Proper 19 Year B 2021

I have to tell you that I do get very cross with the people, whoever they are, who decide what readings we have at the Eucharist each Sunday. This is supposed to be the year we work our way through the Gospel according to St Mark, but yet for five weeks running recently we had readings from the Gospel according to St John. Okay, we don’t have a ‘John year’, we get readings from John scattered over all three Liturgical years, but is that a good enough reason for leaving out some of the most important bits of Mark? Since last week’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter – our lesson not to think of anyone made in the image of God as ‘dogs’ – between then and today’s reading we have, in Mark’s Gospel, the feeding of the four thousand in Gentile territory, and the giving of sight to a blind (un-named) man, also in Gentile territory. The feeding of the four thousand bookends one section of Mark’s gospel and the healing of the blind man opens another section which will end with the giving of sight to blind Bartimaeus at the gates to Jerusalem. And within these two stories of healing the blind, the disciples, blind to who Jesus really is, will have a lot to learn.

Today’s reading is a pivot point in Mark’s Gospel.

After the stories of itinerant teaching and healing, Jesus and the twelve (and perhaps lots of other hangers on called the crowd) set off on a journey towards Jerusalem, but the disciples have not yet received their sight. The blind man in the previous story does not quite see – ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking’ (M8.24), but eventually he gets there and can see clearly. Now Jesus is struggling to give sight to his blind disciples. ‘Who do people say that I am?’ What is the gossip on the streets and in the lanes? And they clearly have been listening, because they know the answers to this question – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets – all figures pointing to the coming of the expected Messiah – ‘but who do you say that I am?’ Forget the gossip, the social media hype, look at what you have seen and what you have heard, put two and two together – and Peter gets it right – you are the Messiah. You don’t point to the one who is to come – you are the one who is to come! He gets it right – except he gets it completely wrong. ‘Get behind me, Satan’. What a cruel thing to say to one of his most devoted followers, one who had left family, friends, income to follow him.

And why is Peter so wrong, so satanic? Why does he think like men, and not like God? – Because he is a first century Palestinian Jew, seeped in the expectation of a descendant of David who will come with might to overthrow the Romans and restore the glory of Israel. No wonder the declaration of Jesus that he must suffer and die is totally abhorrent, unacceptable to Peter. He is like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness, luring him away from God’s chosen path. But note, that though he gets things so totally wrong, Jesus doesn’t dismiss him, send him away – no – get behind me, Satan. I’m on a journey, are you behind me, following me? Are you walking in my footsteps?

The disciples are blind to the reality of Jesus, and, as we know, they won’t see clearly until after the resurrection.

We know, of course, who Jesus is because Mark has told us – Chapter 1, verse 1 – ‘The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.

So why does Jesus tell his disciples not to tell anyone about him, and why does he call himself the Son of Man, and not Messiah? The answer to the second question – the ‘Son of Man’ question is, I think, that he doesn’t want all that cultural baggage which Peter, and presumably the others, is carrying. Jesus’ concept of Messiahship is totally other – and the disciples have yet to understand that, so Jesus won’t use the M word.

And the answer to the first question – the need for secrecy, a feature which runs all the way through Mark’s Gospel – that seems to be part of the same necessity to control expectations, for Jesus to be in control of the revelation of who he is. The last thing he wants is a popular uprising against Rome in the belief that the Davidic warrior Messiah was amongst them. That way lay disaster.

Peter was looking at the wrong part of Jewish Scripture. Instead of the history of the military might of David and the magnificence of the reign of Solomon, he should have been thinking of Isaiah’s suffering servant.

So, let us go back to Jesus’s question to his disciples and ask again – who do you say that I am? Who do you say that Jesus is? An answer is required. When you look at Jesus who do you see? In Mark’s Gospel, apart from Peter who actually got it right, and yet so wrong, the correct answer comes only from the demons, who know instantly who Jesus is – ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ (M5.7)

Will we ever have the courage to ask that – What do you want with me, Jesus?’ What must I do that you won’t be ashamed of me when you come in glory? The answer comes from the text – deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.

And we don’t want to do it! Our concept of Jesus isn’t as difficult as that – we like gentle Jesus, meek and mild. We like leading quiet, comfortable lives, we like well-organised, political, social, economic systems. It suits our north-European, democratic ways. (And I include myself in this – I make no pretence of being the perfect disciple).

So let us look at these imperatives from Jesus – (1) deny yourselves – how does that pan out? How about -I am not the most important person in my life – the needs of others are more important than my wants; so a certain measure of self-sacrifice. If you spend your life satisfying yourself, you have spent in vain. That is a shift all of us can make, even if it has to be a little bit at a time. until it becomes a good habit. (2) Take up your cross – to those who heard Jesus, and those who belonged to the community for whom Mark was writing, the meaning was self-evident – people on the way to ultimate Roman punishment – but for us? Good, kind, respectable people? I never had the courage to go on an Aldermaston march or to join the women’s peace camp at Fasslane; I’m not planning to lobby in Glasgow at the Cop26 climate crisis conference – although I support or supported all of those things. I’m a coward. I don’t want to suffer. I like being comfortable. But I can support Christian charities working in hostile environments, I can raise funds for them, I can send gifts and tell family – you are not getting a Christmas present this year, I sent a Palestinian farmer an olive tree in your name – you get the drift. I can tell you that I think the British Government’s attitude to refugees and migrants is a national disgrace; our exit from Afghanistan was shameful, the cutting of the overseas aid budget was a betrayal of those to whom so much had been promised – and take the flack if it comes. And so we come – the final imperative – follow me. What does that mean? Follow Jesus to eternal life in heaven or follow him to the cross? To those for whom Mark wrote his gospel, it was to follow to the cross. They were a church under persecution. We don’t have the problem of persecution – our problem is perceived irrelevance. How odd, going to church! In spite of what James says in his Letter, perhaps it is time to use that vexatious member of the body – the tongue – and put our mouths where our hearts are and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one who said ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’. That love led him to the cross and beyond. Will we obey the command – follow me?