undermines Mark’s purpose in writing his version of the life and purpose of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Three weeks ago I quoted from Kyle Harper regarding how we should approach Mark’s gospel. If you were here that Sunday, you may recall that I said Harper warned against us losing meaning if we analyse portions of that gospel in isolation and that Mark’s gospel is ‘more than the sum of its parts’. I went on to say that Harper said we should be looking at Mark through the lens of a ‘broader narrative meaning’ which in the case of this gospel was:

To convince his audience that the Messiah was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.

So, in reflecting on this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, we should bear this broader narrative meaning in mind. What had Mark intended that these verses contribute towards our understanding of the overall narrative purpose of the whole gospel?

In the three verses immediately preceding today’s reading, Peter had reached what he must have regarded as a complete understanding of this man Jesus whom he had been so loyally following since  first being called by him that day as he cast his net into the Sea of Galilee. [Mark 1:17] In answer to Jesus’ question as ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter, in a blaze of confidence responded:

You are the Messiah. [v29b]

This exultation had been followed by an immediate caution from Jesus that he should not tell anyone about him. But what does Jesus then immediately go and do? Our reading this morning tells us that:

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. [v31]

We can sense from what happened straight afterwards, that Peter was not only perplexed, he was somewhat alarmed. Here was the person, whom he had moments before proclaimed to be the Messiah, something which he had been told to keep to himself, but who was now speaking out loud not only to the disciples but, as we read in verse 34, who then went and even ‘called the crowd’ to listen to him. What is more, it wasn’t sufficient that Jesus would clearly refer to himself as the Messiah, he abruptly upended the popular conception of a Messiah that those listening to him would have had. They would have been expecting a messiah who would arrive in triumph; instead Jesus stated that he would suffer, and be rejected to the point of being killed. Admittedly, Jesus would then ‘rise again’ after three days; but that afterthought would have been hard for the crowd to comprehend – indeed, it just couldn’t have made any sense to them. People just don’t rise from the dead, do they?

This was all too much for Peter, who appeared to have taken on the role of Jesus’ spin doctor, a political ministerial adviser to use an image much about these days. So he took Jesus aside and rebuked him. We are not told the exact words Peter used on that occasion; but it was probably something along the lines of:

Jesus, look, two things I just have to say to you. First, you said we were to keep all this a secret; but, secondly, this is not what the crowd will expect from a messiah – to suffer, be rejected and die. It just won’t wash. Here, let me craft some better words for you to get your message across – then not only will they not be confused, they’ll rush to join up with you.

In other words, Peter would have been saying to Jesus that he had gone off message and was in danger of either confusing or alienating the public. But while we don’t know exactly what Peter said to Jesus, we do know Jesus’ response:

Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Looking at the first part – ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ – this is often read very sonorously – ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ But I actually don’t think that Jesus would have said it that way; Jesus was very tolerant of Peter who was something of a well-meaning galumph of a man, who had a tendency to rush to judgment and to get things mixed up along the way. Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian, says that the name Peter derives not so much from the substantial concept of ‘Rock’ but the endearing diminutive ‘Rocky.’ It is plausible that Jesus could have been saying ‘oh get behind me, you old devil’ with a sense of exasperated familiarity.

I accept that what I am suggesting is conjectural, but I take some comfort from the way this verse has been translated into Cockney by Mike Coles:

Clear off Satan … what’s going on in your loaf? Your thoughts don’t come from God! You’re just thinking like any old geezer!

Which brings me to the second, and really the most important part, of what Jesus said to Peter:

For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Most of us have our personal favourite version or versions of the Bible that we prefer to use. I know some of you love the poetry of the King James’ version, and while the Anglican community generally prefers to use the Revised Standard Version, for me the New International Version is a favourite, though I do like to cross-reference with the Jerusalem Bible on occasions.

This week I received a new version of the New Testament, a translation done by the Orthodox scholar, David Bentley Hart. For those who attended some of the sessions of Thom Morgan’s ‘Cheese, Port and Pondering’ late last year you would have come across some of Hart’s interesting and profound reflections on matters theological. Receiving this new translation, I was particularly interested to read a couple of his comments from his introduction.

Firstly, David Bentley Hart notes that:

Most translations, in evening out the oddities of the text, tend to flatten the various voices of the writers into a single clean, commodious style (usually the translator’s own) … (whereas) in the Greek their voices differ radically.

This is an interesting invitation to reflect upon how we might hear Mark’s voice as different and distinct from the voices of the other gospel writers. But more importantly, I was particularly struck by the overall impression that David Bentley Hart draws from this variety of voices he heard once he had completed the task of translating the whole New Testament. This is what he has written:

What perhaps did impress itself upon me with an entirely unexpected force was a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning – by which I mean, precisely, its strangeness in respect to the Christianity of later centuries. When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters into a company of ‘radicals’ (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values absolutely inverse to the recognised social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture. The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social stations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions. I suspect that very few of us, in even our wildest imaginings, could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. [ppxxiv-xxv]

All this brings us back to those words of Jesus to Peter:

For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Which, incidentally, Hart translates as:

You think not the things of God, but those of men.

Do we read these words of the gospel with a sense of ‘a world-altering revelation’? Are we ‘securely sheltered within the available social stations of (our) time’? And if so, are we ready to ‘desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ’?

Bruce Waltke, a theologian from Regent College has used the term ‘Janus point’ describing it as a ‘literary unit that unites the units before and after’ [p37]. From our reading today, we can consider these words of Jesus, in the context they were said, as being a Janus point in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus’ words – ‘For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ – both unite what came before and what comes after and yet which also differentiates the before from the after.

What had come before, from the first, related in Mark 1, was the calling of Peter and the other disciples standing there by the Sea of Galilee; through their subsequent observation of Jesus’ wandering ministry and miracle performing on the way, led, in Mark 8, to Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The end of Mark’s gospel, the unredacted version that leaves out the last eleven verses of Chapter 16, brought Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome to the entrance of the tomb, where an angel told them:

He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter (my underlining), He is going ahead of you into Galilee. [16:6-7]

Pivoting around the Janus point of our reading this morning, we come full circle. Peter had answered the call to follow Jesus that day by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Many months later in Caesarea Philippi, Peter had come to believe Jesus to be the earthly messiah. Then by the end of the gospel, back in Galilee, Peter was to receive a message via the women who had been at the tomb three days after the crucifixion. That message was that Jesus had fulfilled the very statement which Peter had rebuked him for telling to the crowd. It would be then that Peter would finally have really understood the Messiahship of Jesus; he would no longer see things the way Jesus said he had been seeing them. Peter would henceforth set his mind on divine things not on human things.

Last Monday we started our 2018 Lenten study program, this year we are focussing on Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotion ‘A way other than our own’.  Over this Lent, Jenny Wilson is facilitating the morning group while I am doing the evening session; and, in our infomatically-smart Cathedral community, Wendy Morecroft is facilitating an on-line study group as well as a Facebook group. Don’t be worried if you missed the first session, you are most welcome to join from tomorrow onwards.

In that first session, one of the two sections from Brueggemann’s book we considered was  that for the First Friday of Lent – ‘A new way of being in the World’. In this section Walter Brueggemann wrote:

Lent could be a time … when we ask in fresh ways what the people clustered around Jesus make of the world they are in. (He continued) I put the question this way:  Jesus affirmed that it is possible to be in the world in a new way, to be present to the people and problems around us with some newness and freshness. [p6]

Further in that study, he stated that Lent is not about some personally-focussed ‘emotional well-being that says quit worrying’. So what does Lent mean to us? Is our answer to that question the same as what Lent should mean to us?  Is it simply some personal indulgence or a ‘to be or not to be’ moment, as we re-examine ourselves and our world through divine eyes, not human?

In our first session, we were guided in our study of Brueggemann’s book by a sermon he gave in 2015, entitled ‘Etched in Flesh’. You can find a Youtube recording of this sermon if you would like to hear it. [ ] In this sermon, he said:

Our Lenten work is to process being staggered by God’s newness, real newness, not derived from what is old … (newness that) does indeed scare us; but it is God’s way.

Peter was scared of God’s newness, the real newness that Jesus told the crowd that day; but Peter would come to understand that it was this newness of God that is God’s way, not that which is old, the old way of looking at things from a worldly perspective.

What of us? Will this Lent bring us a sense of God’s newness, freeing us from focussing on human things?

All this resonates with the message that Kate Jamie gave us last Sunday. She challenged us with the question:

Can that too relate to our experience of wilderness? A place where we lack imagination: a place where we cannot see a different way of living … But stepping into the unknown – into the wilderness – when all we have known falls apart around us needs new imagination… it needs God’s imagination. It needs our trust in God.

Jesus asked of Peter that he step into the unknown in order to escape the world’s wilderness. Despite all the difficulties that Peter laid in his own way, he did eventually escape through trust in God; and eventually he found ‘a different way of living’. Can this Lent be a time when we may be able to do the same?