Gospel for September 13th, 2015: “Peter’s Confession about Jesus,” “The First Prediction of the Passion,” and “The Conditions of Discipleship”
Mark 8: 27-35
Now Jesus and his disciples set out for villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” they said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.
Grouped with the readings from Isaiah (50: 5-9A) and James (2: 14-18) for today’s mass, the necessity of sacrifice and suffering for the Lord during the salvation journey clearly emerges as a theme. On hearing God’s call, Isaiah tells us he has “not rebelled… not turned back,” but instead, gave his back “to those who beat me” (4-6). James speaks to the suffering of material sacrifice rather physical suffering. He makes it clear that if a brother is in need of food or clothing, it is not enough to give him kind words; rather, one must act to “give them the necessities of the body” (15-16). Finally Jesus speaks to this theme in teaching, “whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8: 35); which I think can be taken literally, as Christian martyrs die for their faith, as well as metaphorically, when Christians risk scorn, rejection, and hardship to live Christ’s teaching and mission.
In the context of this theme, I am interested in Peter’s role in this gospel. Throughout the New Testament, I find Peter to be bold, sometimes to the point of recklessness, in speech, action, and most importantly, in his love of Christ. He is the first apostle to give up his life when Jesus calls him to follow (Matthew 4:18); he asks Jesus to command him to come to Him on the waters of Galilee and dares to walk on the surface (Matthew 14:29); he erroneously suggests the erection of tents in the presence of Jesus’s transfiguration (Matthew 17); he hastily moves to defend Jesus during his arrest by cutting off ear of Malchus the soldier (John 18:10); and on Pentecost, he courageously gives a speech to the people of Jerusalem calling for repentance and conversion after the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), to name a few key examples. Peter’s boldness does not come naturally to me. I tend to think first before acting. While I would like to think I do that out of consideration for others, I know quite often my delayed reactions, more aptly my hesitations, are born out of a fear of risking embarrassment or failure. Peter, in contrast, frequently suffers as a result of his boldness (and in the end gives the ultimate sacrifice, dying as a martyr).
In this gospel, Jesus uses Peter’s boldness in speech and action twice. First, he asks the apostles who they think He is. Peter, moved by his love for Jesus, risks being wrong and speaks the truth in his heart while others remained silent. While the world was saying Jesus is a teacher or a prophet or a healer, Peter alone declares, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 29). In this case, Peter does not suffer embarrassment. In fact in Matthew’s gospel (16: 15-19), this is the moment when Jesus proclaims that Peter is the rock on which He will build His church. Nevertheless, Peter risked ridicule and perhaps accusations of blasphemy in his confession of Christ as savior.
In Peter’s second bold move, I imagine he suffered great embarrassment to fulfill Jesus’s larger purpose in teaching that we must learn to think as God does, not as humans do. When Jesus attempts to explain the necessity of His suffering in the Passion and death on the cross, Peter, surely again moved by love, assertively rebukes him for suggesting such a thing. In reaction, Jesus, in full view of the other apostles calls him “Satan.” How crushed Peter must have been to be called Lucifer by his Lord, when all he was trying to do was prevent Jesus’s own suffering. I imagine he stood there burning with shame and confusion. And yet, Jesus needed Peter to say what they were all thinking so He could make it clear that God’s will must be done. Human weakness cannot interfere. It is necessary for Jesus to die for our sins to save us, and not even He is exempt from the hardship of accepting the Father’s mission. Still, I also imagine, after the sting of that moment Peter felt a sense of incomparable closeness to Jesus that brought him peace. Peter had fulfilled his role, which I am sure he must have recognized and accepted because he did not leave.
I pray that I may act boldly in accepting God’s mission for me and any suffering that accompanies it, so that I may too feel closer to our Lord. I pray that I may think as God does and not as humans do.