Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Proverbs 1:20–33; James 2:18–26 & Mark 8:27–38
I remember a time in my working life, long before my call to ministry, when the company that I worked for went through a significant upheaval. The Managing Director was moved to a different role in the Asia Pacific region of the company’s operations, and a retired senior executive from North America was appointed as interim Managing Director of the Australian operation. One of his key tasks in the time he was with us in Australia, was to recruit a replacement Managing Director for the longterm.
I was a member of the Management Team of the Australian operation at the time, and I was fortunate to work closely with the interim Managing Director. He was much older than me, and in many respects I looked up to him as a type of father figure. He was very much what I would describe as a “people person”, someone who related well to people from all walks of life and backgrounds, and he was a wonderful leader who inspired commitment and support from those around him. The time I spent working with him was possibly the most memorable and enjoyable time of my working life before ministry.
When he eventually started the process of recruiting a new Managing Director, the other members of the Management team and I were concerned about who would be appointed to replace him. We had all enjoyed working with him so much, and we hoped that the person appointed would be like him. Therefore when the new MD was appointed, we all had certain expectations of what this person would be like. Sadly, we were all greatly disappointed!
In a way, this is the situation Jesus finds himself in on the road to the villages of Caesarea Philippi when he asks his disciples who the people think he is. The disciples reply that some people believe Jesus is John the Baptist brought back to life, while others think he might be the prophet Elijah–of whom it was foretold would return again before the current age was replaced by the ‘new’ age at the end of time–and still others who thought he was one of the prophets of the Old Testament, such as Moses. But when Jesus asks them who they think he is, Peter answers on behalf of them all and tells Jesus that they believe he is the Messiah.
It is their expectation of what the Messiah will be like, that results in the strong rebuke Jesus delivers to Peter. For when Jesus tells them of his impending suffering and death, Peter immediately takes Jesus aside and berates him. The reason he does so is because Peter’s expectation (and indeed the expectation of most Jewish people in first-century Palestine) is that the Messiah, who will of course be a descendant of King David, will be a mighty hero who will defeat the armies of Rome and restore Israel to its former glory under David. The idea of the Messiah suffering torture and dying on a cross was unthinkable! And therein lies the problem. The disciples, who of course are those closest to Jesus, still really don’t understand exactly who Jesus is, or what his true mission is.
The location of this particular passage in Mark’s Gospel is crucial, because it marks a turning point. Readers of Mark’s Gospel have known the identity of Jesus from the opening verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Even the demons, who Jesus encounters while healing people possessed by demons, have also known who Jesus really is, referring to him at various times as ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of the most High God’. But the disciples, who have been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and who have seen him perform miracles and many acts of healing, still don’t fully see Jesus for who he really is. The author of Mark’s Gospel illustrates this for us in the passage which occurs immediately before today’s passage.
The story of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida in two stages, which takes place in verses 22–26 of chapter 8, is symbolic of the two-stage enlightenment of the disciples. They arrive at a partial recognition of Jesus’ identity in today’s passage, when they acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, but their enlightenment isn’t complete until they see the risen Jesus in Galilee after he has died on the cross as he told them he would.
So today’s passage signifies a turning point in Mark’s, because from the villages in Caesarea Philippi, which is the setting for today’s passage, Jesus turns southward to begin the journey to Jerusalem and the cross, a journey that will take the disciples deeper into the mystery of the identity and mission of Jesus.
There also appears to be some mystery, or at least some misunderstanding, regarding the type of faith one needed to have in the first-century church. The Apostle Paul famously said that although everyone had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they were put in a right relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus if they believed in Jesus. Some people mistakenly took this to mean that faith in Jesus alone, and not one’s actions or behaviour, was sufficient for someone to remain in a right relationship with God.
The Apostle James addresses this issue in today’s passage from the Letter of James. He challenges members of the early church that it is not enough to merely believe in Jesus, but that belief should manifest itself in the good works that people do for others, particularly the poor and marginalised in society. James uses the stories of Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar, and Rahab the prostitute protecting the men Joshua sent to spy on Jericho, as examples of people who are put in a right relationship with God through both faith and ‘works’ or actions.
This is a nice reminder for us that we too are called to be people whose actions and behaviours are positively motivated or influenced by our faith.